The Louvre is renowned around the world for being the greatest art museum. And of its many wonders to show you, there is one room that is perhaps its most magnificent.
We are of course talking about the Marie de' Medici Cycle, a sprawling epic composed of 24 paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.
The size and scope of the project and its ostentatious presentation today in the Louvre’s Galerie Médicis (located in the Richelieu Wing) are matched by the historic importance of both the artist, the patron, and the moment of its creation.
This can be especially inspiring for entrepreneurs. Rubens was an artist, yes, but he was also a capable businessman. Leveraging his talent, he became a respected diplomat and the owner of a major workshop in the center of Antwerp. And he knew how to make a sale, sending portraits of himself to clients he was trying to woo. It all led him to landing this enormous commission.
On your next trip to Paris, you must take time to go on a guided tour of the Louvre with extra time spent here in this gallery. And when we learn about Rubens and the mighty Medicis, we see why this is given such pride of place in the world’s greatest art museum.
Stunning, stately, as imposing as perhaps any other sequence in the visual arts — the Marie de’ Medici Cycle by Rubens must be seen in person to truly be believed.
In 1577, Rubens was born in the town of Siegen, which was then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. But the circumstances of his birth were far from proper. His father Jan was having an affair with Anna of Saxony, the wife of the prominent Dutch political figure William I of Orange. Jan and Anna even had a child, and eventually they were found out, leading to Jan’s imprisonment.
Jan died in 1587, and Rubens’ mother Maria Pypelincks took him to live in Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands. Living with his mother, the boy had a deeply Catholic upbringing. This no doubt led to his later commitment to the church and its protracted fight against Protestantism known as the Counter-Reformation. Many of his greatest pieces would end up being painted in the service of Catholicism.
Rubens also enjoyed a broad education, steeped in the classics. As a teenager, he picked up painting and became an apprentice under a series of artists still working in the Mannerist style — a bridge between the Renaissance and Baroque which strayed from realism.
At 23, Rubens went to Italy, and it is here that he was able to study the works of the greats like Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo. It was also a place where new artists were making bold moves, like Caravaggio.
Pretty soon, Rubens won commissions from churches and even took on a diplomatic role from time to time. This allowed him to travel Europe and endlessly study the art owned by prominent kings.
He was young, but Rubens was already creating masterpieces.
For instance, consider The Fall of Phaeton (1606). This piece was completed before the artist was 30, showing off a tremendous ability to handle complex, large scale paintings.
His mother fell ill in 1608, and so he rushed back to Antwerp to be by her side. Despite his effort, Rubens was too late. He spent time in the city to mourn, and while he was there, he found the city of his youth to be reborn — a bustling economy, political stability, and renewed cultural vigor. He started up a workshop there, becoming a court painter for multiple monarchs as well as handling outside commissions. And that next year, he married Isabella Brant.
While this period of his life began with the death of his mother, it proved a successful time for the artist. He quickly rose to prominence as the leading painter in a time and place that gave Europe some of its finest artwork — the Flemish Baroque.
And thanks to the growing use of printing presses, his name spread all across the continent. He collaborated with master printmakers to make copies of his work that appeared in books that were now selling far and wide.
His absolute mastery of the human form and its full expressive range gave his work urgency. And rather than paint women as demure or as mere objects of desire, he painted them as fully alive people. Many of his paintings featuring men and women are real and vibrant in a way none of his contemporaries could manage. Indeed, he was known for having a fairly feminist outlook for the time.
He kept painting large and imposing work, which only won him more impressive commissions. And with all that, Rubens became the toast of the art world, and the man you called on when you wanted a masterpiece on command.
So imagine the streets of Antwerp in 1621, alive with new ideas, the arts thriving everywhere you look. And amid it all is the master artist Peter Paul Rubens in his workshop, training artists and creating large, impressive commissions that are lighting Europe on fire.
And one fateful day, he is summoned by the Queen of France.
Marie was born in Florence, Italy in 1575.
At the time, her family the Medicis were among the richest and most powerful in Europe.
The Medicis had a long history as leading bankers and merchants, but they were also major patrons of the arts. They helped artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, supporting the masters that would birth the Renaissance.
This connection between art and power no doubt influenced Marie for her entire life.
But though she should have had a happy youth, tragedy struck early. Her mother died early on during a stillbirth pregnancy. And her lone surviving sister was married off when Marie was only nine years old. Then at 14, her father and stepmother died of mysterious circumstances.
