The gods and goddesses of Classical mythology had as many vices as they had virtues, but their most important attribute was their divine power over nature and over man. As such, their symbols and narratives became essential components of the artistic representation of Europe’s most powerful noblemen, especially since kings were believed to retain a divine right to rule over their people.
One of the most ambitious projects of political propaganda was commissioned by Marie de Medici in 1622 from Peter Paul Rubens, Europe’s greatest court painter and a talented diplomat. Daughter of the powerful Grand Duke of Tuscany Francesco I, Marie de Medici married King Henri IV of France in 1600 and was crowned as the Queen Regent after his death in 1610, destined to rule France until her eldest son Louis XIII came of age. Highly unpopular for her rash and stubborn decisions as Queen, Marie was banished from the court when Louis XIII took power in 1617, and she even plotted to overthrow him in favor of her younger son. Nevertheless, for a short time she was reconciled with King Louis, and she even regained a position in the council of France. It was during this period of reconciliation that Marie commissioned a giant series of 24 biographical paintings designed to improve her reputation and gain the political favor of her son.
From her birth and education to her regency, turbulent fall from grace, and shaky return to power, the series of paintings portrays Marie as a wise, responsible mother and caring Queen, whose life was guided and inspired by the Greek pantheon of gods. Mythological symbolism abounds in these paintings, most of which display the gods’ intervention in the events of Marie’s life as if to argue that she was protected and blessed by their influence.
For instance, the Education of Marie de Medici shows a young Marie listening intently to the lessons of her divine tutors:
- Athena, goddess of wisdom, bears her shining helmet representing military prowess, but her shield lies dormant at the bottom of the painting, in the spirit of peace
- Hermes, messenger of the gods, falls from the heavens to bless Marie with his golden caduceus, symbol of peace and harmony
- The Three Graces stand gracefully behind Marie to represent her beauty and feminine virtues
- Orpheus, the legendary musician and poet, gives her music lessons by playing the cello
- Various symbols of the arts lie strewn upon the floor: musical instruments, sculpture (based on popular busts from Ancient Rome), and paintbrushes and a palette
Set in a dark grotto, the figures glow under light pouring through an opening in the rocky ceiling, as if divine inspiration were shining upon the blessed Marie to brighten the intellectual darkness of her earthly surroundings. This painting was intended to convey her wisdom as a result of her classical education, although in life several of her political decisions were considered less than intelligent.
Along with the other massive paintings in this ambitious cycle, this work presents Marie de Medici as a virtuous and intelligent ruler by aligning her with the ideas and symbols of the Classical gods. Unfortunately, this series was unable to improve her standing in the French court, and she was eventually exiled from France in 1630. Nevertheless, these paintings represent the power of mythological imagery as a form of political propaganda that could influence the fate of the powerful kings (and queens) of Europe.