Clock of the Vestals Carrying the Sacred Fire

"Clock of the Vestals Carrying the Sacred Flame"1789gilded, patinated and painted bronze; Sevres porcelain; enamel on copper; marble20 x 25 13/16 x 7 3/8 inchesCorcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DCWilliam A. Clark collection. Restored through funds given in memory of Alice Withington Clement, member of the Corcoran Gallery of Art26.740
Pierre-Philippe Thomire (French; b. Paris, 1751-d. Paris, 1843) Case: Pierre-Philippe Thomire (French 1751-1843) Signed and dated: Thomire 1789 Clock: Robert Robin (French 1742-1799) courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC: William A. Clark collection

The last time I saw the Clock of the Vestals Carrying the Sacred Fire was at the Corcoran Art Museum in Washington DC. While there were numerous pieces to which I was attracted, the Clock caught my eye.

It was created by the French artist Pierre-Philippe Thomire in 1789. The clock is made from gilded, patinated, and painted bronze, Sevrès porcelain, enamel on copper, and marble with 16×28 in. dimensions.

While the rich materials draw the eye, the history surrounding the clock caught my attention. This clock depicts the ancient roman vestal virgins whose job was to protect the sacred fire of the hearth goddess, Vesta. It was a great honor to women, and actually the only role offered to women in the roman religious sector.  In addition, the clock has lions lying along its base in a very domestic and tamed fashion. All of these designs were carefully planned out to please the recipient – the Queen of France.

The clock was commissioned by Louis XVI for his wife, Marie Antoinette. Thomire, knowing his audience, made some very flattering design choices. Firstly, the artist took and likened the French monarchy with that of the notorious strength of the Roman empire and made the clock in the roman design to put in a French salon. In addition, thinking of his female recipient, he chose the one position of female strength in the roman empire and incorporated it into his design. Lastly he took these ideas and developed the clock in the very opulence style of Louis XVI. This style calls for every gaudy and expensive detail that can be mustered from an artist’s mind.

I do have to point out that perhaps the artist’s ideas are the same that lent to the revolution or, opulence leads to destruction. The artist correlated the French Empire of the time with that of the successful Roman Empire, before it’s fall. Ironically, both empires would face a very bloody and tragic downfall. The artist created this beautiful piece for a royal couple while their country was going through devastating shortages. They should have had more concern for their starving people over the decorations in the salon. And thus the clock was witness to and aided in the passing of time until the couple’s tragic end.

After the storming of Versailles, the Louis and Marie were moved into the Tuileries Palace in Paris (right near the Louvre). There the family lived in relative opulence, but they were still prisoners. The clock marked the passing of time in the Queen’s bedroom or sitting rooms.  Louis was beheaded in January 1793 and Marie was alone in the Palace until her execution in October of 1793.

-Miranda Rawson

IMAGE SOURCE: Corcoran Gallery of Art