Picturing Europe – by Ellen R. Welch

A surprisingly optimistic portrait of European unity graced newspapers earlier this month: a beaming Angela Merkel shaking hands with the newly elected Emmanuel Macron. The French, German, and European Union flags behind them signaled clearly that their embrace represented not only a bilateral partnership but the basis of continental stability. Post-Brexit and the threat of Grexit, with borders hardening against waves of refugees, questions about the composition and identity of Europe have preoccupied international politics with increasing urgency over the past year. Viewed from a longer historical vantage point, this current identity crisis, though certainly serious, is nothing new. Among the many renovations the idea of Europe has undergone since antiquity, the evolution that occurred in the early modern period remains one of the most enduringly significant, as the medieval ideal of Christendom gave way to a conception of Europe as a “society of states” or “concert of nations.”[1] Less a structural realignment than a change in the dominant mode of imagining and representing the international political community, the vision of Europe that emerged in the second half of the seventeenth century into the eighteenth century shapes political discourse even today, as the recent photoshoot in Berlin attests. Then as now, the imagery of European identity treads a line between depicting union among distinct parties and representing an all-embracing abstract ideal of “Europeanness.” As the continent renews its symbolism in response to today’s challenges, it may be interesting to look back at how the iconography of the European community developed and evolved in the early modern era.

In fact, images played an important, if often unexamined, role in forging a new conception of a collective European identity starting in the mid-seventeenth century.[2] In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, visual allegories of Europe appeared almost exclusively in representations of the “Four Parts of the World” or “Four Continents,” where its essential characteristics came into focus through contrast with those of Asia, Africa, and America. Cesare Ripa’s Iconography provided the model for many allegorical representations of the continents throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Fig. 1). The regal figure of Europe in her papal crown, accompanied by a valiant horse and a wise owl, sits among symbols of cultural accomplishment and wealth—books, arms, horns of plenty, and a miniature Grecian temple—signifying the continent’s status as the “principal part of the world” renowned for “religion, arts, and arms.”[3] Distinguished from the natural and luxurious imagery of the rival continents, the figure projects a civilizational ideal rooted in Classicism and Christianity, the twin traditions that defined membership in the early modern European community.

Fig. 1. “Europa” in Cesare Ripa, Della novissime iconologie (Padova, per Pietro Paolo Tozzi, 1625), 438. Photo courtesy of the Rare Book Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

The political crisis heralded by the conflicts later known as the Thirty Years’ War inspired creative reinventions of European imagery, particularly in court spectacles and theater. At the French court especially, allegorical ballets reconceived international relations through vivid personifications of various “nations” incarnated by dancers whose choreographed routines produced visions of harmonious interaction and continental unity.[4] For example, the Ballet de la félicité, staged at the Saint-Germain palace in March 1639, included a spectacular danced battle in which European nations teamed up to defeat a troupe of Turkish janissaries. The dancers representing Europe wore “mi-party” or “half-and-half” costumes, a different nationality depicted on left and right sides. Seen head-on, the dancers’ costumes visually united warring countries as single, hybrid bodies: Swedish-German, Dutch-Flemish, and most daringly Spanish-French. In the choreographed combat, dancers faced first to the left (as one national character) and then to the right (as the other) to defeat the Ottoman menace. Through inventive redeployment of the stereotypical imagery of nations, the dance staged a powerful new icon of European unity.

Fig. 2. Abraham Bosse, Frontispiece to Europe, comédie héroique (Paris: Henry Legras, 1643). Bibliothèque national de France, Rés QB-201 (37)-FOL, p. 56.

Although most of the images of Europe that emerged from court ballet and theater took the form of such depictions of concerted action, bringing together different national types, one spectacle reconceived the iconography of Europe itself. In 1642, a group of French dramatists in collaboration with Cardinal Richelieu drafted Europe, comédie héroïque (Europe, a Heroic Play), an allegorical drama that transposes the shifting alliances of wartime into a story of romantic rivalry and intrigue.[5] In the play, the courtiers Francion (France) and Ibère (Spain) compete for the affections of their queen, Europe, while characters standing in for Germany, Lorraine, Milan, and Naples complicate the plot. Although the planned performance of Europe never took place—Cardinal Richelieu’s unexpected death abruptly halted rehearsals in November 1642—the text was published in 1643, accompanied by a striking frontispiece signed by the publisher Henry Legras and attributed to Abraham Bosse (Fig. 2).[6] The image is appropriately theatrical, the bottom portion of the frame suggesting a stage. The arrangement of the main characters distills the drama of the play. From the right, tall, haughty Ibère in a Spanish-style ruff approaches Europe. In the shadow of bodies, his right hand holds one end of a metal chain, clutched on the other side by the figure lurking behind him: Germanique, identifiable by the imperial eagles on his hat. Completing the conspiratorial tableau, a female figure representing one of the Italian states crouches in front of Ibère, gripping his thigh, gazing at the spectator and holding a finger to her lips as if to hush us. Europe, her pale face bathed in the light beaming in from the upper left of the image, inclines away from these menacing characters and toward Francion. With a Gallic rooster on his helmet, Roman costume exposing muscular calves, Francion grasps his sword in its hilt, ready to defend his queen.

