Object Lessons: Triptych

This triptych is a curious piece. Collected by WKU alum Commodere Perry Snell, it sits in our Decorative Arts gallery. Behind the grand presentation, Prudence waiting patiently by the queen’s side, and the king – Henry IV of France – gracefully granting his wife, Marie, the regency of France as their son (also pictured) was quite young, this painting hides a tale of murder. 

The “Consignment of the Regency” is part of Rubens’ larger Marie de Medici Cycle – honoring his patron, Marie. Hence, the series depicts Marie in a good light – for the untrained eye, you don’t realize Prudence (to Marie’s right) isn’t holding her emblematic snake, or that the Three Fates have been replaced with three soldiers. This is because Marie didn’t want people reminded about how she murdered her husband to take power.

A curious thing about the French monarchy is that is was highly patriarchal. While Queens could rule other European countries, they were forbidden to in France. The only way a woman could gain and retain full power was to somehow get rid of her husband and be “regent” for her son…and that’s exactly what Marie did. 

Born into the powerful and influential Medici family, Marie married Henri IV at age 27. She was Henri’s second wife, and together they had five children – including the future king, Louis XIII. But the marriage was not a happy one – Henri was a notorious womanizer, and he admitted to choosing Marie only because he owed her father over 1 million ECUs. Marie fought with Henri’s mistresses and her husband, and Henri treated Marie little better than a breeding horse. Despite their tumultuous marriage, Henri still relied on Marie – especially as regent when he was away fighting wars.

Triptych featuring a copy of “Consignment of the Regency” by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1621-1625. The “Consignment” depicts the moment in Marie de Medici’s life when her husband, King Henry IV, grants her the regency of France as he prepares for war. Object no. 1929.5.127 (A176).

On May 14, 1610, King Henri IV was assassinated – just one day after Marie was officially crowned Queen of France. In the after party, the king’s carriage was stopped due to traffic congestion – and a Catholic fanatic took his chance. Rumors of Marie’s involvement abounded, and never truly subsided.

Perhaps that is why she commissioned Rubens to create the Marie de Medici Cycle of 24 paintings, including the “Consignment,” that depicted her life positively. Hung in her Parisian palace, they reminded everyone that Marie held power.

But she only held on to it for seven years. In 1617, at the age of 15, Louis XIII confronted his mother and deposed her. She was arrested, then exiled, only returning in 1621. Her scheming never ended, resulting in a final exile in 1630 from which she never returned. She died in Cologne in 1642, still scheming against her son’s advisers so that she could yet again wield kingly power.

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

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