500: Catherine de’ Medici – Patron of the arts and follower of the occult

Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici's tomb at the Basilica of St Denis/Photo by Moniek Bloks

To celebrate the 500th birthday of the formidable Catherine de’ Medici, we will be posting seven articles over the next seven days about her. This is the seventh and last one, and it will focus on Catherine as patron of the arts and follower of the occult.

Read part six here.

Though she married into the House of Valois and became Queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici came from the Florentine Medici family who are remembered for their generous patronage of the arts. On top of this, upon arriving in France, Catherine was part of her father-in-law King Francis I’s court, and Francis too was a keen patron of the arts; filling his court with artists, poets, dancers and the best architects. At a time when the French monarchy was unpopular, Francis aimed to restore a sense of majesty to the royal family and win the love of the people. After Francis died, with her husband Henry on the throne and his mistress Diane involving herself in politics, Catherine thrived in the world of the arts, astrology and the occult. Catherine’s thirty-year programme of artistic patronage significantly contributed to the French Renaissance and has left behind influences even today.

Francis II by Francois Clouet (public domain)

In 1559, Catherine de’ Medici was a widow and Queen Regent for her son King Francis II; it is here that we see art flourishing at her court. Catherine had Italian artists brought over to her court at first, but over time French talent was nourished by the visiting Italians, and a distinctive style emerged. In this period the focus was mainly on courtly portrait drawings rather than paintings. The Queen Mother loved to have portraits drawn and had many of each of her children commissioned by artists such as Jean and François Clouet and Jean Decourt. As well as images of her children, friends and courtiers, Catherine often had portraits of other monarchs and royals commissioned for her own collections including drawings of Queen Elizabeth I of England.

As well as commissioning drawings and paintings and having extensive building works carried out, Catherine also loved to collect art. She collected paintings, tapestries, furniture, pottery, embroidery and selections of odd curiosities such as stuffed animals. It is clear that she wished to leave her collections behind after her death, but because of the costs of acquiring such extensive art collections and the country being heavily in debt, most of Catherine’s collections were sold on after she died. Despite her heavy investment in French artistic talent, with the end of the Valois dynasty upon the death of her son King Henry III, quality of French artistry began to decline. By the 1600s, Bourbon France was once again relying on foreign artists.

Some aspects of Catherine de’ Medici’s artistic influence have lived on however; her art collections can now be viewed around the world in museums, galleries and palaces. Catherine also loved to invest in buildings, and although her most famous creation the Tuileries no longer exists, we can feel her presence in places she loved and made changes to such as Fontainebleau which Catherine had decorated with murals by Francesco Primaticcio. We can also still see sculptures commissioned by Catherine such as one by Germain Pilon which contains Henry II’s heart and another magnificent tomb for her husband at Saint-Denis.

Finally, aside from material items which we can still see today, there is another aspect of the arts which was changed by Catherine de Medici, and that is ballet. Catherine often put on extravagant court festivals with performances including music, poetry and dance. Catherine would host amazing shows whether it was for the day to day entertainment or to celebrate something like a family marriage. These occasions spared no expense, the music, stage decoration, costumes and choreography were all the best that was available and with this Catherine set a trend which French monarchs would aim to replicate time and time again. Catherine realised that in order to keep the nobility on her side and to display the glory of the house of Valois, she must show this through pageantry.

Ballet de Cour (public domain)

Catherine became known for her ‘magnificances’ which would last for days, often based around themes of mythology and peace. Some of the dances performed at these events were extremely well planned out and contained hundreds of dancers. Over time an art form called the ‘ballet de cour’ developed at Catherine’s court which was rooted in Italian tradition. In 1581 what is often cited as the first true ballet was performed by the ladies of the court, The Ballet Comique de la Reine was created for the engagement of Louise of Lorraine’s sister to the Duke of Joyeuse. This art form continued to develop as ballet at the French court and as the Masque in England and even today ballet is rooted in these early court performances patronised by Catherine de’ Medici.

Aside from her artistic interests, Catherine is often remembered for her obsession with all things occult. At a time when many people were deeply religious and superstitious, it is understandable that Catherine would turn to astrologists and mystics to try to predict the future of her family. With her husband and sons dying one after another, Catherine became somewhat paranoid and surrounded herself with mystics as well as her ‘flying squadron’ of female spies to keep her safe and informed of all that went on at court.

Catherine became obsessed with a need to see her own destiny and protect her family once her husband became king. The seeds of this obsession may have been sown when Catherine turned to spells and various potions in order to fall pregnant with her first child.

After hearing from an Italian astrologer called Gaurico in 1552 that her husband would die in a duel, Catherine began to turn to astrologers and clairvoyants all of the time. Before making important decisions, she often had to consult the stars, and in 1555, she invited the famed mystic Nostradamus to live at court. Over time Catherine began to rely on Nostradamus, who predicted that three of Catherine’s sons would be king; upon hearing this Catherine would have known the death and disaster her family would face in the following years.

In 1574, Catherine even an observation tower built for her astrologer Cosme Ruggieri which can still be seen today opposite the Rue de Louvre. After hearing one prediction by Ruggieri that she would die at Saint Germain, Catherine would spend little time there and even had a new palace constructed.

Nostradamus (public domain)

Despite her uncle having been a pope and being Queen mother of a Catholic country, Catherine lived her life surrounded by aspects of the occult. Aside from her reliance on mystics and astrologers, Catherine was also said to have had a fondness for poisons and potions and was even accused of murdering many people included Jeanne D’albret the Queen of Navarre with poisoned gloves! The Queen mother is also said to have practised black magic and stabbed wax figurines of her enemies. Catherine was believed to have possessed a purifying fountain, magic mirrors, amulets and books on magic and the occult which she used in her day to day life.

Though it is hard to tell how much of this information is true and many rumours were certainly made up to blacken Catherine’s name, there is also much evidence to prove that Catherine was a follower of the occult. We do know for certain that she employed mystics, created potions and wore certain protective symbols.

Aside from being the Queen of France and the regent for three kings, Catherine de Medici has left her own mark on history. In the world of the arts, we can still see Catherine’s influence on Renaissance artwork, architecture and her lasting effect on ballet. In the world of the occult, we can see her reliance on astrology and magic which has often lead to negative stories about her throughout history. These aspects of Catherine’s life help us to see more of her personal interests and character and show how remarkable she was in her own right and as a patron.1

  1. Sources-

    Catherine de’ Medici the royal bibliophile- Bernard Clark Weber
    Catherine de’ Medici- Leonie Frieda
    Catherine de’ Medici- Robert Knecht


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.