Her uncle ascended to the throne as Grand Duke of Tuscany and took care of his niece, providing her with an incredible education, which the girl took full advantage of. She devoured every topic imaginable, especially the arts.
As she passed through her mid-twenties, it was considered high time for Marie to take a husband. She found one in Henry IV of France.
At the time, he was stuck in a marriage with a woman who was not producing him male heirs — an obsession for monarchs looking to secure their legacy and shore up their power. He was annulling the marriage and wanted a new chance to produce a dauphin, or male heir to the throne.
Henry IV was so busy that he and Marie married without him even attending the ceremony, actually they hadn’t even met yet. When they finally decided to get together in the city of Lyon, he made his new wife wait an entire week.
But she quickly gave birth to a son, and so Henry no doubt found things satisfactory. Marie was less happy, as she was routinely humiliated at court when her husband forced her to spend time with his mistresses.
Yet things have a way of changing.
After a long delay, Marie was finally crowned Queen of France on May 13, 1610. Within 24 hours, Henry was assassinated — thus making Marie the Regent. The killer knew Marie, and the nearest defender of Henry was a long time friend of the Queen. This led to rumors that Marie, seen as an Italian-born interloper, had plotted the murder of the King of France.
Whether that was true or not, she was now vested with power until her oldest son could take the throne.
She created strict rules for the royal court and lavished the arts in France with her patronage. And it turned out, she loved power. When her son Louis XIII became King, she did not cede the throne to him. After a few years of this, he eventually rebelled and exiled his mother for four years.
When she finally came back to Paris, she withdrew from political schemes. Instead, she built herself the ultimate retreat in the middle of the city: the Luxembourg Palace.
But every great palace needs artwork. And who was the best artist in all of Europe? Rubens.
To fill out the lavish Luxembourg Palace, Marie wanted a 24 painting cycle that would tell the life of Marie de’ Medici, Queen of France.
What’s more, they would imbue the home with the full pomp and circumstance befitting an aging monarch. The images were to be filled with romance, action, and impeccable beauty.
Rubens, for his part, jumped at the opportunity. While he was beginning to get commissions for large pieces, these were all from the religious sector. He was a committed Catholic and happy to ply his trade in service to the church, but the world of secular art also called to him. He wanted to do it all, and here was his chance.
The only problem was getting the life of the Queen to fit the size of the proposed cycle.
While the lives of many queens and kings have captivated people for millennia, Marie’s life was not so charming or exciting. In fact, it wasn’t filled with many high points at all. Much of her life came down to marrying Henry and giving birth to Louis. After all, her role as Regent had the whiff of scandal — including rumors that she participated in the assassination of her own husband.
It was a shame because Marie herself was such an accomplished person. She was a former ruler of France, a talented musician and artist, and a learned reader. But all of that was scant material for 24 paintings worth of glamorous scenes.
And yet, being a genius of Rubens’ stature, the work came out as a thundering epic. How did he make such a mundane story sizzle into such a spectacle?
He both added to the story of the Queen and made sure to make as many mythological allegories as he could. This allowed him to focus on much grander characters and scenes.
The actual marriage of Marie and Henry was far from a legendary culmination of the ultimate romance. Henry wanted to marry his mistress, but he was convinced to take Marie as his bride instead.
His advisors told him this would grant him access to the enormous Medici fortune. To make the union even more attractive, the French state owed the Medicis a massive debt due to his financial aid during wartime.
Yet in this painting, Rubens gives us a marriage of a god and goddess: Juno and Jupiter (the Roman versions of Hera and Zeus). These two unite as giants in the sky, fully attended by the symbols of their respective deities. Below, a chariot is drawn by lions, as the city of their meeting was Lyons, and in the background lies the city itself — the only shred of reality in the entire work.
In this single image, we see just how effectively Rubens’ used allegory and symbols to elevate his subject matter and turn the quotidian into the extraordinary. The resulting image is stunning in its scale and the psychedelic display of mythological beings.
The paintings were hung in the Luxembourg Palace to tell the story of Marie’s life when read clockwise. Today, the palace and its famous gardens are one of the most fun ways to spend a relaxing afternoon, and it’s only a short 16 minute walk south from the Louvre.
The series — made up of 21 images of Marie’s life and portraits of the Queen herself and her two parents — were completed in 1624, representing two years of Rubens’ career.
