The Path to a Golden Age: Or Why place Plato and Noah on the Joist?
The recreation of life is one of the most beautiful miracles this world can offer. It is an even greater miracle when a person has longed for it to happen for more than ten years; and even more so when the pressure to conceive has been attended by the overwhelming attention of a kingdom’s people, and with the threat of a marriage annulment for the failure to produce an heir.
In 1544 Catherine de’ Medici – who unexpectedly became crown-princess after the premature death of her husband’s older brother – gave birth to her first child, Francis. The boy was named after both his deceased uncle and his grandfather, the King of France.
In the period, which has been retrospectively labelled the ‘Emblematic Age’ by a passionate group of scholars, it had become highly desirable for members of the European courts to express their own individuality through an apparently simple, yet in fact highly complex combination of text and picture. These devices were often worked into personal objects of all sorts and materials.
Good hope triumphs over hardship: ΑΜΗΧΑΝΙΑΣ ΕΥΕΛΠΙΣΤΙΑ ΠΕΡΙ, – or “Bringing light and peace of mind” (ΦΩΣ ΦΕΡΟΙ ΗΔΕ ΓΑΛΗΝΗΝ), as we find it in a double portrait of Catherine with her husband. He, too, is surely depicted with his text-and-image-combination too; together, they support a cornucopia, symbolic of fertility, filled with flames of love.
[Click here to see the rainbow-detail in the upper right corner of Antoine Caron’s Portrait d’Henri II et de Catherin de Médicis, in: Histoire françoyse de notre temps date du règne de Charles IX (1560-1574). Louvre Département des Arts graphiques, Inv. RF 29.713.)]
The perfection of Catherine’s rainbow-device was praised for decades to come, long after she had chosen another sign more suitable to her new role as dowager queen.
The rainbow, recently reimagined as the symbol for diversity after having been used for peace, refers to the story of Noah, as found in Genesis 9, 8-17. Here, it signifies that life will never again be destroyed. Simultaneously, it forms an arch between the supernatural and the natural world. The image of the rainbow as a path might have increased in modern understanding and pop-culture with the superheroes of Jean Chalopin and by Marvel. One takes us into a children’s version of Arcadia in the 1980s, the other as Bifrost into the Asgard of the Northern Mythology. The treasure of the Celtic leprechaun which is said to lie at the end of the rainbow might be another version of the Golden Age. Despite today’s very positive connotations, or its physical explanation, the rainbow also carries intimidating connections to Helheim, the Last Judgement, and calamity.
For the Catholic Catherine de’ Medici, who was taught Greek in a convent when she was eight years old, and who later received books by the Florentine Neo-Platonists, the rainbow could also be Plato’s column iƿις, the passage to a better future.
While Girolamo Ruscelli wrote in 1584 that Catherine used this device already when she was still living among the relatives of her father (shortly after her birth she had become orphan), Pierre de Bourdeille [ca. 1540-1614] believed her father-in-law to be among the inventors of her sign; and Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée stated in 1977, that Catherine had adopted her device Amechanias Euelpistia Peri after the death of the king, Francis I.
[Click here to see the rainbow-illustration: Le Imprese Illvstri Del S[ign]or Ieronimo Rvscelli. Aggivntovi Nvovam[en]te Il Qvarto Libro Da Vincenzo Rvscelli Da Viterbo ; Al Serenissimo Principe Gvglielmo Gonzaga Dvca Di Mantova Et Monferato, Venetia 1584, p. 117-118. University Library Kiel / Germany; Signature: Qh 3026.)]
In 1987 Carl Benjamin Boyer calculated that within the history of scientific studies of the rainbow, the sixteenth century saw an outstanding multiplicity of books on the subject. A real marker of this growth of interest was the publication of Alessandro Piccolomini’s Tractatus de iride in 1540.
Noah’s peace in Plato’s Golden Age – Catherine’s rainbow-device not only meant her own happy transition from the state of being an orphan, her vulnerability as Europe’s richest heiress, her fears that she might be the sterile wife of the heir of the French crown, and her final respected position as queen and mother of the future kings; it was also an agreement of leading by her ancestry and her own fertility Europe into a new imperium. Further interpretation towards Catherine’s role as an intermediator, her incarnation as a new French lily, and about her Marian purity was intended, as it reinforced the main imperial project.
This poly-semantic rainbow is colourfully depicted on the joists of the ceiling and the window-frame in her royal apartment at the castle of Écouen [see: Beguin / Delenda /Oursel 1995, fig. 12b, 12c and 19.].
