Glass and Mirrors: The Palace of Versailles

Today, the Palace of Versailles is a famous museum, attracting thousands of tourists to see an architectural marvel constructed for a king, but it had much more humble beginnings. King Louis XIII visited Versailles in the early 1600s and fell in love with the area, which was well-suited for hunting. In 1623, he built a hunting lodge at Versailles, a small dwelling for him and his courtiers, but starting in 1632, he began to enlarge it. His son, who would become King Louis XIV, visited the area a few times and fell in love with it, much like his father had.

In 1661, Louis XIV, also known as “the Sun King,” began to make significant improvements to the lodge at Versailles. Construction continued until his death in 1715. During that time, he created a palace complex that covered more than 87,728,000 square feet of land or 2,014 acres. It contained the Versailles gardens, beautiful fountains, the king and queen’s grand apartments, chapels, and the Hall of Mirrors. Every aspect of the palace’s design had significance either to the king or to France.

The Hall of Mirrors was constructed from 1678 to 1684 to replace a terrace that didn’t match the oppulence of the rest of the palace. Jules Hardouin-Mansart had the job of designing a space that would satisfy the king’s obsession with grandeur and luxury. His gallery succeeded in not only representing the extravagance of a royal but also the power and prestige of the king and France itself.

The Hall of Mirrors measured 240 feet long and 34 feet wide with a 40-foot ceiling, and the room was designed to represent the king’s achievements. On each end are two rooms. The War Room celebrates the king’s military conquests, while the Peace Room depicted the peace brought to Europe by France. The gallery between the two chambers was designed to highlight the political, artistic, and economic success of the French.

Charles Le Brun, the same artist who painted the murals in the War and Peace rooms, also painted the ceiling of the hall itself. Thirty paintings on the ceiling depict the political triumphs seen through the first 18 years of the king’s reign. The Rouge de Rance pilasters, red marble pieces capped by gilded bronze, and the many statues lining the hall express the country’s artistic success. Le Brun designed the pilasters with a motif including the French fleur de lis, royal sun, and Gallic rooster, emblems of the nation and the king.

The mirrors placed opposite the 17 arched windows in the Hall of Mirrors reflect the natural sunlight throughout the room. Up to that time, the Venetians domineered glass fabrication, but determined to make his palace a point of national pride and bolster France’s place in the industry, the king used a domestic royal manufactury in France to produce all of the massive mirrors decorating the gallery. Each of the 17 arches required 21 pieces of mirrored glass, 357 mirror in all, for which the king paid a considerable sum.

From the ceiling were hung 17 large and 26 small chandeliers. They were solid silver and adorned with expensive cut crystals. Louis XIV spared no expense with these breathtaking pieces, since having them, especially that many of them, would be a breathtaking display of lavishness and wealth. The chandeliers held around 20,000 lit candles that would reflect off of the crystals, creating a show of sparkling light throughout the hall.

Construction of the palace concluded around the time of his death in 1715. Improvements continued and updates were made as the years went on, but none were as grand as his efforts. The estate has changed hands a few times, and today, the palace stands as a museum and an impressive monument to Louis XIV’s achievements.