Catherine de’ Medici’s Identities II

This post is a continued discussion of Catherine de’ Medici. We’d recommend you read this post first before diving into this deeper discussion.


Catherine de’ Medici became a deeply engaged art collector and patron after her husband Henri’s death, when she occupied the positions of queen mother or queen regent (depending on which of her sons was king). She had, in this period, more opportunity to act independently than she did earlier, as an unmarried individual and then as Henri’s wife.[1]In the lengthy period in which she was dowager queen, Catherine commissioned images and enacted image-based strategies to advantageously shape her public persona.[2] These activities had two specific objectives. First, they aimed to counter Catherine’s reputation as a foreigner and, therefore, as an outsider in France. Members of the French court generally disliked her from the start, for the French and the Italians had been at odds through wars, political alliances, and religious loyalty for centuries. Most recently, the French attempts to conquer Naples by King Charles VIII (r. 1483-98) led to extensive fighting, with the French aligned against Italy, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburg-Valois Wars, as they came to be called, lasted until 1559. These political problems were reaching their zenith by the 1520s, and they partially motivated Catherine’s betrothal to Henri. Francis was concerned that the Pope would align with the Habsburgs and the Pope was desperate to align with anyone to protect the papal states. Henri was a good match for Catherine even though he was a second rather than a first son because Catherine herself had no royal claim or family to speak of other than her uncle the Pope.[3]

Catherine’s images negotiated her status as a woman who had failed to quickly produce an heir to the French crown, which members of the French court and the public considered her primary duty as queen.[4] When in 1536 Henri’s older brother and heir to the throne died, Catherine offered to enter a convent so that Henri, as the new heir, could remarry and ostensibly produce male heirs. [5] This act ultimately proved unnecessary, but it nonetheless demonstrates the steps Catherine was willing to take to fulfill what she and others at the court perceived as a primary wifely obligation. In this context, it was vital that Catherine emphasize her likability and convey reliability and competence,[6] qualities that were vital to her success as queen regent for her youngest two sons and to sustaining her authority as widow to the king.[7]These concerns motivated the ways in which Catherine shaped her socio-political persona through art collection and display in the intersecting areas of wife, widow, and mother. 

Marital Strategies

Jacopo Chiamenti da Empoli, Marriage of Catherine de’ Medici with Henri II of France, Duc d’Orleans, 16th century. Florence: Uffizi Galleries. 

A painting of the marriage of Catherine and Henri made by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) in 1533 for Catherine’s Medici cousin, Pope Clement VII (1478-1534), demonstrates strategies by which a member of Catherine’s family, and therefore likely Catherine herself, negotiated difficulties pertaining to her status as a foreign bride. The image inspired Jacopo Chimenti da Empoli (1551-1640) to paint his own version of the scene. Chimenti’s painting, completed after Catherine’s death, is thought to faithfully represent Vasari’s original, which no longer survives.[1] Chimenti’s painting depicts the wedding of Catherine to Henri, presided over by Pope Clement VII, one of Catherine’s only surviving immediate relatives and the negotiator with Francis I (1494-1547), King of France, of the terms of her marriage. Catherine is prominently portrayed within the composition, just to the right of center. She turns towards the beholder, a mode of portrayal that implies her accessibility. By contrast, Henri’s back is to the viewer in an arrangement that obstructs his own pose, with the result of making him comparatively less accessible than Catherine and focusing attention on her figure, thereby prioritizing bride over groom. Catherine is further accentuated by her clothing, which consists of a bright golden and cream-colored brocade dress and a strand of pearls that cover her bodice. All of the other figures wear darker or duller clothing in comparison; even the Pope and cardinals appear to don gray under their red liturgical vestments. Catherine’s dress highlights her wealth, and her status. This image reflects Catherine’s strategy of reminding French citizen of her familial connection to the Pope and papal authority, key advantages to the French in the marriage of Henri to Catherine (without necessarily invoking the tenuous political aspects of France’s relationship with Italy). Vasari’s inclusion of this scene in the painted ceiling of the Sala di Clemente VII in the Palazzo Vecchio indicates the importance of this dynastic alliance not only for Catherine but also for Clement and the Medici family. Clement’s presence in the image emphasized Catherine’s status as a Medici and relative of a powerful pope, and symbolized the alliance Catherine was meant to solidify between the Pope and Francis.