In 1547 Anne de Montmorency, the owner of the building, was grateful to be asked back into courtly office by the new king, Henri II: this followed six years when he had been banished from the court in disgrace. The constable made an effort to include the royal devices into the avant-garde decoration of his renovated residence: Catherine’s device was also on the coloured window and on the floor-tiles in the eastern entrance wing. Today both examples are preserved in the collection of the Musée National de la Renaissance (inv. Ec.2. [see: Capodieci 2011, fig. 24] and [see: Brejon de Lavergnée 1977, fig. 11, or: Crépin-Leblond 2014, p. 39.]).
In addition, the constable gave over the northern wing of his home to the royal family on more than a dozen occasions between 1547 and 1559, each stay allowing Henri II and Caterina thereby the splendid view over the expansive Parisis plain. When in July 1551 Anne Montmorency received the title of a dukedom, he honoured his king and queen by the erection of a permanent triumphal portico in which their emblems are embedded.
Besides the example of the portico, two other rainbows found their realisation on the so-called “table d’attente” on the northern façade of the royal castle wing [see: Hoffmann 1970, fig. 17 and 23].
All remaining examples in the castle of Écouen show just the end of the rainbow, appearing out of the clouds and touching the land-and-seascape, having raindrops and sunrays alongside with it. The two above mentioned rainbows of the Graphic Arts represent the optical phenomenon as an arch underneath clouds without any contact to the earth.
Beside changing the pictura, Caron and Ruscelli have shifted the meaning of the original rainbow-device, using also a slightly altered motto. After the death of her husband, Caterina had abandoned this device and, consequently, the rainbow-devices created after 1559 promoted her prudence instead. These two rainbow examples can, therefore, be regarded as an intermediate between Caterina’s dowager-device, displaying a prudent serpent, and her former queen-device, celebrating fertility with a rainbow. Through the representation of the rainbow device on his castle, Anne de Montmorency praised the fruitfulness of the queen.
After Francis, Catherine de’ Medici gave birth to eight more children. May the rainbow be for the Society for Emblem Studies, which I would deeply like to thank for this wonderful forum, a path into a promising Golden Age of many interesting “Emblems of the Month”.
Maren C. Biederbick
(Graduate School “Human Development in Landscapes”,
University of Kiel, Germany)
- (Art.) Regenbogen, in: Lexikon der Kunst. Architektur, Bildende Kunst, Angewandte Kunst, Industrieformgestaltung, Kunsttheorie, Vol. VI: R-Stad, ed. by Harald Olbrich u.a., 2nd Ed., Leipzig 2004, p. 70.
- Béguin, Sylvie / Odile Delenda / Hervé Oursel: Cheminées et frises peintes du château d’Écouen, Paris 1995, here: pp. 61-62.
- Boyer, Carl Benjamin: The Rainbow. From Myth to Mathematics, Princeton 1987.
- Bréjon de Lavergnée, Arnauld: Masséot Abaquesne et les pavements du château d’Écouen, in: Revue du Louvre. La revue des musées de France, 5-6, 1977, pp. 307-315.
- Capodieci, Luisa: Medicaea Medaea. Art, Astres et Pouvoir a la cour de Catherine de Médicis, Genève 2011, (Travaux d’Humanisme et Renaissance, 484), here: chap. 4.2: “Iris”, pp. 170-190.
- Crépin-Leblond, Thierry: Anne de Montmorency, 15 mars 1493 – 12 novembre 1567. Un homme de la Renaissance, Paris 2014.
- Crouzet, Denis: Le haut coeur de Catherine de Médicis. Une raison politique aux temps de la Saint-Barthélemy, Paris 2005, (Collection “Bibliothèque Albin Michel Histoire”), here: chap.3: “Iris entre ciel et terre”, pp. 55-62.
- Lee, Raymond L. / Alistair B. Fraser: The Rainbow Bridge. Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science, University Park (PA) / Bellingham 2001.
- Hoffmann, Volker: Das Schloß von Écouen, Berlin 1970, (Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte, 5).
- Orieux, Jean: Catherine de Médicis ou La Reine noire, Saint-Amand-Montrond 1988.
- Räsänen, Martti: Regenbogen – Himmelsbrücke, in: Studia Orientalia Edidit Societas Orientalis Fennica, XIV, 1, 1947 / 1950, pp. 3-11.
- Yates, Frances Amalia: Astraea. The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century, London / New York 1975 / 1999, (Frances Yates. Selected Works, V), here: chap. “The Idea of the French Monarchy”, pp. 121-126; as well as p. 218 and fig. 23b in the Appendices.