16th century / Arts

A Woman Scorned: Catherine de Medici, Diane de Poitiers and the Creation of a Regal Iconography

By Leila Molana-Allen.

It seems evident that, while female patrons often did commission the same types of art as their male counterparts during the early modern period, their sex had a powerful influence on the approach they took when commissioning these works. However, I would argue that this meant their personal and political motivations featured even more prevalently in these pieces than in some of those commissioned by men, as they had to be so careful about the way in which they went about expressing these ambitions. While men could simply openly assert their desire for power, female patrons, and in particular those who were in a position to wield power, were forced to navigate a complicated web of stereotypes, responsibilities and social boundaries which Sheila ffolliott has defined as the female elite’s ’horizon of expectations’. This by no means suggests that these women did not have similar ambitions to the men that surrounded them. As it was often a man who wrote the cheque or signed the contract for many works of art, and such documents carry no indication of his wife, mother or sister’s involvement, it is difficult to assess exactly how far women contributed to the artistic world in this period. However, by looking at a woman who arguably managed to break away from the male decision-makers in her life eclipsing her contributions to the art world, we certainly stand to learn more about the role of an elite female patron of the arts, and the challenges they faced in the Early Modern world.

Catherine de Medici

Catherine de’ Medici is an important example of a female patron who faced great challenges in her patronage of the arts. As far as Catherine’s motivation is concerned, it seems clear that her main motivations were political; her main desire was to preserve and elevate the status of the Valois dynasty, although it is arguable that her personal conflict with Henri II of France’s favourite mistress was also a factor. While her husband was alive, Catherine had been cast in the role of the evil foreign queen, usurped by Henri’s mistress Diane of Poitiers, always her husband’s (and arguably France’s) preferred royal consort. After Henri’s death in 1559, however, Catherine saw an opportunity to reassert her status. Indeed, more than this, she was determined to establish herself as regent in order to safeguard her young son Louis’ claim to the throne until he was old enough to rule. In order to achieve this, it was vital that Catherine begin to propagate an image of herself that would suggest she was an appropriate candidate for the regency. Catherine’s use of the colour black is one of the key elements in her creation of her iconography. First and foremost, wearing black of course tied in with traditions of mourning her husband at the French court. However, the Italian Queen’s use of the colour went beyond this; by using this colour to define herself, Catherine was casting herself in the mould of strong male Catholic rulers of the period such as Philip II and Charles V, who had begun to adopt the colour in their dress for its symbolic properties. As such, Catherine could reinforce her claim to the regency by stressing her role as Henri’s widow, while simultaneously asserting the fact that she possessed the masculine strength and power to rule by comparing herself with male rulers of the period. In every image created of the Queen between her husband’s death and her own, she is portrayed in black, instantly setting her apart from the brightly clothed members of the royal family who surround her, and marking her out as the obviously dominant figure. As Sheila ffolliott puts it, ’By wearing black, [Catherine] seemed Henri’s virtual stand in’. ffolliot goes on to claim that this use of black also served to eclipse Diane’s strong association with the colours black and white, a fact which, while possibly unintentional, must certainly have seemed an added benefit to Catherine.

What is clear is that it was vital that Catherine find a strong female role model in antiquity upon whose story to base her iconography. Unlike male rulers and female royal consorts of the period, Catherine did not have a great variety of suitable iconographical examples to choose from. She could not use any of the obvious classical models – Juno, Queen of Mount Olympus, never actually ruled by herself, while Diana, who might have been fitting, had been far too closely associated with Diane de Poitiers to be suitable. Catherine needed a woman who demonstrated the best aspects of a virtuous woman, while equally demonstrating the ability of a woman to rule well. When Nicolas Houel presented Catherine with his Histoire de la Royne Arthemise in 1562, it seemed she might have found the ideal candidate. Artemisia had ruled Caria in Asia Minor in the 4th century B.C. following the death of her husband Mausoleus. She demonstrated the qualities of a good grieving widow admirably, overseeing the building of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, which would come to be considered among the Seven Wonders of the World, in honour of her husband, whilst also showing her ability to rule well in his place. Houel demonstrated his intention in writing the Histoire – to help Catherine in her quest – in the text: ’She who reads it will derive great profit for it will teach how a queen should govern a kingdom…A woman must be put to the proof to test her vertu so that it is clear to all around her that under the body and dress of a woman she has the understanding of a man sufficient for the administration of great affairs.”

Having found a suitable model, Catherine set to work spreading her new image. Houel had commissioned several artists including Antoine Caron to create images for his text, and she now ordered a series of tapestries to be made from these illustrations, combining events from her own life and Artemisia’s story, and casting herself in the role of the Carian Queen. In the images, we see Catherine overseeing a variety of tasks appropriate to her tri-partite role as widow, mother and ruler: commissioning the building of her husband’s tomb, overseeing her son’s education as the future king, and carrying out the tasks of a ruler. In every image, Catherine is clearly marked out as dominant over all but her husband and son, and yet she never takes centre stage entirely, presumably out of fear of appearing to be taking control to too great an extent.

Les Placets

In Les Placets, once again we see Catherine raised in a position of superiority, discussing petitions from her subjects. What is particularly interesting to consider in this image, however, is the figure of Diana the huntress which is displayed on the elaborate fountain in the courtyard. While some have argued it seems bizarre that Catherine would sanction the inclusion in this image of a figure strongly associated with her arch-rival, the king’s mistress Diane de Poitiers, ffolliott provides a very convincing explanation: far from Caron depicting the fountain in error, its inclusion had a very specific intention behind it. Diane stands alone, dried up and infertile as the fountain contains no water, and ignored by everyone else in the image, who all focus on Catherine as the rightful ruler. Indeed, as the fountain is based upon one at Diane’s home Anet, not only is Caron casting her as an irrelevant interloper, he is simultaneously depicting Catherine on Diane’s home turf, reinforcing the message Antoine Caron’s Les Placets that Catherine has completely eclipsed Diane, and the status that was once the king’s mistress’ now belongs to the Princess Regent. As can be seen in these images, Catherine was always careful to cast herself as an interim ruler, powerful in her own right but acting as Queen in the service of her deceased husband and underage son, heir to the throne. The success of Artemisia as a model for a Princess Regent can also be seen in the fact that both Marie de’ Medici and Anne of Austria, who ruled France as regents after Catherine, had tapestries made featuring the Artemesia story.

Lawrence, C. ’Introduction,’ in idem, ed., Women and Art in Early Modern Europe: Patrons, Collectors and Connoisseurs (1997)
folliott, S. ’Casting a Rival into the Shade: Catherine de’ Medici and Diane de Poitiers,’ Art Journal, 48 (1989)
ffolliott, S. ’Catherine de’ Medici as Artemisia: Figuring the Powerful Widow,’ in Rewriting the Renaissance, ed. M. Ferguson, et al., (1986)