Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Margaret of Navarre (1492-1549) 

Circle of Francois Clouet 

Portrait of Margaret of Navarre (1492-1549), Circle of Francois Clouet
Oil on Panel
16th Century
11 ¾ x 9 inches, 30 x 23 cm
Margaret of Navarre was one of the leading French intellectuals of the sixteenth century. She has been hailed by French historians as the ‘Mother of the French Renaissance’, for her role in protecting and promoting France’s finest authors and reformers. And as an author herself, she is best known for her collection of novellas, the Heptameron, a series of stories exposing the contradictions of human nature based on Boccaccio’s Decameron. This mid-sixteenth century portrait derives from a life drawing by Francois Clouet [Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris], and shows Margaret in the black dress she habitually wore after the death of her son, Jean, in 1530.

As the older sister of King Francis I, Margaret was always bound to play a prominent part at the French court. Indeed, at one point she became so involved in the diplomatic negotiations between France and Spain that the Treaty of Cambrai (1529) came to be known as the ‘Ladies’ Peace’. But few could have predicted the extent to which she also shaped the cultural direction of France as a whole. Educated in all European languages, as well as Greek and Hebrew, Margaret established her own court of intellects, patronising artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, and writers such as Francois Rabelais.

Because many of those who enjoyed Margaret’s protection were religious reformers, such as the evangelist Bishop of Meaux, Margaret was herself suspected of being hostile to the Catholic Church. Her ‘Miroir de l’Ame Pecheresse’, a reformist devotional poem later translated by Elizabeth I of England, earned the censure of the Sorbonne, and an accusation of heresy. But Margaret was no Protestant, and merely sought to reform the worst elements of the Church from within.

In fact, Margaret’s reformist tendencies were manifest more practically in the she changes introduced to the many monasteries and convents that she supported (removing, for example, incompetent or overly dogmatic abbots), and the series of social projects in which she engaged as Queen of Navarre, a title she held after her marriage in 1527 to Henry d’Albret. She built hospitals, dispensed charity, and funded public works for the benefit of the poor. Margaret’s greatest legacy came perhaps through her grandson, Henry of Navarre, later Henry IV of France, for it was he who finally introduced tolerance and protection for French Huguenots through the Edict of Nantes.

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