Denon’s Reliquary

Denon's Reliquary

Contributor: Sophie Thomas

Location: Musée Bertrand, Châteauroux, France

Description: Dominique-Vivant Denon’s reliquary is both a personal collection and a portable, pan-European museum. It is a late gothic confection made of gilded copper, glass and semi-precious stone, complete with turrets and flying buttresses at each corner. Hexagonal in form, crowned with small cross atop a steeple, each of the reliquary’s two principal facades are divided into six compartments.

The relics it contains however are not those of saints, but of illustrious figures with potent historical and literary associations. These include bone fragments belonging to El Cid and his wife Dona Jimena (taken from their tomb in Burgos), and to Heloïse and Abelard (also taken from their tombs); hair from Agnès Sorel (principal mistress of King Charles VII) and Inês de Castro, from General Desaix, and from the moustache and beard of King Henri IV; a fragment of the burial shroud of Marshal General Turenne, taken from Saint-Denis; further bone fragments, from Molière and La Fontaine; and a half-tooth of Voltaire’s. These items, all apparently genuine, were first enumerated in the catalogue for the sale of Denon’s collections, which took place after his death in 1826.

Some of these extraordinary relics were acquired, with the assistance of Alexandre Lenoir (founder of the Musée des Monuments Français in 1795), as a result of exhumations during the Revolutionary period, such as at the opening of royal tombs in Saint-Denis in 1793 (1). (Certainly Lenoir, an avid collector in his own right, was responsible for the acquisition of the bone fragments of Abelard and Heloïse.) The remnants of Inês de Castro, lover of Peter I of Portugal, whose murder made her the subject of plays and operas in the eighteenth century, were also acquired as a consequence of political upheaval and war, this time on the Iberian Peninsula: they were “almost certainly taken from the Benedictine monastery at Alcobaça in Portugal when it was sacked after Junot’s occupation of Lisbon in November 1807.” (2). Meanwhile, the bones of El Cid and Dona Jimena found their way into Denon’s hands through the intervention of General Thiébault, the French military governor who intended to restore them to a new mausoleum after the desecration of their tomb in the Monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña near Burgos by French forces in 1808. Denon’s involvement in this act of restoration was captured in a watercolour sketch by a companion, Benjamin Zix, which appears—Romantically—to set the scene in the original tomb; this charged moment, in which Denon is represented reverently cradling a skull, was re-imagined by other artists, such as Adolphe Roehn in 1809.

Elements of fetishization and personal myth-making also inflect the relics that were closely associated with Napoleon. The sale catalogue relates that in further compartments flanking the principal façade of the reliquary, we find an autograph signature, “a bloodstained fragment of the chemise [Napoleon] was wearing when he died, a lock of his hair, and a leaf from the willow tree beneath which he is buried on the island of St Helena.”(3).

The reliquary itself was one of Denon’s most prized possessions. It features prominently in a self-portrait, now in the Morgan Library, in which Denon presents himself at his desk, in a room lined with antique vases, intently inspecting a folio of prints or drawings. Artist, writer, traveller and diplomat as well as collector, Denon participated actively in Napoleon’s campaigns (recorded in publications such as Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte of 1802) and served as director-general of museums between 1802 and 1815. Notably, then, the reliquary was also a collection within a collection, reflecting on a private level Denon’s curatorial activities at the Louvre under Napoleon.

The sheer scale of his efforts to research and document antiquity is conveyed by Benjamin Zix’s imaginative rendering of Vivant-Denon travaillant dans la Salle de Diane au Louvre (1811), immersed in the collection he is assiduously cataloguing. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, Denon’s attention turned more fully to the arrangement of his collections in his home at 5, quai Voltaire, which received visits from many illustrious contemporaries, among them Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt. At the time of his death, these filled a descriptive catalogue extending to some 900 pages, and have been described as constituting a virtual history of art (4). It is entirely fitting that, in the reliquary, Denon’s “holdings,” complete with hand-written labels, were so carefully arranged and placed behind glass (see Richard-Desaix 33)—even if, as Mauriès maintains, the reliquary is a “monument à l’incohérence” and his collections (referencing Lady Morgan’s evocative description of her visit in 1817) exceeded his attempts to rationalize them (Mauriès, Vies remarquables 89).

Reliquaries are inherently affective objects, both as portable cabinets of items associated with the dead, and secondarily, in connection with their former owners. The collection and exhibition of personal effects and bodily remains, from teeth to hair to bone, depends precisely on the significance, real or imagined, of “having belonged to”—reflecting an appreciation of the past that arose in part from the eighteenth century culte des grands hommes (Bodenstein para. 4), while making present in perpetuity an irrevocable loss. Detached from a religious context, from the circumscribed and circumscribing spaces of the church (or the grave), the “saintly” body relic becomes an increasingly secular object, re-staging acts of memory and mourning in the comparatively public domain of the early nineteenth-century museum.

The reliquary itself now serves this function in relation to Denon, and by association the Napoleonic era, given its current home in the Musée Bertrand. The museum is housed in the former mansion of General Bertrand, a loyal and long-serving supporter of Napoleon who became Count of the Empire in 1808, and it contains rich collections from the period. Denon’s reliquary thus resonates on different levels with its own historical moment: as well as reflecting an emergent historical consciousness expressed through the subjective accumulation of material remains, it was a sentimental attempt to preserve the relics of monastic and aristocratic Europe from the depredations of Revolution—and in a spirit of civic-mindedness, fostered by Napoleon, that the Restoration would in turn overcome.

Date: Late 15th C; 1810s

Creator: Unknown [?]

Physical Format: H 44.5 x L 23.5 x P 23.5 cm

Media Rights: photo, © Vincent Escudero (Google Arts and Culture)

Publisher: Google Arts and Culture

Related objects: Tomb of Abelard and Heloïse; Cowper’s Letter Cabinet; Byron’s Hair


Bodenstein, Felicity. The Emotional Museum: Thoughts on the ‘Secular Relics’ of Nineteenth-Century History Museums in Paris and their Posterity.” Conserveries mémorielles, Vol. 9 (2011), n.p., consulté le 28 mars 2022.

Lindsay, Suzanne Glover. “Mummies and Tombs: Turenne, Napoléon, and Death Ritual,” The Art Bulletin, 82:3 (2000), 476-502. DOI: 10.1080/00043079.2000.10786946

Mauriès, Patrick. Cabinets of Curiosities. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002.

—, ed. Vies remarquables de Vivant Denon: anthologie. Paris: Le Promeneur, 1998.

Richard-Desaix, Ulric. La Relique de Molière du cabinet du Baron Vivant Denon, etc. Paris: Vignères, and Arnaud et Labat, 1880.

Denon, Dominique-Vivant. Dominique-Vivant Denon: L’oeil de Napoléon, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 20 octobre 1999-17 janvier 2000. Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1999.


  1. On the significance of this event and its aftermath, and specifically Lenoir’s involvement in the fate of Turenne’s mummified corpse in the museums of Paris, see Lindsay.
  2. See “Vivant Denon’s reliquary – and Voltaire’s tooth,” on Rodama: a Blog of 18th C and Revolutionary France, which includes additional images and sources related to the reliquary:
  3. See Mauriès, Cabinets of Curiosities, 200, citing the Catalogue de la vente Denon, no. 346 (Paris, 1826); see also Richard-Desaix.
  4. For a sense of the extent and nature of Denon’s collections, see the Louvre exhibition catalogue Dominique-Vivant Denon: L’oeil de Napoléon (Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1999) – and also