In the 1550s, France was divided along stark religious lines, with traditional Catholicism on the one side, and the Protestantism of John Calvin and the Huguenots on the other. After the death of Henri II in a jousting tournament in 1559 and the passing of the throne to the fifteen-year-old François II, religious divisions exploded into armed conflict despite appeals for tolerance made by the king’s widow, Catherine de’ Medici (now France’s regent), and the chancellor, Michel de l’Hospital. “Faces of the Wars of Religion,” assembled by Mathieu Deldicque, the chief curator of the Musée Condé at the Château de Chantilly, employs the museum’s large collection of pictures by François Clouet (ca. 1515–72) to illustrate this gruesome chapter in French history.1 These paintings and sketches—many of them portraits of French royalty and nobility (some of whom turned Huguenot)—and other documents were collected by the château’s nineteenth-century owner, Henri d’Orléans, duc d’Aumale. Aumale, who upon his death in 1897 left the château and its treasured collection to the Institut de France, belonged to the Romantic generation fascinated by the Wars of Religion, the name introduced in 1856 by the historian Jules Michelet to describe the series of conflicts in the sixteenth century.

The studio of François Clouet, Louis I de Bourbon, the first prince of Condé (1530–69), Oil on canvas, Musée Condé.

An earlier owner of the Château de Chantilly, Louis I de Bourbon, the first prince of Condé (1530–69), was a leader of the Huguenots together with the Coligny brothers: Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, seigneur de Châtillon (1519–72); Odet de Coligny, cardinal de Châtillon (1517–71); and François de Coligny, seigneur d’Andelot (1521–69). In addition to portraits of Châtillon and Andelot, we see a portrait of Condé, alert yet somber, in military uniform and painted by François Clouet’s studio (ca. 1565). In 1555, Jeanne d’Albret (1528–72), a Calvinist convert, niece of François I, and daughter of the queen of Navarre, Marguerite de Valois-Angoulême, became the queen of that small, independent kingdom. She set Navarre on a path to support the Huguenot camp. Her son by Antoine de Bourbon, the brother of Condé, was Henri de Navarre (1553–1610), who, as a Protestant, led the Huguenots in the Wars of Religion until he was obliged to convert to Catholicism to become Henri IV de France. 

François Clouet, Odet de Coligny, cardinal de Châtillon (1517–71), 1548, Oil on canvas, Musée Condé.

As in all civil wars, cousins fought and killed each other. Two noble families, the Coligny who led the Huguenots and the Guise who led the Catholics, warred over control of France and the crown. François Clouet painted and limned figures from both sides, his portraits of soon-to-be French Protestants made before his subjects’ conversions. Most of the portraits seen in the exhibition are drawings in sanguine chalk or pencil. An exception is Clouet’s oil painting of Odet de Coligny, done in a style resembling that of Bronzino or Titian. The state portrait shows him in his prime, wearing a cardinal’s red-velvet cap and a cloak of ermine. It was painted in 1548, the year the cardinal traveled to Rome to participate in the conclave naming Pope Paul III’s successor. Two later pictures, a drawing circa 1553 and another oil painting circa 1555–60, show him slightly more gray but not yet converted. “The Protestant cardinal” was a moderate, influenced by Erasmus, and in favor of a “Gallican” Church—somewhat similar to Anglicanism in England—that avoided a break with Rome. He joined the Huguenots in 1562, later than his two brothers, and was excommunicated by the pope in 1563. The next year, he married the beautiful Isabelle d’Hauteville, comtesse de Beauvais (ca. 1530–1611). 

