Starting in 1683, when she was 48 years old, Madame de Maintenon lived in an unusual and contradictory situation. She was the lawfully wedded wife of the ruling French monarch, King Louis XIV, but she was not the queen. They had been married by the Archbishop of Paris (and the Pope sent congratulations from Rome) but the church insisted that the marriage be kept a secret. Insiders at the royal court in Versailles were more or less in on the secret, as were the rulers of other European countries, but the general public was never informed.
Even some people in Versailles were unsure if they were really married. In 1686 Madame Palatine, a German princess who was married to the King’s brother, wrote to her aunt in Hannover that it was “impossible to know” if they were really married, “but what is certain is that the King has never had for any of his mistresses the passion that he feels for this one. It is a curious thing to see them together. Is she in a place? He can’t wait a quarter of an hour before slipping her a note or whispering something to her, even though he has spent the whole day at her side.”
A month later, the same lady wrote that hardly anyone at Versailles doubted they were married, “but as for me, as long as the thing is not declared publicly, I have trouble believing it because, considering how marriages are arranged over here, if they were married their love would not be as strong.”
As she got older, Madame de Maintenon spent more and more of her time at the school, especially when life at the Royal Court in Versailles got on her nerves. Although the King had no doubt been charming in younger years when he first seduced her, he later turned out to be the same kind of husband as he was a king, namely autocratic, arrogant and self-centered.
After the King’s death in 1715, Madame de Maintenon retired to the school in Saint-Cyr, where she died four years later at age 84. She was buried in the school chapel.
During the French Revolution, in January 1794, her body was exhumed, trampled in the mud and dragged around the halls of the school by a horse, leading to the often-quoted observation that on that day she was finally treated like a queen.
Most of what I know about Madame de Maintenon comes from these two books:
- Jean-Paul Desprat, Madame de Maintenon (biography), Paris 2015
- Françoise Chandernagor, L’allée du Roi (novel with extensive notes), Paris 2006
In the town of Saint-Cyr-l’École there is a shop called Déguisez-nous (meaning “Let us disguise ourselves”) which offers to rent or sell disguises, evening gowns and wedding gowns. I thought this was appropriate because of the lifelong attempts by Madame de Maintenon to manipulate her public image. The preface of Jean-Paul Desprat’s biography is entitled “The masks of Madame de Maintenon”. He quotes her as saying: Je suis née franche, il m’a fallu dissimuler, meaning more or less “I was born free, I had to disguise myself.” In particular, she succeeded (with the help of the Ladies of Saint-Cyr) in constructing “the legend of the beautiful sinner who became the mistress of the King for the sole purpose of assuring the Salvation of his Soul.”
Twenty-first century visitors to Saint-Cyr-l’École, at least those who arrive by train, are greeted by a sculpture of two naked women, one older than the other, located on Place Pierre Semard in front of the railway station.
At first I thought this sculpture might have something to do with the school of Madame de Maintenon, perhaps a teacher and a pupil conversing on some philosophical topic. But it turns out that this is a quite typical work by the French sculptor Charles Gadenne (1925-2012), who specialized in making life-size bronze sculptures of normally-proportioned women, neither idealized nor unnaturally thin nor blatantly erotic.
The only unusual thing about this sculpture in Saint-Cyr is that it shows only two women. Often Gadenne sculpted groups of four or five women, chatting as they might do at a nudist camp where everyone is accustomed to being naked along with everyone else.
Madame de Maintenon would no doubt have disapproved of this sculpture. In her late twenties she was furious when the Marquis of Villarceaux painted a full-length portrait of her in the nude, covered only by a few strategically placed folds of a bedsheet. She denied ever having posed for this portrait, but that would not have been necessary since she and the Marquis were (presumably) lovers for three years, so he knew perfectly well what she looked like.
This nude portrait still exists and is on display in the dining room of the Domaine de Villarceaux near Chaussy. If you would like to see the painting (for purely historical reasons, of course) just click here and scroll down to the first photo. Or click here and scroll down to the sixth photo.
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2017.