Of all the masterpieces in the Louvre, none has a more appropriate home than the 24 paintings glorifying the life and reign of Marie de' Medici, Queen of France.
Painted by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, the series known as the “Marie de' Medici Cycle” (1622–1625), are among the greatest artistic achievements of their age. Completed when the Louvre was at the height of its importance as a royal residence, the paintings celebrate the queen mother during the reign of her son, King Louis XIII, when France was on the verge of becoming Europe’s greatest power.
Rubens and the Medici
Marie first met Rubens in 1600. At the time, he was a rapidly rising artist who had just been appointed court painter to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua. When the duke visited Florence to attend Marie’s wedding to Henri IV of France, Rubens accompanied him to study the city’s artistic treasures and was inevitably introduced to Medici.
Nine years later, Rubens was hired as a court artist by the ruler of his native Netherlands, Archduke Albert von Habsburg. With both the Holy Roman Emperor and the king of Spain also members of the House of Habsburg, Rubens was able to lay the foundations for his future freelance career.
When Tragedy Strikes
The project was conceived to celebrate the end of the dramatic and often tragic history of the French royal family over the previous decade. In 1610, her husband King Henri IV had been assassinated after victory in decades of civil war. Marie then served as regent to their 9-year-old son, King Louis XIII, and ruled France for the next seven years. A fall from power was marked by further tragedy in 1617 when a cabal of nobles persuaded the teenage king to back what he was told would be a bloodless coup against his mother’s advisors—the chief of whom was predictably assassinated.
For two years, Marie was a virtual prisoner until escaping and joining a rebellion to oust the cabal from power. In 1621, the cabal’s leader died and King Louis chose Cardinal Richelieu (formerly Marie’s most talented minister of state) as his own chief advisor and Marie was appointed to the royal council.
Upon her return to Paris, Marie turned her attention back to completing what she informally referred to as the “Palais Medici”—the Luxembourg Palace. Loosely inspired by Florence’s Palazzo Pitti, the Luxembourg was begun in 1615 in an effort to recreate the architectural grandeur of Marie’s native city. Its construction and furnishing played a major role in the development of Parisian arts.
‘Marie de' Medici Cycle’Arranged clockwise in chronological order—originally in a narrow gallery just outside the Luxembourg’s royal apartment—21 of the paintings illustrate Marie’s triumphs, struggles, and lineage.
Twenty of the paintings contain strong, sometimes dominating, allegorical, and/or symbolic features: “The Meeting of Marie de' Medici and Henri IV” depicts the royal couple among the clouds, in the manner of gods in Greek and Roman mythology. In “The Death of Henri IV and the Proclamation of the Regency” the deceased king undergoes an “apotheosis”—the process by which ancient Roman emperors were said to become deified. “The Coronation at Saint-Denis,” “The Victory at Jülich,” and “The Flight from Blois” are among those depicting Christian angels hovering above Marie, suggesting heavenly approval, guidance, and protection.
Passing on the Medici Legacy
Marie’s choice of an occasion to publicly reveal the series further celebrated the royal family: the marriage of her daughter Henrietta Maria to King Charles I of England. Little did she know that the court of Charles and Henrietta Maria—at which Marie herself was later to live for three years—would become a cultural center comparable to the Medici’s Renaissance Florence. Under the leadership of the younger monarchs, works by the Italian masters were first imported into England on a major scale. All three greatest geniuses of Florence’s greatest age were represented in the new royal collection. Included within it were paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, as well as preparatory drawings for the less mobile creations of Michelangelo.
Building on that tradition, Marie’s son-in-law and daughter commissioned works by Rubens and hired his equally brilliant student Anthony van Dyck as their court’s resident painter—inspiring the first generation of native English painters to meet the high standards of their Italian and Flemish peers. It was a fitting finale to two and a half centuries of Medici patronage.