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The current iconoclastic moment in the U.S. has taken an odd turn here in the city of St. Louis. As protesters across the nation tear down or deface statues of Confederate generals and American founders who owned slaves (among others), the statue that has drawn the most attention in St. Louis is one depicting a medieval man who did not know that America existed. 

The Apotheosis of St. Louis is a massive equestrian statue inspired by the city’s namesake, King Louis IX, who ruled France from 1226 until 1270. It portrays the king seated on his horse and adorned in a Romantic imagining of a triumphant Crusader’s garb. In 1764, the French founders of the city of St. Louis gave it that name to honor their king, Louis XV, and his patron saint. Like Joan of Arc, St. Louis was revered by the French of the eighteenth century as a person of heroic virtue. The modern statue was originally a plaster sculpture executed by Charles Henry Niehaus for the 1904 World’s Fair, hosted by St. Louis. After the fair had concluded, the organizers recast the sculpture in bronze and placed it prominently on Art Hill in Forest Park, the site of the fair. It immediately became the beloved symbol of the city, only edged out slightly in the 1960s by the new St. Louis Arch.

So, what is wrong with this statue? Plenty, according to the authors of a petition. Louis IX was a “rabid anti-semite [sic] who spearheaded many persecutions against the Jewish people.” The petitioners also blame him for giving “inspiration and ideas” to the Nazis seven centuries after his death. And finally, Louis was “vehemently Islamophobic and led a murderous crusade against Muslims.” The petition demands that the statue be removed and that the city change its name. 

The petition never received much support. It struggled to garner even a thousand signatures, while counter-petitions have attracted thousands. But the demand was so audacious that local news media could not keep away. In response, a group of Catholics mobilized to protect the statue with vigils and prayers. At one such event on June 27, St. Louis police had to form a barricade between Catholics praying the rosary and protestors demanding that the statue be removed. Tempers flared and protestors punched one of the Catholics after the police left the scene. Since then, an increasingly large group of Catholics has come to the statue every evening to recite the rosary and offer prayers for peace. For the moment, those prayers seem to be working. There has been no further violence. On June 30, the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis stated that “the removal of the statue will not erase the history, but our present-day collaboration can help us move forward.” And the mayor of St. Louis, Lyda Krewson, has made clear that she does not favor removing the statue or changing the city’s name.

As a medieval historian, I always cringe when medieval people are judged by modern standards. Their world was very different from our own. Yet the virtue and piety of St. Louis IX of France have always seemed to transcend his age. The crimes leveled against him in this petition are at best misleading. Although praiseworthy today, religious toleration was regarded as dangerous in the Middle Ages. Yet Louis IX (unlike other medieval rulers) still obeyed the Catholic Church’s admonition that Jews were not to be harmed. Like St. Paul, Louis hoped for the conversion of the Jews. Indeed, more than once he served as a godfather for the baptism of a converted Jew. From a modern perspective, Louis’s part in the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1240 is indefensible and certainly constitutes persecution. The theologians at the University of Paris—the best minds of their age—judged that the Talmud contained heresy and blasphemous references to Jesus. From Louis’s medieval (not modern) perspective, it was a threat to his kingdom and a hindrance to the conversion of the Jews. That does not excuse it. Louis followed the advice of churchmen, yet as St. John Paul II eloquently expressed it, those churchmen made grave errors. The pope sought pardon for “the sins committed by not a few (Catholics) against the people of the Covenant.” He continued, “We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood.”

As for the eastern Crusades, they were wars aimed at recapturing territories in and around the Holy Land that had been conquered by Muslim armies. Louis’s first Crusade (1248–50) was a response to the conquest of Christian-controlled Jerusalem by a Turkish and Egyptian force in 1244. After the Holy City was taken, the victors massacred the Christian inhabitants and desecrated the churches. Louis’s Crusade was set to punish Egypt for that attack and ultimately restore Jerusalem to its Christian king. It failed. Louis’s army was defeated, and he was thrown into prison until his wife, Queen Margaret, paid 400,000 bezants—literally a king’s ransom. After the Crusade, Louis spent the next four years in the Holy Land trying to stabilize the situation for Christians. He even struck up an alliance with his former Muslim captors in Egypt.

Left unmentioned by Louis’s modern detractors is his lifelong devotion to issues of social justice in a world that cared little for such ideas. At his own expense, he continually paid to feed and clothe hundreds of Paris’s poor. Every evening he shared the royal table with local homeless and usually insisted that he wash their feet before they left. He established several hospitals for the poor and homes for battered women and ex-prostitutes. He personally visited lepers and washed their sores. After his humiliation in Egypt, Louis refused to don the rich regalia of the French crown, dressing simply and living humbly for the rest of his life. He was the sort of person, like Mother Teresa or John Paul II, whose reputation for piety and virtue was so great that contemporaries had no doubt he would one day be a saint. He was canonized in a record 27 years.

What both sides have overlooked about the statue, I believe, is that this triumphal equestrian image was never meant to depict a medieval saint. Its title says it all. An “apotheosis” is a coming into greatness or an ascent into glory, and that is certainly what the statue evokes with its horse proudly sauntering forward and the king triumphantly holding aloft his sword. Yet the real Louis IX suffered humiliating defeats in his Crusades. In truth, this statue, which presided over an international gathering to celebrate a new century of progress, has nothing to do with the Middle Ages. It was a symbol of the city of St. Louis, which in 1904 was one of America’s most prosperous urban centers. The attendees of the World’s Fair saw in this sculpture the promise of confident progress for St. Louis and the world. Even the sword, held with the blade down in a gesture of peace, was a sign of hope for the future. Those who commissioned the statue and those who viewed it had little interest in medieval kings; they were focused on building a bright and prosperous future.

The Apotheosis of St. Louis is not religious art nor was it meant to be. Rather, it was designed to evoke civic pride. Catholics can confidently look to the life of St. Louis IX for his example of Christian charity and seek his intercession in the struggles of our age. But we should take care not to confuse the sacred with the profane. Let the city of St. Louis have its proud, beautiful, and triumphant symbol of modern progress. Catholics will always have the humble and pious king who, although not perfect, still devoted his life to the service of Christ and his Church.

Thomas F. Madden is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Photo by Ryan Ashelin via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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