Exceptionnal antique cast iron fireback with the coat of arms of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, marquis of Seignelay

Cast iron

H. : 110 cm / 43'' 5/16 ; W. : 117cm / 46'' 1/16 ; D. : 5 cm / 2''

Last quarter of the 17th century, France.

This exceptional cast iron fireback is decorated with the winged coat of arms of Jean-Baptiste Colbert de Seignelay, son of Louis XIV’s minister. It has a rolling viper on its center (or « bisse » using the French heraldic vocabulary) standing on his tail (« en pal »).

The edge of the cartouche – which is decorated with shells – is not a simple ornemental element, it is indeed the necklace of the Order of Saint Michael (« l’Ordre de Saint-Michel »), a chivalric order founded in 1469 in Amboise by Louis XI. It bears a medallion on which the archangel is bringing the Dragon down. When the future King visited the Duke of Burgundy’s court, he was impressed by the splendour and the prestige of the Order of the Golden Fleece (« l’Ordre de la Toison d’Or ») which enabled him to ensure favours from a great number of princes. Louis XI, as a King, created the « ordre et aimable compagnie de monsieur saint Michel ». The figure of the archangel which decorated the royal banners since Charles VII’s reign was a response to the annexation of Saint Georges by the British. The famous Saint Michael’s Mount resisted against all the British agressions during the One Hundred Years’ War. Louis XIV reformated the royal Order with two laws in 1661 and 1665 so only a few hundred knights who had exerted a military or a judicial function for at least ten years remained. The necklace had gradually lapsed and was completely ignored in the King’s reform. However it lasted in the heraldic field as confirmed by our cast iron fireback.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert de Seignelay was indeed a member of the Ordre de Saint-Michel but also a member of the Order of the Holy Spirit (« l’Ordre du Saint-Esprit ») which was founded more than a century after the former. It was created by Henri III, King of France and Poland, in december 1578. The Order meant to invigorate the catholic faith and religion, to restore the kingdom, to tighten the links with the nobility and to compensate the Ordre de Saint-Michel’s decadence. Knights of the Ordre du Saint-Esprit were first made knights of the Ordre de Saint-Michel which confered them the status of « chevaliers des ordres du roi » (knights of the King’s Orders). So the cross has on one side the image of Saint Michael and a dove on the other side as you can see on our cast iron fireback. The cross has eight pommeté tips and a fleur-de-lis on each angle. Other elements from the necklace are visible on our fireback such as the crowned « H » in reference to Henri III, the fleur-de-lis or some militaria. Knights used to have on their crest the necklace of the Ordre de Saint-Michel encompassed by the one of the Ordre du Saint-Esprit.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s coat of arms is visible on an engraving kept in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. It is a portray of the marquis by the French painter Pierre Mignard. It is inserted in a medaillion which has the coat of arm with the « bisse », the crown and the two necklaces.

Pierre Mignard, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Marquis de Seignelay, engraving by Gérard Edelinck (Antwerp, 1640 - Paris, 1707, engraver), Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

On our cast iron fireback, the central coat of arms also has the crown of the marquis and a pair of wings. It is surmounted by olive branches with its fruits, a symbol of wisdom, glory and triumph. On both sides, foliated scrolls, flowers and volutes spread out. The head of a dog with a large studded collar and the head of a horse end with scrolls which are covered by Acanthus leaves. They support an architraved cornice decorated with a pine cone and bearing various attributes such as books (as a symbol of knowledge) but also parchment leaves which could be maps and a compass. The marquis de Seignelay was indeed admitted by the king to assist his father regarding Navy matters in particular. At his death, he succeded him as the Secretary of State for Louis XIV’s Navy (« secrétaire d’Etat de la Marine de Louis XIV ») until his own death in 1690. He finalised and signed the Black Code engaged by his father and secured the French Navy’s power. He played a part in the bombardment of Genoa in 1684 and in the cap Béveziers’ battle in 1690. He was appointed Minister of State in 1689.

After the work of Jean Bérain, Tenture des Attributs de la marine, 1689-1692, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Well known for his expensive taste, he spearheaded a sublime tapestry with the attributes of the Navy in six parts, two portieres and four « entre-fenêtres » which is kept in the Louvre Museum. It is one of the most documented tapestries from Louis XIV’s reign and on the the rare works which can be direcly linked to Jean Berain’s work. Colbert de Seignelay asked him, in 1685, to organise the great party he gave in the honour of the King in his castle of Sceaux. The tapestry was ordered for this castle and has been spun from 1689 to 1692 so his widow Catherine-Thérèse de Matignon-Thorigny inherited of it.

Our exceptional cast iron fireback is reproduced in the book of Henri Charpentier "Les Plaques de cheminées" and in Philippe Palasi's work intitled "Plaques de cheminées héraldiques". Only two other copies of it are known : the first one is kept in the Musée Carnavalet, in Paris and the second one in the Sceaux Castle.

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