Isabelle was already Châtillon’s mistress, and Protestantism allowed them to marry. We see Isabelle in a red-chalk drawing by Clouet made around the year 1550. She was later a maid of honor in the wedding of Marguerite de France, the daughter of Catherine de’ Medici, and Henri de Navarre. Commissioned by Catherine, the portrait is one of an attractive series of court ladies, a surprising number of whom later converted to Protestantism (Calvin aimed to reach the nobility, especially its women). The cardinal later fled to England, where he died, possibly by poison, in 1571. But for his death, he might have provided France with a conciliatory “third way” between Catholicism and Protestantism. Clouet’s portraits of the court ladies include one of Renée de Rieux, marquise de Nesle, later known as Guyonne, comtesse de Laval (ca. 1524–67). The picture of Guyonne dates from 1547–52, the time of her conversion. A close look reveals the trace of a plunging décolletage that the artist covered with a more austere neckline consummate with her new Calvinist faith.

François Clouet, Isabelle (Isabeau) d’Hauteville, comtesse de Beauvais (ca. 1530–1611), black and red chalk, Musée Condé.

The exhibition also features a drawing of Admiral Gaspard II, count de Coligny and seigneur de Châtillon, in black and red circa 1550–52, also before his conversion to Protestantism. He became the leader of the Huguenots after Condé’s death in battle and dreamed of establishing utopian Protestant colonies in Brazil and Florida, nearly achieving these aims. These fledgling Huguenot colonies were conquered soon after being constructed, in Brazil by Portugal and in Florida by Spain.

Admiral Coligny was blamed for the assassination of the leader of the Guise family, François de Lorraine, duc d’Aumale and later duc de Guise (1519–63). Coligny’s own assassination on August 22, 1572, by a follower of the Guises’ Catholic League, led to the frenzy of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in which numerous Huguenots, many of them in Paris to celebrate the marriage of the Protestant Henri de Navarre to Catherine de’ Medici’s daughter, the Catholic Marguerite de France (later known as the Reine Margot), were killed. Any hope that the marriage would reconcile the two camps disappeared.

Anonymous, French school of the early seventeenth century, Henri IV, King of France (1553–1610), ca. 1610, Red chalk,  Musée Condé. 

The exhibition includes metal fragments said to be from the bell that sounded in the church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, opposite the Louvre, on the night of August 23, announcing the massacre. Children also participated in the bloodshed: Portrait of a Young Boy under the League (ca. 1580), by the Edinburgh-born artist François Quesnel (ca. 1543–1616), shows a cherubic, dedicated child executioner. Clouet drew the duc de Guise (earlier referred to as François de Lorraine, duc d’Aumale), around 1547, when he was a favorite of Henri II. Guise’s influence declined when Charles IX (1550–74) became king in 1560, though he remained powerful until his violent assassination in 1563. His brother, Charles, cardinal de Guise, then cardinal de Lorraine (1524–74), was drawn by Clouet around the year 1550, when the cardinal was thirty-five. After his brother’s death, Charles succeeded him as the head of the Catholic League in France, though Catherine de’ Medici, fearful of his zeal, tried to distance him from court. Twenty years of conflict later, alarmed by the League’s challenge to the throne in 1585, Henri III de France ordered the executions of several of the Guises in 1588, an event that led to his own murder by a monk on August 1, 1589, and the accession of Henri IV, the Protestant-turned-Catholic king who famously quipped that “Paris is well worth a Mass.” Henri IV was known for his common touch, and we see the king in a red-chalk drawing made by an unknown artist circa 1610 with a face showing both his humanity and a certain weariness. He was assassinated shortly after Clouet’s painting of the portrait by another Catholic fanatic.

The exhibition succeeds in illuminating this tragic moment in French history, capturing the likenesses of the nobility, Catholic and later Protestant, in a manner that seems to bring each face back to life. Two related exhibitions, “Antoine Charon (1521–1599): The Theater of History,” at the Musée National de la Renaissance from April 5 to July 3, and “Hatred of the Clans during the Wars of Religion, 1559–1610,” at the Musée de l’Armée, Invalides, from April 5 to July 30, will complement it.

  1.   “Faces of the Wars of Religion” opened at the Musée Condé at the Château de Chantilly, France, on March 4, 2023, and remains on view through May 21, 2023.

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