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Curio

Crowning Achievement

By Steve Moyer | HUMANITIES, January/February 2012 | Volume 33, Number 1

Fifteenth-century French painter Jean Fouquet was a curious artist—curious, that is, in the late Middle Ages take on the word. “Curiosity” in those times could refer simply to interests in décor but had a further connotation relating to the care, say, of the curator. So, for artists depicting scenes from the Bible, this meant painting with such attention, precision, and devotion that they inspired awe in the viewer.

Fouquet painted many scenes, Biblical or otherwise, that inspired awe in the viewer, often with a French twist—inserting a French king, for instance, as one of the wise men in Adoration of the Magi. Other elements of this particular painting are, at first glance, just plain curious. The chateau rising up in the background looks like it’s right out of the Loire Valley, and the pillow and carpet in the foreground, as well as banners in the background, are emblazoned with that most Gallic icon—the fleurs-de-lis.

The representation of the lilies that came to stand as a symbol of the French monarchy by the twelfth century was already in place—it would seem to be the case, at least—at the time of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The fleurs-de-lis were there, too, in a Fouquet painting of Charlemagne’s coronation in 800. Fouquet wasn’t the only French medieval painter to use the regnal symbol so freely, but he was by far the one who used it to greatest effect.

Paging through Erik Inglis’s Jean Fouquet and the Invention of France  (Yale University Press, 2011), one sees that in many different settings—coronations, crusades, courtly activities—the lilies were often present and accounted for. It was a hermit who first received the fleurs-de-lis from an angel descending from heaven. The hermit then passed them on to Clothilde, wife of Clovis, the King of the Franks, who converted to Christianity and ruled Gaul. Clovis in turn received the lilies from Clothilde.This concept of religion royale pervades Fouquet’s work, especially the miniatures that illustrated Grandes Chroniques de France and the Chevalier Hours. As one French dynasty led to another, from Merovingian to Carolingian to Capetian to Valois, religion and royalty were inextricable, with the growing implication that the French were the new chosen ones.

During the Hundred Years’ War, the English, seeing what power the fleurs-de-lis had in France, tried to shore up their claim to the French throne by employing the French symbol on a poster displaying Henry VI’s genealogy. The poster didn’t survive, but mention of it appears on the frontispiece to John Talbot’s Shrewsbury Book. The appropriation of the fleurs-de-lis prompted one miffed Frenchman of the day to lament that the English, uniting genealogy and heraldry so deftly, established their false claims in “the most beautiful and notable books that they could make.”

Inglis’s sumptuously illustrated book on Fouquet, funded in part by a grant from NEH, has much more to say on the painter, plumbing the deep reservoir of his genius—the unifying influence in his work, for instance, of both Flemish and Italian masters—but his hand in creating a French national identity may have been his crowning achievement.