The moment of her marriage would prove to be one of the few periods of her life where Catherine’s position was secure. She therefore used her own artistic patronage to counter her sporadically precarious position at the French court, which included public acts that modeled traditional ideal widowhood. Between 1559 and 1589, and following the examples of elite women before her, such as Margaret of Austria discussed below, Catherine commissioned two memorials to Henri: a heart monument and a funerary mausoleum located at the French royal burial site at the Basilica of St. Denis near Paris. When Catherine died in 1589, she was buried in the mausoleum next to Henri.[2] For this project (Fig. 2), Catherine hired Germain Pilon (c. 1525-1590) as the primary sculptor of its figural works and Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570) to supervise the design.[3] The focal point of the monument are two life-size recumbent effigies of the couple, carved from white marble. Surrounding these figures is an elaborate marble architectural structure, with sculptures of personified virtues on the corners and a set of portrait sculptures of Catherine and Henri in prayer at the top, all carved from black stone. 

Germain Pilon, Funerary Monument of Henri II and Catherine de’ Medici, 1563-1572. Paris: Abbey Church, St. Denis. 

The two prone sculpted bodies that adorn the tomb exemplify different, gendered approaches to the body in memorial sculptures of the period. Henri is depicted at the moment of his death. His body is not shown as dead or decaying as was frequently seen, but his face does show the agony of his death at the joust. He is, however, not shown as an idealized Greek nude or other paradigmatic male figure. On the other hand, Catherine is shown as an idealized nude. Both Catherine and Henri have slight covering at the waist, but the drapery falls to the side of their legs.[4] The idea of the female figure being exposed and idealized is not unusual in art. However, in this situation, Catherine’s representation also defies her age. In the period of her life when she was a widow, Catherine was able to exercise a greater degree of agency and influence than when she was married. Catherine did not allow herself to be pushed aside by Salic Law and men in the court but instead usurps the human Henri as the romanticized nude figure.

Praxiteles, Aphrodite of Knidos, 4th Century BC.

Catherine’s sculptural likeness is indicative of a different kind of representational strategy, one that associated her with enduring feminine ideals, by referencing the Venus Pudica. The Venus Pudica can be traced to classical antiquity and seen in such examples as the Venus de Milo and other Hellenistic sculptures representing the goddess Venus. These representations are interpreted as “the modest Venus” as the nude figure both covers and reveals herself. [5] The nude woman attempts to hide her nudity with her hands, but never does so completely enough to obscure her nudity from the viewer.[6] Sometimes she will have some form of drapery around her hips, but this only serves to draw more attention to her otherwise nude form. Although representations varied, these works are characterized by a partially or fully nude female woman with one hand draped across her breasts and one drawn over her hips and thighs. The dichotomy is amplified when the actions of her hands convey modesty but her nudity in general and typically alluring stare imply something else entirely. The Venus Pudica served to convey modesty and purity while still presenting a sexualized woman to the male viewer.[7] Catherine’s sculpture conveyed a similar idea, although not as overtly sexual as some Venus statues were. Her effigy adheres to many of the traditional characteristics of the Venus Pudica typology. Instead of being fully clothed, she is only partially draped, with her left hand, she reaches to cover her breasts and with her right, she draws the drapery across her hips. Catherine was not fully revealed but exposed more than would be expected of a widowed queen who lived for almost seventy years and who wore conservative mourning clothes for the last thirty years of her life. She was also not depicted when she died at 69 but rather as an idealized young woman. Next to Henri, who looks older and is shown experiencing the agony of death for eternity, Catherine is the ideal, peaceful figure and an ideal woman, as also emphasized in her act of commissioning a tomb for her husband as his widow.

