Catherine de’ Medici appears in 7 of the 8 Valois Tapestries, sometimes in the center of the design, sometimes at the edge, or up in a corner, or barely to be seen in the deep background. The various placements of her portraits suggest a question: what is the purpose of her ubiquitously dispersed presence in the separate tapestries of the series? Simple artistic variations? Or, perhaps a statement about her power as “La Reine Mère”–power not exercised directly as an anointed sovereign, but as the ever-present executive behind the throne, directing affairs from many places, sometimes prominent, and sometimes hidden and hard to find, but everywhere. There may well be a very specific audience for these portraits of herself, an audience that was key to her whole attempt to procreate and protect a long-lived royal Valois dynasty that might rule France for a century or two.
Catherine de’ Medici appears most prominently in the “Tournament” Tapestry. Her off center position at the left of the design here images the indirection of her power. Her son King Henri III, seen in profile, is grouped with his queen, Louise de Vaudémont, at the right side of the design. Catherine stands with the Protestant leader, Henri de Navarre (also in profile) and her own Catholic daughter, Marguerite de Valois. The two had recently been married in 1572, although the happiness of the event–and Catherine’s attempt to bring Huguenot and Catholic factions together through their interfaith wedding–was destroyed by the catastrophe of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. This particular tapestry is clearly an attempt to revise that history by providing a scene of battle which does no harm to any of its participants. Although armed and mounted, the members of the “melee” ( a traditional mock battle) draw no blood and cause no pain; the only danger seems to be the balls of fire crackers let loose long the horses’ hooves. The crowded battlefield shows martial exercises arranged as art with a loose symmetries arranging groups of “warriors” in mirrored images, repeating the profiles of the two kings and their front-facing queens.
There may also be another more personal reason for her different positions in the different tapestries and may add another dimension to the clear importance of Valois family and lineage. Another tapestry hides Catherine in a corner of the tapestry’s design.
In the upper left-hand corner Catherine sits under a canopy surrounded by court ladies.
It would take some time for a viewer to find Catherine in this tapestry. Why delay her presence for so long? If these are portraits of the Valois mother and children, why is the mother so difficult to locate? The “Elephant” is one of the tapestries where it is most difficult to locate Catherine. Other designs offer far easier locations, such as the depiction of the spectacular fete at Bayonne with its fabulous sea monster.
Catherine is not sequestered off into a corner but sits very close to the middle of the tapestry’s design in the boat on the lake. She sits with her back to the viewer, but her dark widow’s clothes make her stand out among the pastel garments of the other courtiers.
She also prominently takes center stage in the tapestry portraying the festival honoring the “Polish Ambassadors.”
Behind Catherine the viewer sees one of her most beneficent creations, the Tuileries gardens, which she had built over the ground cleared of tile works, and where she staged many of her magnificences. She also, apparently, worked out some of the choreography of the dancing taking place before her.
A similar placement of Catherine at the center of another tapestry challenges the in-person. viewer a bit more than the Polish Ambassadors. “The Journey” shows the court leaving the chateau of Anet on their way to south to Bayonne, on the two-year grand tour in which Catherine presented er fourteen year old son, Charles IX, to his realm. However, it is Catherine’s third son, Henri III, who rides on the white charger at the bottom center of the design. It was he who was king at the time the tapestry was woven. But where is Catherine?
Catherine is at the center of the great woven cloth design, riding in a litter. Henri II’s wife, Queen Louise de Vaudément, rides in a litter that precedes Catherine’s, keeping proper decorum.
There are other examples in other tapestries of the ubiquitous appearance of the woman who commissioned the creation of these monumental works of art, which would have been displayed in a single room as a group. Why would Catherine have wanted her portrait to appear in such changeable places within the room? Again we think of the diversity of her positions as an apt demonstration of Catherine’s indirect but pervasive power. But is it all grand political gesture? Who else might Catherine have taken around the walls, challenging the viewers to locate her picture within the woven details? I would like to suggest that the tapestries can be read at one level as an entertaining child’s game, to be enjoyed by Catherine’s grandchildren, who were after all, in some immediate way the point of this celebration of dynasty. The children could enjoy the game, hunting the surface for a figure in mourning, and each generation of grandchildren could so as well. Catherine’s great grandchildren could also play the game, but Catherine clearly intended that they would be part of the Medici dynasty as well as the Valois. Catherine’s favorite grandchild Christina of Lorraine, received the tapestries as a wedding gift from her grandmother upon her marriage to the Ferdinand de’ Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany. She took them with her to Florence.