"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
November 30, 2015
Marie de Meddler (Rubens 6)
by Lawrence Jeppson

Among the many plotters and schemers we met in last week’s column revealing Peter Paul Rubens as cunning diplomat and spy, one of the most intrigue-wrapped and warped was Marie de Médici.

She was born in Florence, Italy, in 1565, the sixth daughter of Francesco de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and Archduchess Joanna of Austria. Since she spent most of her life intriguing in France, I will use the French spelling of her name.

The de’ Medici were heart and soul of the Italian Renaissance. They were formidable patrons of the arts. One of the most powerful was Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), de facto head of the Florentine Republic.

Although Lorenzo’s death ended Florence’s Golden Age, the family continued to be formidable political infighters, schemers, and manipulators — in state, commerce, and church. They exploited wealth, brain power, and armed force. They were ruthless meddlers. It is no wonder that Marie was born with intrigue in her genes.

Although Marie was one of seven children, only she and her sister Eleanora survived childhood.

Meanwhile, over in France, Henry IV (1533-1610) was having his own governing contretemps. He was Henry II of Navarre before ascending to the French throne. A Huguenot, he was involved in the French Wars of Religion and came close to assassination in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. He led Protestant forces against the royal army.

A direct descendant of Louis IX, he was called to the throne after the death of a cousin, Henry III, in 1589. The Catholic League denied that he could wear the crown as a Protestant, and he was forced to abandon Calvinism. His Edict of Nantes, however, guaranteed religious freedom to Protestants.

This left him being considered a usurper by the Catholics and a traitor by the Protestants. Nonetheless, his reign became notable for his support of New World explorers, as well as the arts, which included building the huge addition to the Louvre along the bank of the Seine.

His first marriage, unhappy and childless, was annulled. Against the wishes of his counsellors, he intended to take his mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, as his bride. She had already given him three illegitimate children, but she died suddenly in a still-born childbirth.

It was proposed that he marry Marie, a devout Catholic. He wanted to know what she looked like. A portrait was painted and sent to France. Henry approved. It’s a long road from Florence to Paris. Anything might happen, including a change of mind. So a deal was proposed: Marie would marry Henry in a proxy marriage in Florence.

Even though Henry had not yet met his bride, the deal was sealed. Peter Paul Rubens was in Florence at the time and witnessed the proxy wedding. Thus begins the saga of Marie and Peter Paul, a relationship that would become ever closer.

The young Fleming, however, was smart enough not to fall into the trap of his father, who had bedded the Queen of Holland too many times and was punished for his liberties by years in house arrest.

Marie brought with her part of her dowry of 600,000 crowns. The actual wedding took place in Lyon in October, 1600, in a ceremony witnessed by 4,000 guests, who were lavishly entertained. The fêtes included a newly invented art form, an opera, Eridici by Jacopo Peri.

The following year the future King Louis XIII was born at Fontainebleu. But the marriage was not tranquil. Marie feuded with the king’s mistresses in language not previously heard in open court.

Crowning her agitation, Marie was crowned Queen of France on May 13, 1610. The next day her husband, King Henry, was assassinated. This left Marie de Médici the ruler of France, at least until her son should become of age.

She had scores to settle, lots of them, and her own ill-founded ideas about governing France. She assumed the regency. Not very bright, Marie conspired with her maid to make the maid’s unscrupulous Italian husband a Marshall of France. He conspired to replace the king’s able prime minister.

Much of the infighting was to eliminate Protestant influence. France’s traditional anti-Habsburg foreign policy was reversed in favor of Spain. Later, as some of the nobility revolted, she bought them out. She strengthened her hand by bringing in a man who had distinguished himself as a leader in the Estates General. This manipulator later became better known as Cardinal Richelieu.

By this time Marie’s son had grown older and asserted his right as king, thus ending Marie’s regency. He overturned his mother’s pro-Spain, pro-Habsburg position, ordered the assassination of Concini, the maid’s husband, placed his mother in house arrest in the Blois Chateau, and made Richelieu a bishop.

Marie escaped, led a revolt of the nobility, lost, became reconciled with the king, and eventually was allowed to rejoin the Royal Council. Marie extravagantly rebuilt the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. She commissioned Rubens to paint the cycle of her life, 22 flamboyant and flattering paintings that can now be seen in the Louvre.

The king turned more and more to Richelieu. Marie tried to get rid of Richelieu in a coup, which lasted one day. Richelieu won, and the erstwhile queen was exiled to Compiègne. She escaped to Bruxelles the next year, and seven years later to Amsterdam.

The new Dutch Republic saw this as a diplomatic coup, and she was greeted by a celebration akin to those of Joyous Entry, about which I have written. She visited her daughter, now Queen of England, in London. She went off to Cologne, where she died in 1642, scheming against Richelieu until the end.

Rubens’s Cycle of Marie de Médici gathered together now hold forth in the Louvre. There is one large room consecrated to them. I think it is the largest room in the museum devoted to a single painter. You can spend a lot of time going from painting to painting to follow the queen’s unfolding life. It would help to have a guidebook with you.

On many occasions I have done this, without a guidebook. By the time I get the the Rubens room my eyes are already getting bleary from all the paintings I have already looked at.

My advice, before tackling the Marie Cycle: get some rest with refreshment in one of the museum’s cafes, or find your way directly (as if that could be done!) to the cycle.

The paintings are big. That’s because they are truly Rubenesque. They total 292 square meters, for which Rubens was paid 24,000 guilders. In current calculations, that means Rubens as paid $1500 per square meter.

Here are some of those paintings. (Rubens immortalized a great deal of female flesh — in the early decades about half his paintings.)

The Destiny of Marie de Médici

Education of the Princess

The Presentation of Marie’s Portrait to Henry IV

The Wedding by Proxy

The Meeting at Lyon

Marie’s Coronation in Saint-Denis cathedral

Detail from Marie’s Coronation

Louis XIII Comes of Age

Marie’s Regency comes to an end when her son becomes king. Her manipulations and intrigues do not.

Reconciliation of the Queen and Her Son

The many-headed hydra is struck a fatal blow by Justice as witnessed by Divine Providence. The death in 1621 of one of Marie’s worst enemies may have improved relations between mother and son, but other enemies just as deadly jumped into to fill the void.

The painting is deliberately vague in its symbolic and historical depiction — as are most of the cycle, as Rubens relies on vagueness and allegory. Let others fill in the pieces.

Marie is exiled to the Blois Chateau, in what today we would call house arrest.

But she was able to escape, to continue her perpetual machinations from afar.

The Flight from Blois

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About Lawrence Jeppson

Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.

He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to 1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and Arelis in America.

Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.

He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Legacy Foundation

Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.

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