This dramatic setting distinguishes Bosse’s image of Europe from the iconographical tradition. His figure shares the regal trappings of Ripa’s personification—crown, flowing robes, and royal bearing—although it lacks the symbolic accoutrements that signified “Europeanness” in the icon. Her expression and posture in the context of the dynamic scene, meanwhile, transform Europe from a simple personification into a dramatic, even sentimental, character. In the image, as in the play it illustrates, Europe arouses the desires and chivalric impulses of the courtiers in her entourage. The allegory transforms the history of conflict among European powers into a competition for the heart of this figure. The French artists instrumentalize the image not by displaying an essential similarity between France and Europe or suggesting that France exemplifies the values Europe stands for, but rather by demonstrating that France is the best guardian of sovereign Europe’s interests.[7]

Fig. 3. François Lemoyne, Louis XV giving Peace to Europe, 1729. Oil on canvas. Château de Versailles. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Daniel Arnaudet / Jean Schormans. Image source: RmnGP www.images-art.fr.

The rhetorical power of this courtly reimagining of Europe’s allegory is indicated by its recycling in François Lemoyne’s 1729 painting Louis XV Giving Peace to Europe (Fig. 3), commissioned to hang in the Salon de la Paix in the Queen’s apartments at Versailles.[8] Although less melodramatic than Bosse’s frontispiece, Lemoyne’s tableau similarly stages a chivalrous encounter. In the center of the painting, the king appears in Roman imperial armor, stepping forward to display his strong and shapely legs as he gently extends an olive branch to Europe, who sits regally in blue robes that echo Louis’s billowing paludamentum.[9] If less erotically charged than the image in Bosse’s engraving, this scene retains a sense of France’s gallant solicitude toward queenly Europe.[10] The French king’s role in international politics appears as a form of devoted service to this idealized figure.

In these examples, allegorical iconography not only performs the work of signification, transforming an abstract concept into a recognizable image, but also invests its subject with emotion. Dramatized as a courtly dynamic between a valiant knight and a passive though sovereign queen, the relationship between France and the international community is animated by desire and chivalry, magnanimity and indebtedness. Europe’s evolution from personification to personage in these images infuses the representation of European politics with drama, mobilizing the power of theater to project a new vision of international relations.

Revisited as an unlikely pendant to Lemoyne’s painting, Merkel and Macron’s photo highlights the enduring power of the theatrical gesture in images of international unity. Allegories may hold no sway in contemporary media imagery (unless the German chancellor herself could count as a personification of Europe), but the galvanizing relationship between two figures remains a compelling technique for representing continental cooperation—certainly more persuasive than the flat circle of stars decorating the flag in the background. The modern iconography of alliance relies on a bit of theatricality.

Ellen R. Welch is Associate Professor of French & Francophone Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


[1] On this shift see, among others, Robert Jackson, Classical and Modern Thought on International Relations: From Anarchy to Cosmopolis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 83; Anthony Pagden, The Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center & Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1-32.

[2] See the brief discussion in Pagden, The Idea of Europe, 50-51.

[3] Cesare Ripa, Della novissime iconologie (Padova: per Pietro Paolo Tozzi, 1625), 437-438.

[4] I discuss theater and court spectacle’s contribution to the iconography of Europe in A Theater of Diplomacy: International Relations and the Performing Arts in Early Modern France (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), especially chapters 3 and 4.

[5] Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin, Europe, comédie héroïque (Paris: Henry Legras, 1643). See also the modern edition by Sylvie Taussig (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006). The theater director Christiane Marchewska staged an adaptation of Europe which debuted at the Théâtre du Tambour Royal in Paris in 1999 and has since been performed in the Hôtel Rohan de Soubise/Archives Nationales (2002) and the Musée de l’Armée in the Hôtel national des Invalides (2009).

[6] Inventaire du Fonds Français: Graveurs Du XVIIe Siècle, ed. Maxime Préaud and Roger-Armand Weigert (Paris: Bibliothèque nationale, 1939-), 1: 504 and 10: 53.

[7] A German translation of the play by Georg Philipp Harsdörfoffer, Japeta (Nürnberg: Endter, 1643), replaces Bosse’s frontispiece with an engraving of a rather active personification of Europe astride a bull, a reference to the myth of Europa. See http://diglib.hab.de/drucke/textb-681/start.htm.

[8] Jean-Luc Bordeaux, François Le Moyne and His Generation, 1688-1737 (Neuilly-sur-Seine: Arthena, 1984), 114; Xavier Salmon, François Lemoyne à Versailles (Paris: Gourcuff, 2001), 21-22.

[9] Highlighting the painting’s emphasis on motifs of fertility including its depiction of Louis XV’s infant daughters, Jennifer Germann remarks on the conspicuous absence of Marie Leszczińska, surmising that the queen’s exclusion focused attention on the king’s own fecundity and the hope for an as-yet-unborn male heir. Jennifer Grant Germann, “Fecund Fathers and Missing Mothers: Louis XV, Marie Leszczińska, and the Politics of Royal Parentage in the 1720s,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 36:1 (2007), 105-126. The choice to exclude the queen also influences the way we read the relationship between Louis and Europe, which the presence of the king’s wife might have undermined.

[10] In a 1737 reinterpretation of this scene for a thesis print for the Cardinal de Rohan to be engraved by Laurent Cars, Europe and Louis XV change positions. The king, seated in the center of the composition and surrounded by personifications of Victory and Peace, extends an olive branch to Europe, who approaches his throne. Bordeaux, François Le Moyne and His Generation, 126.


Cite this note as: Ellen R. Welch, “Picturing Europe,” Journal18 (May 2017), https://www.journal18.org/1812

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