Cordula van Wyhe has provided an informative and persuasive critical introduction to the facsimile edition of a relatively unknown but important emblem book: Portraicts des SS Vertus de la Vierge contemplées par feue S.A.S.M. Isabelle Clere Eugenie Infante d’Espagne. Written by Jean Terrier, it was published in 1635 in a village near Besanon, the capital of the Habsburg domain of the Franche-Comté. The title-page accurately conveys the emphasis of the contents. Each of the thirty-four full-page illustrations honors Mary and also includes an image of the late governess of the Spanish Netherlands, Archduchess Isabella, usually with her ladies-in-waiting. Each of the poems in French praises Mary and then the Archduchess. Only the short Latin inscriptions (‘lemma’ and ‘subscriptio’) accompanying each illustration refer just to the Virgin. Because the Archduchess died in 1633 while publication was still in process, the Portraicts served as a memorial that eulogized her virtues and as a welcome to the new head of state, her nephew Cardinal Infante Ferdinand.
In the 35-page introduction, Van Wyhe convincingly discusses the publication’s multilayered meanings that had various functions. Two additional functions might be added to those that she covers, as will be discussed below. Van Wyhe divides the material into five sections, with the first focused on the Archuchess’ political strategies. As usual in Habsburg affairs, politics and religion intertwine, and Van Wyhe interpets the emphasis on the Archduchess’ exemplary piety as a legitimization of her God-given rule and an expression of her ideal motherly leadership. Her opponents included not only the ‘rebels in the North,’ as the poem explicitly mentions, but also since 1631 a conspiracy by some of her own nobility who wanted to separate from the Habsburgs.
In the second section Van Wyhe turns to the litany on which the emblems were based, namely Litaniae B. Mariae virginig ex Scriptura sacra. She discusses its relationship to the theological positions defended by the Habsburgs, especially the Immaculate Conception, and examines the political usefulness of the close relationship between this more illustratable litany and the better known litany of Our Lady of Loreto. In her politically precarious position, the Archduchess needed the strengthening association with Our Lady of Loreto, the ‘generalissima’ of the Habsburg forces and protectress of the House of Habsburg.
The third section reconstructs the network of relationships between the Habsburg court in Brussels and the publishing house of Jean Vernier with its circle of associates. Foremost among them was Philippe Chifflet, the Archduchess’ chaplain who came from the Franche-Comté. Van Wyhe convincingly connects the emphasis of the Portraicts to the religious and social interests of Chifflet. The emblem book emphasizes the same topics as his projected biography of the Infanta and also promoted the cult of Our Lady of Bellefontaine of which he was both prior and seigneur. In addition, I wonder if the Portraicts did not carry a broader political message relevant to its place of publication. Since the sixteenth century, but especially with the 1630s, France made moves to regain possession of the Franche-Comté from the Spanish Habsburgs. Richelieu did not invade until 1635, but fear of such an invasion hung in the air during the production of the Portraicts. According to Van Wyhe, the flags pictured in the fourth and fourteenth emblems feature the Lion of Brabant and Flanders and the fleur-de-lis of Valois – but does a prominent flag with a rearing lion on a field covered with slim rectangles (bilettes) not represent the Franche-Comté? This would be an explicit reaffirmation of the Franche-Comté’s loyalty to the Habsburgs, who granted the domain more autonomy than would the French.
Van Wyhe interprets the ladies-in-waiting, the topic of her fourth section, as serving several functions. Since Isabella wears the austere religious habit that became her standard attire in widowhood, the splendor of her ladies conveys her political magnificence. Also, well governed households symbolized a well-governed state, and Isabella’s court had the reputation of being run like a convent. Thus the ladies-in-waiting represent the Archduchess’ well-led subjects. Furthermore, because they hold political flags in two of the emblems, they verge on becoming personifications of provinces and domains.
The emblem book, I suggest, may have carried a more topical message for the court ladies. In 1631 the courtiers who accompanied the royal French exiles, Maria de Medici and her younger son, Gaston de Orleans, introduced a worldlier atmosphere into the court life in Brussels. Amidst this influx of distracting courtiers, some court women might have needed fresh encouragement to follow Isabella’s devout example. In his dual role as the Archduchess’ chaplain and advisor to the Vivier publishing house, Thiery may have hoped the Portraictswould provide such inspiration. As Van Wyhe points out, two chapters in his projected biography of the Archduchess dealt with the ladies-in-waiting.
The final section focuses on the presentation of the Infanta as a courageous moral warrior in both spiritual and political matters. Her heroic persona is vividly presented in the thirty-third emblem in which she follows Mary in leading a female army against the infernal host.
Why Vernier published this unique emblem book in a small edition might be explained by its intended audience. According to Cordula van Wyhe, copies were owned by the citizens of Besanon and courtiers in Brussels. To me this suggests its religious and political messages may have been targeted primarily at readers in these two political centers, the Habsburg court in the Southern Netherlands and the capital of the Franche-Comté.
This excellent introduction to the Portraicts ends with the useful addition of indexes of subjects and motifs, which could be more inclusive, however (e.g. ‘tree’ and ‘lamp’ are unlisted). Two appendices include a translation of the Latin inscriptions that accompany the images and a chronological list of the ladies-in-waiting who entered reformed convents. The latter must be a by-product of Cordula van Wyhe’s research on the reformed convents, which, I hope, will be the subject of her next publication.
Zirka Zaremba Filipczak