Our volunteer explainer, Shane McMurray, introduces one of the darker characters of the Painted Hall ceiling: King Louis XIV of France.

One of the characters I delight in showing my ceiling tour groups never fails to impress visitors who often react with a combination of surprise and laughter. Most people are probably unaware that on Sir James Thornhill’s painted ceiling there are three monarchs to be found. William III and Mary II, founders of the Royal Hospital for Seamen, are hard to miss. Look more closely and below them you will find their nemesis, unceremoniously lurking in the shadows - Louis XIV of France!

Louis XIV crushed beneath the feet of William III on the Painted Hall ceilingLouis XIV crushed beneath the feet of William III on the Painted Hall ceiling

It is a startling portrayal of a popular and enigmatic figure who normally embodies the height of French power and prestige. Louis reigned for an extraordinary 72 years - the longest in European history. He was regarded as a latter day Apollo and adopted the sun as his personal emblem, giving rise to his nickname ‘the sun king’. In the Painted Hall however we see the king who built Versailles and tamed the French nobility reduced, rather symbolically, to living in the shade by Thornhill’s brushwork.

Using a handheld mirror to get a better look on a ceiling tourUsing a handheld mirror to get a better look at Louis XIV during a ceiling tour

Many of the remarkable details that make Louis one of the most interesting characters on the ceiling have become obscured by layers of dirt over time. Fortunately our viewing platform offers the public a better view of William’s greatest enemy, bringing him to life once more. Louis, deprived of his sunny brilliance, has lost his crown thanks to a helpful kick to the head from William. In the darkness you will also find a fearsome British lion, lying in wait for the unsuspecting French ruler. It is the expression on the king’s face that I feel is the real highlight: poor Louis is in such a state of astonishment at his predicament that his trademark moustache might just be about to fall off from the shock!

Casting light on the Lion of Britannia, just below William IIICasting light on the Lion of Britannia, just below William III

Such an extraordinary depiction gives us an indication as to how Louis was viewed at the time in Britain. As old adversaries Louis and William represented competing visions for government: Catholic absolute monarchy versus Protestant limited monarchy. Thornhill has therefore used the French king to represent ‘Catholic tyranny’ being eclipsed by ‘Protestant liberty’ in the guise of the Anglo-Dutch William of Orange. A clever example of visual propaganda!

Damage to the painting around Louis XIVDamage to the painting around Louis XIV. Conservation work will return the paintings to their original radiance

Once the conservation project is completed in 2019, Louis XIV will be permitted to shine just a little bit brighter so that future generations can see the sun king more clearly. In the meantime, you can join one of our ceiling tours and see him for yourself.

Painted Hall Ceiling Tours

The lower hall of the Old Royal Naval College’s Painted Hall boasts one of the most spectacular baroque decorative ceilings in the world.  During a major conservation project, visitors have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the drama of this vast masterpiece up close. Book now to take a Ceiling Tour