If you could, would you ever take a selfie of you and Jesus? If you did, would you do it for personal reasons? Or would you do it to try to manipulate others into thinking better of you? These are questions which come to mind following the rediscovery of a work of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, particularly as we get closer to election day here in the States.
Our story kicks off with this 16th century portrait of King Henri III of France, the recovery of which was announced yesterday. The painting had been in The Louvre in Paris, but went missing during World War II. The story of how it was found, as detailed in the article, is quite a remarkable one, and demonstrates just how important the online community can be for finding lost works of art.
From the point of view of what the media presently refers to as “optics”, the idea of painting the portrait of your country’s leader at the foot of the Cross, when he lived centuries after the time of Christ, may seem particularly odd. However if one takes a look at the rather calamitous times in which Henri reigned, one can see that the image serves a particular purpose. Just as today a politician might go to a factory and roll up his shirtsleeves for a photo-op with the workers before slipping back into his limousine, so, too Henri needed to convince his kingdom that he was a good Catholic, albeit in a manner which may seem foreign to us today.
In Western art history there is a long-standing tradition of portraying contemporary persons who paid for a work of art alongside Biblical figures. Art historians refer to these people as “donors”. Sometimes the identity of a donor is well-known as a result of documentation or the existence of other known images of the person, but sometimes they remain anonymous, unknown to us a result of the passage of time and the loss of records.
Originally, most of these “donors” were sized much smaller than the holy person being portrayed, as we can see in this example from about 1386. Over time however, the donor grew to be equal in size to the saintly individuals shown in the art. Eventually the donor became part of the action, as it were, such as in being presented to Jesus Himself. Oftentimes this inclusion in the scene was meant to demonstrate the personal piety of the donor, but sometimes the donor was just as much – if not more – interested in propaganda as they were in prayer.
As it happens, Henri III himself was not very saintly in his personal life, even though he liked to put on a show of pious devotions. He managed not only to offend many Protestants with his loose living, but to alienate his fellow Catholics to the point that they formed an armed league to dethrone him. After having to flee Paris when the people turned on him, he tricked his chief rival, the fiercely Catholic and hugely popular Duke of Guise, as well as the Duke’s brother Cardinal Louis of Guise, Archbishop of Reims, into coming to see him at the Chateau of Blos; ironically, this is where the researcher who rediscovered the lost painting currently works. Henri then had the two brothers murdered by the royal guards.
For his actions Henri was publicly condemned in Parliament but never tried. He continued trying to mount a military campaign to take back the capital, plotting his return to power by manipulating both potential Catholic and Protestant supporters to shore up his failing rule. A year after assassinating the Duke and the Cardinal, Henri himself was assassinated by a fanatical Dominican friar, who had been egged on by the Duke’s widow. In the end, Henri’s efforts came to nothing, and the throne passed from his family to that of his Protestant cousin Henri of Navarre, who converted to Catholicism and placed the House of Bourbon on the throne until the French Revolution.
When we see images today of politicians attempting to manipulate us into thinking that they are just like us, such efforts are not new. By appealing to what they believe the average person wants to see, our contemporary leaders are simply following in a long tradition that stretches back through centuries of Western culture. The form of the media may have changed from painting and sculpture to videos and tweets, but the thinking behind these efforts is still very much the same.
Thus, the rediscovery of this painting is not only important for historians, it’s also a great opportunity to remind ourselves that the use of popular, and even religious imagery for political ends will likely always be a part of the media landscape.