Catherine specifically implied two important, politically motivated familial references with the design and location of her and Henri’s tomb. First, the tomb purposefully referenced imperial tombs in Rome with the grandiose design, recumbent figures, and classical Italianate architectural features. This design was explicitly papal and classical Roman and not Florentine. Through references to the papacy, Catherine reminded viewers of her own connections to the papacy that she originally brought to her marriage without implying a negative Florentine bias to which a French audience might object. It is also a reminder of her own loyalty to the papacy and Catholicism during a time of religious upheaval in France. By referencing the ancient Christian imperial tombs of Rome that were attached to St. Peter’s, the chapel at Saint Denis invoked these historic Christian icons. The references to classical Rome helped to emphasize the classical and long-lasting lineage of the Valois family and culturally elite nature of the family. 

In addition to the design of the tomb, its location at the Church of Saint-Denis purposefully connected Catherine and Henri to the illustrious lineage of the past kings of France who were all buried there. St. Denis was one of the patron saints of France and was the first Bishop of Paris. He was martyred and carried his own head to the site of the Church of Saint-Denis where he wanted to be buried. [8] Catherine and Henri were both buried here, but the new chapel that Catherine commissioned drew attention to Henri’s role as monarch and encourage individual devotion. By building onto the Church of St. Denis, rather than constructing a new and separate church to posthumously honor their husbands as some elite widows did, Catherine showed her respect and loyalty for the tradition of the French monarchy while also elevating herself and her husband through a groundbreaking new chapel that visitors could circumnavigate. It was also reminiscent of the Old Chapel of the Kings where Charlemagne was buried near Saint Denis.[9] In this project, Catherine implied her own powerful connection with the papacy while strategically avoiding any connection to the Medicis in Florence. The mausoleum visually connected Catherine to Henri in perpetuity, suggesting the perpetuity of the queen’s devotion to her deceased husband. 

Catherine’s demonstration of ideal widowhood in her commission of a mausoleum for Henri invokes a lengthy historical practice by the wives of political leaders to publicly memorialize their husbands with tomb projects. This practice, with which Catherine was familiar, harks back to idealized women of antiquity and, with their impressive pedigrees and achievements, idealized Catherine by association. Such a project is evidenced in narratives about the ancient Greek queen Artemisia, who ruled Caria in Asia Minor, which included the prosperous city of Halicarnassus, from 484 to 460 BCE, in the years after the death of her husband. Artemisia’s narrative was kept alive in the memories of readers at the European courts through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by writings such as the 1361-62 De claris mulieribus by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), which devotes a chapter to her. However, Catherine was likely directly inspired by a Histoire de la Royne Arthémise composed and presented to her in manuscript form by the courtier and apothecary Nicolas Houel (1524?-87) in 1562.[10] Houel’s account, a mix of historical fact and fanciful idealism, conveyed in part that Artemisia built a mausoleum for her husband at Halicarnassus that was so colossal in scope, richly appointed, and deeply admired that it was named one of the Seven Wonders of the World.[11] In Catherine’s era, models of ideal widowhood such as that expressed in Artemisia’s story inspired an expectation that the widows of deceased ruling spouses would construct opulent, aggrandizing mausolea for their husbands, as expressions of their unceasing devotion to their husband’s memory. By following this model, Catherine grafted onto her own persona the traits of her prototypes in order to craft a public reputation as an ideal widow. 

