Drawings for Catherine de’ Medici – and what they tell us about the magnificent world of the Valois

I’ve long been fascinated by Catherine de’ Medici. Thanks to spending chunks of my adolescence reading Jean Plaidy (still my favourite historical fiction author) and having visited several of this formidable queen’s palaces, she’s a figure I’ve come to know quite well. And yet, she continues to baffle me. Was she really a force for evil – or misjudged and misunderstood?

So, I was thrilled to see that The Courtauld Gallery was hosting an exhibition by Catherine’s court artist, Antoine Caron (1521-99) – one of the pre-eminent artists of the French Renaissance. Focusing on a group of works celebrating the French Royal Family, the Valois, the exhibition celebrates the powerful role played by Catherine as Regent and Queen Mother.

I was excited to find out more – and intrigued to see how Caron would treat the much-loathed ‘Italian Queen’, as she was known to her subjects. Her marriage to Henri II was famously unhappy and it was no secret, even then, that the love of Henri’s life was his long-term mistress, Diane de Poitiers.

The focal point of the exhibition is a series of six drawings, reunited for the first time, showcasing the Valois ‘Magnificences’. These were lavish court festivals designed to project the power and status of the Valois family during a period of political and religious turmoil in France. Propaganda, in other words – just as the paintings of the Valois’ English counterparts, the Tudors, served as propaganda.

These exquisite sketches illustrate feats of chivalry and bravery, as well as dances, concerts and water festivals. I found something to appreciate in each of them, but particularly liked ‘A Water Festival with a Sea Monster’, in which an artificial sea monster is attacked by a flotilla of soldiers in boats while Neptune, Roman god of the sea, rides his chariot. Water pageants provided an opportunity for elaborate costumes and theatrical engineering and were a frequent feature of courtly celebrations.

Water Festival with a Sea Monster

For different reasons, I liked ‘Catherine de’ Medici Entertains Polish Ambassadors in the Tuileries Gardens’ – finding it a fascinating insight into the world of royal diplomacy. On 14th September 1573, Catherine de Medici honoured Polish ambassadors who had travelled to France to greet her son, Henri de Valois – the newly-crowned king of Poland and Lithuania. In the drawing, Polish dignitaries stand on the left, recognisable by their plumed hats; Catherine sits in the centre of the composition while musicians perform from a mobile structure. Not so very different, really, from a state visit in the 21st century.

Less appealing, but equally impactful, is ‘The Boar Hunt’. Just like the Windsors today, the Valois loved hunting. Boar hunting was notoriously dangerous and participating seen as proof of true courage. Caron’s drawing captures the moment when, after a long chase, a wild boar is pushed into an enclosure, one of the huntsmen pointing a spear towards it while dogs keep it at bay.

Caron created two further series of drawings paying homage to the Valois and to Catherine de’ Medici in particular. Some of the most significant are in this exhibition, including the below drawing of Henri II and Catherine holding a horn of abundance symbolising, ahem, their everlasting love and fidelity. Propaganda this most certainly is, but there’s a poignancy, too; Catherine was devoted to her husband, while he, in turn, could barely stand the sight of her.

Henri II and Catherine de Medici

She would outlive him by a considerable number of years, however, and I found the below drawing of Catherine as a widow, surrounded by allegories of the Liberal Arts very interesting. Above her sits Minerva, the Roman goddess of the arts, wisdom and warfare. I confess that this is a side of Catherine with which I am less familiar (admittedly, this may be because Jean Plaidy focused more on Catherine’s supposed skulduggery with Nostradamus and the Ruggeri brothers and involvement with outrages such as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre).

Catherine de Medici as a widow

Has history misjudged Catherine de’ Medici, I wonder? By all accounts she was a highly intelligent woman and politically astute; it’s unlikely either of her sons would have remained on the throne without her guidance. These works by Antoine Caron provide a glimpse into her character, but I can’t say I’m any further forward in understanding Catherine. That’s the conundrum of art, I suppose – that it asks as many questions as it provides answers…

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