Draped in a dark widow cap or French hood, white skin, dark bulging eyes. Catherine de Medici’s portrait might send a chill down your spine no matter if you know her supposed reputation or not. But where can we find the paintings of this merchants daughter who became a French queen.
Perhaps the most flattering painting of Caterine de Medici can be found at the Uffizi museum in Florence. It depicts Catherine as a young woman at her wedding and the painting shows both her husband Henry (at that time Duke of Orleans, later king Henry II) and Cahterine’s uncle, pope Clement. Indeed Catherine is quite lovely with a slender body and sweet almost pious expression. It was painted by Jacopo Chimenti who judging by his age cannot have attended the ceremony.
Covered with pearls, draped in coldcloth, adorned with sapphires. When reading about the descriptions of the clothing of 16th century kings and queens I sometimes find myself unable to imagine such a grandure. At the Palazzo Pitti in Florence you can find a portrait of Catherine de Medici that illustrate this kind of magnificence. The painter is unfortunately unknown.
In the gallery des offices in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence one can find what is probably the truest account of what Catherine actually looked like. It is a small upper body portrait which shows Catherine at a young age, probably nog more than twentyfive. Vasari painted this portrait around 1585 and probably used other paintings as an example.
The most gruesome and perhaps the most famous painting of Catherine is her black clad figure in the middle of a depiction of St Bartholomew day massacre by Francois Dubois. Catherine is standing over a pile of brutally murdered and naked Huguenots. Catherine was blamed for the horrors of that night by the Huguenots and till this day our history books still hold her largely responsible. However, most academic work shows that Catherine, although an important factor, was not responsible for the events that happened in 1972. Her actions were just one out of many contributing factors that lead up to the slaughtering of more than 20.000 men, woman and children throughout the country. You can find it in the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In a section contributed to the royal family of Henry II in the Louvre in Paris one can find these two portraits of Catherine by Francois Clouet. The oval painting is in fact a miniature probably used for exchange with the images of other royals in Europe. It is a flattering image of Catherine with a slim figure and rather soft features. The dark portrait of the queen mother is probably a more true account of what she actually looked like.