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Agnès Sorel: trendsetting Madonna

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Schilderij Madonna omringd door serafijnen en cherubijnen van Jean Fouquet

International Women’s Day: what better moment to shine the spotlight on one of our great heroines? We’re talking about Agnès Sorel, of course, the woman behind Jean Fouquet’s Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim. A leading lady with a life worthy of a history painting.

Trendsetter with décolleté

Agnès Sorel had it all. She was beautiful, clever, fashion-conscious and powerful. In 1444, Charles VII – France’s insipid king – took one look at the 22-year-old Agnès and decided she was the woman for him. As for Agnès, she knew what she had and how to use it. Not least a full bosom. And if you’ve got it, you need to flaunt it if you want to keep the king’s attention. As a true trendsetter, Agnès did away with the respectable neckline. She introduced bare shoulders and a décolleté worthy of Jennifer Lopez. From time to time, she ‘forgot’ to do up her top, resulting in the occasional ‘Nipplegate’. As ever when it comes to bare flesh, you have supporters and opponents. Although the haters seem to have been bothered most about the monster of a diamond Agnès wore around her neck. Only queens were supposed to wear stones like that! Not some girl from the minor nobility!

Woman behind the throne

Charles VII gave Agnès the Château de Loches, where Joan of Arc urged him to claim his throne. The French succession was a mess at that point. Pretty depressing for the king. Especially with the English still running amok.

Portret van Karel VII van Jean Fouquet uit de collectie van het Louvre
Charles VII (1403–1461) by Jean Fouquet, Louvre

Agnès Sorel was the lover of King Charles VII of France

Agnès helped the king find his backbone. She encouraged him to restore order to his kingdom and his finances, and to rejoin the conflict against England. As for Agnès, she got to sit alongside the king in the throne room. First Concubine, as it were. Agnès was certainly no shrinking violet: she set the fashion in that respect too. From that time on, the mistresses of French kings were often a lot more high-profile and influential.

As beautiful as Mary

Not everyone appreciated her political influence. But one thing wasn’t in dispute: Agnès was far and away the most beautiful woman in France. In Europe, even. And that’s how Jean Fouquet painted her around 1452. As the breast-feeding Madonna, Sorel was able to embody the prevailing ideal of beauty. Women wanted to be as beautiful as Mary. And Agnès was that all right, with her long neck and whitest of white skin. Barely any eyebrows and an epilated hairline. Fouquet broke with tradition to paint Mary as a sensual and fashionable woman. Jesus seems totally uninterested in her breast, and Mary is not really encouraging him to suckle. Is this Madonna really a model of maternal love? Or a tribute to La belle Agnès?

As the breast-feeding Madonna, Sorel was able to embody the prevailing ideal of beauty. Women wanted to be as beautiful as Mary. And Agnès was that all right.

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Murder or accident?

Agnès was pregnant with her fourth daughter by her lover when she travelled to the Jumièges battlefield in 1450 to support the king. She gave birth there, but mother and daughter died suddenly. In 2005, a forensic team investigated Agnès’ bones and detected enough mercury in them to kill ten people. Did it come from a medicine on which she accidentally overdosed? Or was Agnès murdered? Perhaps by the heir to the throne, Louis XI? He certainly detested her.

 

And yet it’s Agnès we remember. A feisty superheroine. And the subject of one of the most beautiful French paintings ever.