This article focuses on the visual representation of artistic pictures based on the hypothesis that they reflect the decisive shift in political thinking from the era of absolutist monarchy to the early forms of modern democracy. The portrait of the king, so I will try to show by example of paintings by Hyacinth Rigaud and Charles Le Brun, stands for a form of absolutist sovereignty which assumes the existence of a social order identical with its modes of representation; in contrast, the political dimension of democratic sovereignty emanates from the discrepancy between the model of sovereignty and the image of the sovereign. I will demonstrate this relation with a focus on the work of French painter Jacques-Louis David. My argument is mainly structured around the art-historical interpretation of the work of Charles Le Brun by Amy M. Schmitter [2] and her account of French academic painting as well as T. J. Clark’s analysis [3] of David’s The Death of Marat.

The authors’ interpretation can be fruitfully linked to discussions in contemporary political philosophy which revolve around questions of sovereignty, representation and the symbolic order of the social. Being less concerned here with an in-depth formal analysis of singular pictures, my principle objective is to analyse the intrinsic relationship between image making and modern political thinking. In this context the term modern is broadly understood as secular and refers to a historical period in which the ancient transcendent foundations of social order were called into question. I will start my deliberations with a brief genealogy of the concept of political sovereignty, followed by an interpretation of the portraits of Louis XIV and Jean-Paul Marat as depictions of the sovereign body and will finally connect them to developments in modern political thought.


Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies. A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, Princeton, NJ 1957.


Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies (as note 4), p. 7.


Supreme authority and the body of the king

In his seminal study The King's Two Bodies, medieval historian Ernst Kantorowicz famously describes the far-reaching transformation in the concept of political authority over the course of the Middle Ages. [4] Kantorowicz sets forth how the modern understanding of sovereignty as «supreme authority within a territory» [5] has emerged from a political theology. According to him, the concept of the king’s two bodies is rooted in the ecclesiological understanding of the church as the mystical body of Christ. Christ’s body consists of a corpus mysticum and a corpus naturale, a mortal and an immortal body, a body personal and corporate, individual and collective. Analogous to this theological-political understanding of the body of Christ, which initiates the Roman Catholic Church through the sacrament of the Eucharist, the earthly king was attributed two bodies as well: a body natural which is mortal and a body politic which outlives the king’s physical existence. [6]

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