An inveterate rebellion: Cardinal de Retz

An inveterate rebellion: Cardinal de Retz

© RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / Gérard Blot

Publication date: June 2018

Academy Inspector Deputy Academic Director

Historical context

Burn a prince of the Church

Gilles Rousselet (1610-1686) is an illustrious representative of the world of engravers of the Grand Siècle. Other engravers participated in the multiplication of the portrait of Gondi in the mid-17th centurye century, thus contributing to spreading a popularized image of the Parisian prelate (Michel Lasne, Robert Nanteuil, Claude Mellan, Grégoire Huret, Jean Morin, etc.).

The rich engraving which represents Gondi with two of his parents is inspired by the painter Sébastien Bourdon (1616-1671). Indeed, Gondi appears without bar on the head; He was therefore probably not yet elevated to the dignity of cardinal at that time - which he became in February 1652.

Image Analysis

The staging of the transmission

The engraving is constructed according to a reading direction which goes back over time. Two groups stand out from left to right. On the left, the medallion representing Jean-François Paul de Gondi is worn by three young admirers. On the right, the medallions of the portraits of Henri de Gondi and Jean-François de Gondi are respectively supported, one by two difficult to identify women, the other by an allegory of martyrdom holding a palm and by an allegory of authority holding a bundle of ancient lictor.

The trumpet carried by Fame - which establishes the link between the two parts of the engraving - proclaims the virtues of Gondi to his predecessors, as if it were to sing the praises of the young prelate to his illustrious ancestors. Filiation relationships are thus symbolically reversed: glory goes back in time to reflect on the kinship of the young mitred prodigy. Gondi's two uncles, Henri, bishop of Paris from 1598 to 1622 and first cardinal de Retz in 1618 (top), and Jean-François, archbishop of Paris from 1622 to 1654 (bottom), appear as two legitimizing figures of the ecclesiastical authority of young Gondi. At the feet of Jean-François, the plan of a church perhaps refers to the inauguration of the churches of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont and Saint-Eustache in Paris during his prelature. However, the judgment that his nephew will leave of him in his Memoirs is particularly unflattering.

Gondi is admired by a helmeted Minerva. The instruments of the measurement of the world (the surveyor's tools in the lower left corner, ancient architectural elements forming a disparate but grandiose decoration) mark the pretensions of the Parisian prelate to apprehend the world by reason and by science, to put the practice of virtues at the service of his social, ecclesiastical and political ascension. The animals symbolize the intersection at which Gondi places himself, between fidelity to an episcopal lineage (the dog) and the personal glory acquired by his own elevation (the eagle).


The portrait of an inveterate slinger

Gilles Rousselet stages the filiation between Cardinal de Retz and his two predecessors on the episcopal see of Paris. Coming from an influential family of Florentine origin settled in France since the previous century and strongly linked to the Catholic revival in France, Jean-François Paul de Gondi inherits the archdiocese of Paris. His parents (ascendants and collaterals) accumulate prestigious offices (Marshal of France, General of the galleys, cardinal). In the family since 1568, the bishopric then the archbishopric (after 1622) of Paris is successively occupied by the great-uncle of Cardinal de Retz, Pierre de Gondi, then by two of his uncles, whom Rousselet represents here. Born in 1613, Gondi entered his ecclesiastical career with brio, without however renouncing gallant adventures. He became coadjutor of his uncle the Archbishop of Paris in 1643, that is to say both his deputy and his designated successor. It was in this post that he passionately enlisted in the Fronde from 1648, fueled by fierce opposition to Cardinal Mazarin. One of the linchpins of the Fronde, he negotiated his own access to the cardinalate as the price of his rallying to the king. The latter will not forgive him for his tumultuous and opportunist attitude during the years of the Fronde. Rousselet's engraving thus participates in the enterprise of glorification orchestrated around the figure of the coadjutor of Paris. Gondi was promoted to cardinal in February 1622 and failed to contain his claims as royal power emerged from the civil war. His arrest by order of the king on December 19, 1652 put an end to his political and social influence. After a period of incarceration, he was forced into exile and wandering, while trying to re-establish his influence in Paris. Finally, by agreeing to renounce the archiepiscopal see of Paris in 1662, he can return to France, where he turns to good works and to retrospective writing of himself, his Memoirs, written from 1675 to 1677, allowing him to access posthumous glory.

An eminent figure of the “mad freedom of the baroque”, to use the expression of J.-M. Constant, “Retz was at the same time an orator, a pamphleteer and a conversationalist, a dignitary of the Church, a seducer, a negotiator and a conspirator ”(M. Stefanovska).

  • Church
  • Mazarin (cardinal of)
  • Louis XIV
  • Great Century
  • Paris
  • Sling


Simone BERTIERE, The Life of Cardinal de Retz, Éditions de Fallois, 2008 [1990].

Véronique MEYER, The engraved work of Gilles Rousselet, Parisian engraver of the 17th century, Commission of historical works of the city of Paris, Paris, 2004.

Cardinal of RETZ, Works, Library of the Pléiade, Gallimard, 1984.

Malina STEFANOVSKA, "Seeing yourself through the other: Retz judge of Gondi", in Writing history, 6 | 2010, pp. 115-124.

To cite this article

Jean HUBAC, "An inveterate rebellion: Cardinal de Retz"

Video: Humes Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Ss1-2