PeterPaul Rubens, self portrait
The expansive wall hanging (13’4” tall by 15’9” wide) was part of a six-panel series depicting great hunts commissioned by Queen Mother Marie de ’Medici shortly before her exile from Paris in November 1630 following an unsuccessful plot against Cardinal Richelieu. The work was intended for the apartments in the west wing of the Luxembourg Palace, today the seat of the French Senate.
Two additional copies of the series were also made. One was gifted to Queen Christina of Sweden at her coronation in 1650 and can be found in the collections of Skokloster Castle in Balsta, Sweden. The third is on display at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
However, this tapestry, which resurfaced in auction in Milan in 1964, uniquely features a lavishly decorated border incorporating Corinthian-style columns, floral designs, and the combined coat of arms of House de ’Medici (five circles on a yellow shield) and the French royal family held by two cherubim (or putti in Italian).
Despite being nearly four centuries old, Hunt of Meleager is still resplendent with vibrant colors and remains in good condition, having only received minor repairs in the 19th century. Currently in the private collection of Victor Mashihi, Hunt of Meleager will be presented at a charity auction on September 18-19 at the Coolidge Foundation in Washington DC. Those interested in participating may email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
This exceptional work has not one, but two dramatic stories to tell. The tapestry itself depicts the Greek hero Meleager in his moment of triumph just prior to his tragic fall. The second concerns the woman who commissioned this unique work, Queen Marie de ’Medici, who found time to be a major patron of the arts while raising and later warring with her son King Louis XIII. Hunt of Meleager was commissioned shortly before Marie’s intrigues in Louis’s royal court came to a dramatic conclusion.
The myth of Meleager and the Calydonian Boar
Though allusion to the Calydonian boar hunt can be found in the works of Homer and Stesichorus others, the first complete narrative is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 CE). Calydonian_hunt_Musei_Capitolini_MC917_Photo by Jastrow Public Domain
Meleager was the son of King Oeneus and Queen Althaea of Calydon, located in the mountainous Aetolia region of Greece. Althaea was informed by the Moirai, the three goddesses of Fate, that Althea’s son was doomed to die as soon as the last piece of wood in Althaea’s hearth was consumed. Althaea immediately snatched the tinder from the fire, doused it and secreted it away in a box.
Meleager grew to become a formidable warrior and one of Jason’s famed Argonauts. When the goddess Artemis sent a monstrous boar to terrorize Calydon after King Oeneus forgot to offer sacrifice to her at a festival, the prince decided to hunt down the monster, which Ovid described thusly:
A dreadful boar, his burning, bloodshot eyes seemed coals of living fire, and his rough neck was knotted with stiff muscles, and thick set with bristles like sharp spikes. A seething froth dripped on his shoulders, and his tusks were like the spoils of Ind [India]. Discordant roars reverberated from his hideous jaws; and lightning belched forth from his horrid throat, scorched the green fields.
Meleager assembled an elite band of adventurers, promising the boar’s tusks and hide to its slayer. Amongst the legendary company were Theseus (slayer of the Minotaur), Arcadian Prince Ancaeus, Peleus (father of Achilles), Telemon (father of Ajax the Great), and the maiden Atalanta, a huntress renowned for her skill at archery and devotion to Artemis. Meleager fell in love with Atlanta at first sight despite his marriage to Cleopatra Alcyone. Jan_Fyt_and_Pieter_Thijs_-_Atalanta_and_Meleager_Hunt_the_Calyd…48)Public Domain
The hunters first attempted to trap the vicious boar with nets outside its lair in a forested cave. But the boar fatally gored Ancaeus and escaped. Meleager’s company released hounds and took off in hot pursuit. Atalanta claimed first blood on the beast with an arrow from her bow, giving Meleager the opening to finish off the monstrous creature with his spear.
A triumphant Meleager cut off the boar’s head and decided to bequeath the hide and tusks to Atalanta. But his uncles Toexius and Plexipuss were outraged to see a woman awarded the trophy and snatched it away. An angry Meleager confronted his uncles and in wrath killed them both.
When a despairing Althaea learned that her two brothers had been killed by her son, she cast the last remaining piece of tinder back into the hearth and then took her own life in sorrow. Atalanta held the dying Meleager in her arms as his postponed destiny caught up with him. She then laid the boar’s skin and tusks in a sacred grove in Arcadia in dedication to Artemis. Meleager’s wife Alcyone hung herself, while Meleager’s mourning sisters were turned into guinea fowl by Artemis.
Marie de ’Medici: Queen of Intrigue and Patron of the Arts,
Born in 1575 the daughter of the famous Florentine banking family, Queen Marie de ’Medici carried on her house’s reputation as patrons of the arts following her marriage to French king Henri IV of the House of Bourbon in 1601. Though the marriage was conceived out of Henri’s need for de ’Medici money, Marie went on to recruit artists from across Europe, advancing France’s development into a center for the arts.
After Henri IV’s death by assassination in 1610, Marie became regent for nine-year-old Louis XIII. Over the following years she expanded the Louvre (which served as her residence for a time) and had the Luxembourg Palace built and decorated.
Detail from Coronation of Marie d'Medici in Saint Denis c. 1622 by…ain-Yorck Project
The Italian woman’s regency proved unpopular, however, ultimately leading a young King Louis XIII to overthrow and exile her. Managing to escape imprisonment in 1619, Marie rallied her supporters in a civil war against Louis. Mother and son finally reconciled in 1621 leading to her return to Paris.
Serving on the King’s Council for another decade, Marie de ‘Medici continued her patronage of the arts, but eventually came into conflict with a former political ally, Cardinal Richelieu. On November 10, 1630 she and her conspirators confronted Louis in an attempt to pressure him into dismissing Richelieu. But ultimately it was the Cardinal’s enemies that were overthrown in the aftermath of the appropriately named “Day of the Dupes.”
Louis persuaded his mother to retire to the Château de Compiègne, from whence she was allowed to flee custody to Spanish-occupied Brussels in July 1731—an act which finally brought an end to her influence over French politics.
Over the next decade the exiled Marie traveled from court to court across Europe. Finally, she moved to Cologne to reside in a house loaned by her favorite artist, Peter-Paul Rubens, but fell ill with pleurisy and died there in 1642. Marie de ’Medici was buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis in France the following year, her heart removed and entombed separately beside her husband in La Flèche.Written by Sebastien Roblin