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Pia de SolenniDecember 14, 2023
“Portrait of Duchesse d’Aiguillon

I have been struck at various times by how women are represented in church art of previous eras—strong, intelligent, virtuous—versus recent centuries’ banal, somewhat one-dimensional depictions of women. Art both inspires and is inspired by ideas. The banal can go a long way in helping one to understand the responses of various types of feminism. It seems like we lost something along the way.

La Duchesse by Bronwen McShea

Pegasus Books
480p $28.95

Bronwen McShea’s recent book La Duchesse chronicles the life of Marie de Vignerot, the niece, protégé and heiress of Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu, an ordained cleric and a cardinal—and a controversial figure in French and church history—served as chief minister to King Louis XIII in the 17th century. Up until now, his niece’s dynamic life, if acknowledged at all, was cast as the narrative of a pious wealthy widow who gave money to people like St. Vincent de Paul, one of the most popular saints in the Catholic Church. She and St. Vincent were close friends and collaborators who often disagreed—as only good friends can. McShea suggests that de Vignerot may have been a determining force in helping St. Vincent become a great saint. After looking at the evidence provided by McShea, it is hard to see otherwise; the passive, meek narrative for de Vignerot falls apart.

McShea writes about a prominent Catholic figure in the manner of a true scholar: She is looking for the truth. If you want hagiography, look elsewhere. Here is the story of a woman who loved someone she was not allowed to marry and instead married someone her uncle insisted upon, which was not uncommon in those days. After a few years of what appeared to be an unsatisfying marriage, her husband died and she tried religious life. Again, her uncle intervened and brought her into his home, taking her on as his protégé. A prayerful person, she was at ease both in the convent and in courtly society, embracing the arts, fashion and—most importantly—politics.

McShea writes about a prominent Catholic figure in the manner of a true scholar: She is looking for the truth. If you want hagiography, look elsewhere.

We see her come into her own as she refuses many offers of marriage, including one from her first love, who pursues her again once her husband dies. We also see evidence of her deep faith, even as she falls in love with a cardinal who is not an ordained cleric and who might have been cheating on her. After his death and the death of her uncle, she steps fully into a remarkable role where, not unlike her uncle, she sees no conflict between the interests of the Catholic Church and France.

De Vignerot’s support for missions in the Americas, Africa and Asia all seem sincerely motivated by a deep faith, based on the evidence provided by McShea. At other times, they also seem motivated by a desire to expand or secure the power of France by means of the church.

She leads an effort to have Pope Alexander VII declare four new missionary dioceses, all of which would be controlled by France. The Vatican, still controlling the Papal States, shares with France the desire to restrain the influence of Spain and Portugal as economic powers; those two empires happened to be dominating the church’s missionary areas, not to mention parts of European trade routes as well.

As peers, the cardinal, and then his niece, shared special powers with the king. To readers of our era, this comes across as absurd elitism and underscores the fact that political systems tend to be works in progress.

Rather than simply a patron, de Vignerot comes across as an extremely capable C.E.O. She maneuvers in the political world while at the same time trying to unite her faith to her secular activities. At times, it is hard to tell which is her priority, but it’s also hard to think of very many other leaders, clerical or lay, who have worked so diligently to incorporate their faith into the highest levels of governance. Most impressively, de Vignerot does this all at a time when a woman cannot hold political office.

The evidence suggests that Marie de Vignerot did not allow her failings or imperfections to separate her from God, a lesson we can all use.

I was struck by McShea’s mention of the “Great Man tradition of historical scholarship,” which she notes “obscured the stories of some truly great women,” not just Marie de Vignerot. This makes me wonder how much inspiration this historical censorship has cost us. McShea’s book covers a particular historical period tremendously well, including research that has not been published before. It will likely serve as a substantial resource for scholars researching many key figures whose lives overlapped with that of the duchess.

However, I do wish she had explored the “Great Man tradition” a bit more because it could explain a lot about the Catholic and secular culture that subsequent centuries and generations have inherited. The art of bygone eras communicates a strength in women that has been hidden for several centuries. McShea’s book only strengthens my belief that we have a lot to recover before we can move forward.

McShea tells the countess’s story on the basis of historical evidence. There is so much of it that there is little need for conjecture. In the end, we come to know a woman who may very well have been a saint, one who had a major impact on France and the presence of the Catholic faith in missionary lands.

De Vignerot’s motivations seem to have been mixed at times, and she worked in a system that was far from perfect. But as many great saints have reminded us, the saint is not the perfect person of hagiographies; the saint is the person who gets up again and again. The evidence suggests that Marie de Vignerot did not allow her failings or imperfections to separate her from God, a lesson we can all use.

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