Catherine’s connection with Artemisia is evident as well in the roles of the two women as widows. Artemisia took power after the death of her husband and succeeded in ruling her nation. She was honored for showing these traditionally male traits of strength and leadership. While Catherine was not a king, she ruled in her sons’ steads. Earning and maintaining the trust of the people was essential to her success.[12] Indeed, there were other factions of the government and aristocratic families who were constantly fighting for their own interests and arguing that they were better suited to rule than Catherine. The people’s support secured her position. Artemisia is the personification of all three of the figures Catherine wanted to be—wife, widow, ruler—and she performed these roles in ways that were acceptable and non-threatening to the existing societal order. In addition to providing a visual language for Catherine’s representation, Artemisia created a precedent for widows building funerary monuments for their husbands. Artemisia’s funerary monument defined what it meant to be a good widow and its scale coined the term mausoleum after her husband. Upon the death of her husband, Mausolus, Artemisia built him a large temple-like structure designed specifically for his burial. This was one of the first of its kind and was so large and magnificent it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. From then on, these types of funerary monuments were referred to as mausoleum. Catherine closely followed this example by building her own expansive funerary monument and chapel for her husband that she would later be buried in as well.  

[1] Hugh Ross Williamson, Catherine de’ Medici. (London: Michael Joseph Ltd, 1973), 33.

[2] ffolliott, “The Italian ‘Training’ of Catherine de’ Medici,” page 42. 

[3] Shelia ffolliott, “The Ideal Queenly Patron of the Renaissance: Catherine de’ Medici Defining Herself or Defined by Others?,” In Women and Art in Early Modern Europe: Patrons, Collectors, and Connoisseurs, ed. Cynthia Lawrence, (University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997),106. 

[4] Jeanice Brooks, “Catherine de Medicis, Nouvelle Artemise: Women’s Lamnets and the Virtue of Grief,” Early Music Vol. 27, No. 3 (Aug. 1999): 424. Catherine originally was represented in a similar way. However, when the first sculptor, Girolamo della Robbia, died and Pilon took over the commission this sculpture was rejected in favor of a more ideal figure

[5] Camille Paglia, “The Cruel Mirror: Body Type and Body Image as Reflected in Art,” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America Vol. 23, No. 2 (Fall 2004): 5. 

[6] Brooks, “Catherine de Medicis, Nouvelle Artemise,” 424. 

[7] David Lung Clark, “Raphael’s Fornarina: Venus Pudica or Venus Aphrodisia?” Journal of Art History, Vol. 74, No. 4 (2005): 224. 

[8] Jo Eldride Carney, Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary, (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc, 2000), 250. 

[9] ffolliott, “The Ideal Queenly Patron,” 106.

[10] Sheila ffolliott, “Catherine de’ Medici as Artemisia: Figuring the Powerful Widow,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 230. The manuscript Houel presented to Catherine is in the collection of the Bibliothèque national de France, fonds français, 306.

[11] ffolliott, “Catherine de’ Medici as Artemisia,” 230. 

[12] ffolliott, “Casting a Rival into the Shade,” 138.

[1] Three of Catherine’s sons would become king during her lifetime: Francis II, Charles IX, and Henri III. All three would die relatively early with no heirs to follow them. Both Charles and Henri were underage when they became king and it is during the reigns of these two sons that Catherine experienced the most agency and influence. Paulson, Catherine de’ Medici: Five Portraits, 7-10. 

[2] At this time, an ideal wife was an obedient one who contributed to her marriage through her dowry, familial connections, and her ability to produce children. As was mentioned in the introduction and later in this chapter, Catherine fails in all of these categories for the first ten years of her marriage thus making people question why Henri did not discard her and what her value was as queen. 

[3] Ralph Roeder, Catherine de’ Medici and the Lost Revolution (New York: The Viking Press, 1937), 37.

[4] J.E. Neale, The Age of Catherine de’ Medici (London: Bradford and Dickens, 1959), 102. 

[5] Katherine Crawford, “Catherine de’ Medici and the Performance of Political Motherhood,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 31, no. 3 (2000): 643.  

[6] ffolliott, “Casting a Rival into the Shade: Catherine de’ Medici and Diane de Poitiers,”138. 

[7] Crawford, “Catherine de’ Medici and the Performance of Political Motherhood,” 643.  

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