After finishing, he began work on an equally large cycle, this time depicting the life of Henry IV, Marie’s dead husband. This project, however, would never be completed.
The commission led to one of the most fascinating and endlessly rich series of paintings. It also sparked a friendship between the artist and the patron.
To get a sense of their special bond, consider the portrait painted of Marie by Frans Pourbus, sitting only two rooms away from the Medici Cycle in the Louvre. In this painting, the essence of the woman is not captured. Though the painter is accomplished in his craft, he is unable to bring the Queen to life. But whenever Rubens painted her, it was like she could let her guard down, trusting that she was in good hands.
Perhaps a large part of their friendship was Rubens’ open mindedness. Marie was a smart, capable, and shrewd person stuck in a world that did not recognize her because she was a woman. Rubens, however, was forward thinking on the subject. One imagines they could sit for hours and discuss art, Marie finally finding her intellectual equal.
Rubens also gave her something she never had before. Being an Italian, many in the French court never trusted her. Her own husband clearly only used her for money, not making the slightest effort to protect her from humiliation. But Rubens created a cycle of paintings that heralded her as the Queen of France, that raised her up to the literal heavens. It was an act of respect that she no doubt had been waiting for a long time.
Their friendship lasted to the very end. Rubens loaned her a house he owned in Cologne in 1642. In July of that year, while staying in the artist’s house, she died.
Sir Peter Paul Rubens
Coming from (almost) any other person in human history, the above quote would seem arrogant to say the least. But coming from Rubens, it feels more like well earned self-knowledge.
Every piece in the Cycle is filled with delights, drama, and daring artistic innovation. While we can’t go into every painting in detail here, it’s worth taking a few examples to see just how marvelous these works are.
As we covered earlier, Henry’s admiration for Marie had much more to do with her wealth than the beauty of her portrait. But Rubens did not allow reality to spoil the fantasy, and this painting is wide awake with the splendor of fantasy.
Looking over the scene is Jupiter with Juno. They look down as Henry IV is presented with a portrait of Marie, and he is clearly awed by her beauty — we can almost see him swooning. The portrait is held by none other than Cupid (the god of love) and Hymen (the god of marriage). Whispering in his ear is a personification of France.
The message is clear: this marriage is ordained by the gods, is the product of true love, and is the right thing to do for the state.
There is a subplot afoot, as well. In the background, a city in the far distance burns. And in the foreground, the tools of war are covered over by little cherubs. The time of war is over. The time of love has begun.
This work is wider than the standard size of the other paintings in the cycle, and its subject matter takes up the added space well.
Here is a moment of absolute pandemonium. To the left, the King rises up to the heavens, carried by the gods Jupiter and Saturn (see his scythe, rather like the Grim Reaper). Onlookers are lost in their grieving. But from this sad scene Rubens leads our eye to the right. His characters lean toward the Queen sitting on her throne, being handed the power over the French state.
Although this gets rather close to the biggest scandal of Marie’s life, it elevates the events to mythic proportions, turning this calamity into something preordained and necessary, if tragic.
One of the few narrow paintings in the cycle, this work shows us Saturn pulling the embodiment of truth up to the heavens where Marie and her son Louis reconcile. This vision of harmony celebrates their return to familial peace, but Rubens is sure to hide a few interesting details.
Something that many art historians have pointed out through the years is that, far from this being a painting about a son forgiving his mother, it really looks like a mother forgiving her son. She is presented as the magnanimous party, and Louis is presented as the repentant.
See how much more power and magnetism Marie has in the composition. Note how the mythic characters are looking at her, not Louis. Also, note that they are made equal height — Marie maybe even a hair taller. She certainly takes up more of the frame, with Louis partly obscured.
To grasp just how impressive this series of paintings is, see this astounding room with one of our tour guides. That way, you get to experience the fun of interpreting all the symbols that Rubens has encoded into the work while marveling at the skill of his hand.
He used mythology, royal history, and the secrets of his time to pack meaning into every part of the canvas. Deciphering this with a trusted guide is fun and rewarding!
All of the tour guides we work with have extensive education in art history, and they can give you a thorough understanding of everything in the Louvre, including the Medici Cycle.
The private tour of the Galerie Médicis takes approximately 30 minutes, but it can run up to an entire hour — depending on your preference.
And honestly, if you really wanted to, you could spend weeks absorbing this sprawling epic of Flemish Baroque masterpieces collected into a single room.
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