Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Queen Elisabeth Musical Competition

Queen Elisabeth of Belgium was a renowned patroness of the arts. She loved anything that uplifted the soul and music was her greatest passion. As her daughter, Marie-José, explains in her memoirs, Elisabeth, like her husband, King Albert I, sought a "noble escape" from the constraints of her royal position. Albert found solace in mountaineering; Elisabeth, in music. She practiced her violin daily and enjoyed playing quartets with other musicians. Sweet strains would echo through Laeken Castle...The great Belgian virtuoso, conductor, and composer, Eugène Ysaye, was one of Elisabeth's violin teachers and close friends. "She plays badly divinely," Ysaye once remarked. Another musical friend, Pablo Casals, commented: "she plays like a Queen."

A fruit of the collaboration between Elisabeth and Ysaye was the Queen Elisabeth International Musical Competition of Belgium. Ysaye's ideas inspired its development. According to one article:
What Ysaÿe wanted was a competition for young virtuosos with extremely broad-ranging programmes that included contemporary music, that brought out the technical and artistic maturity of the candidates and that would launch them on their careers. It was with this in mind that he thought of including an unpublished set work that would be studied in confinement without the help of anyone, least of all a candidate's teacher: the ultimate test.
Unfortunately, Ysaye's death in 1931, shortly after the creation of the Queen Elisabeth Musical Foundation, delayed the establishment of the competition. Only a few years later, the tragic deaths of King Albert and his daughter-in-law, Queen Astrid, plunged Belgium into mourning, and Elisabeth into deep depression, interrupting the project. In 1937, however, the first Ysaye Competition, featuring the violin, took place. It was a splendid success. The luster of Ysaye's name, and the prestige of the Belgian royal family, widely admired for their heroism in World War I, attracted elite performers from many countries. The Soviet school won an overwhelming victory, carrying off all the prizes, with David Oistrakh (not surprisingly!) placing first.

Broadcast on the radio, the Ysaye Competition rapidly became a widely beloved Belgian cultural institution. In 1938, a second competition, devoted to the piano, took place. Again, the Soviet school won a crushing victory, inspiring Elisabeth to found a new musical school in Belgium on the Russian model. With the help of Baron Paul de Launoit, a generous patron, the Queen Elisabeth Musical Chapel was born. The school flourished, markedly improving the training of young Belgian musicians. Unfortunately, however, a series of disasters- World War II, the collapse of the Queen Elisabeth Musical Foundation, and the upheavals of the post-war Royal Question - halted the Ysaye Competitions.

In 1950, the project revived, supported by Queen Elisabeth, Marcel Cuvelier (founder of the Belgian Jeunesses Musicales), René Nicoly (of the International Federation of Jeunesses Musicales), and Paul de Launoit. Named after the Queen, the new competition was launched in 1951. In 1957, it became a founder member of the World Federation of International Musical Competitions. Held annually, the Queen Elisabeth Competition continues to be one of the most prestigious and demanding musical contests, attracting the finest young violinists, pianists, composers, and vocalists. The gift of a poetic and generous Queen to Belgium and the world...

The official website of the Queen Elisabeth Musical Competition may be found HERE.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Freÿr

HERE is the website of the castle and gardens of Freÿr, along the banks of the Meuse. This magnificent place is one of Wallonia's most important cultural attractions. Named after the Norse goddess of beauty, Freÿr has a long, distinguished history; since the 1300's, 20 generations of the same family have lived here. Visitors through the centuries have included King Louis XIV of France, Archduchess Maria Christina, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, and H.I.H. Prince Naru Hito of Japan.

The top and bottom photos are courtesy of Jean-Pol Grandmont; the three middle ones are from the Freÿr website, full of pictures, history, and humor.
The main hall (Credits: J.L. Torsin)
The dining room (Credits: B. Dupiereux)
The "King's Room" where Louis XIV stayed. (Credits: Hans Juergen Benz)

Abdication Speech of Leopold III

July 16, 2009 will mark the 58th anniversary of the abdication of King Leopold III. I know it is a bit early but I wanted to post the speech he delivered on this occasion. I found it on this site; the translation is mine.
Mesdames, Messieurs,

Le 31 juillet 1950, afin de ramener la concorde dans le Pays, j'ai accepté que l'exercice des pouvoirs royaux fût confié à mon fils; ma volonté était de renoncer définitivement au Trône si le ralliement de tous les Belges se réalisait autour du prince Baudouin.

Je considère que ce ralliement est acquis.

C'est pourquoi, j'ai pris la décision d'abdiquer en ce jour.

Je m'y suis résolu avec l'unique souci de sauvegarder l'unité du Pays et de servir l'institution monarchique que le Congrès national, en 1831, a mise à la base de notre Constitution.

Je vous ai réunis parce que l'intérêt national comme la stabilité de la Dynastie exigent que ma décision de mettre fin à mon règne s'accompagne d’une manifestation solennelle de concorde.

Je ne parlerai pas du passé.

Mais mon devoir de Souverain m'impose, en ce dernier moment de mon règne, de rendre un vibrant hommage aux vertus militaires et civiques dont le peuple belge a fait preuve au cours des heures dramatiques et cruelles qu'il a traversées.

Justice ne lui a pas toujours été rendue.

J'affirme qu'en 1940, l'armée a vaillamment combattu jusqu'à l'extrême limite de la résistance et que la population, sous l'occupation ennemie, a témoigné dignement de ses vertus traditionnelles d'endurance, de courage et de patriotisme.

Je salue la mémoire de ceux qui ont fait au Pays le sacrifice de leur vie.

Mon cher Baudouin, c'est avec fierté que je te transmets la noble et lourde mission de porter désormais la Couronne d'une Belgique demeurée, malgré la plus terrible des guerres et les bouleversements qui l'ont suivie, territorialement et moralement intacte, libre, et fidèle à ses traditions.

Cette mission, tu l'exerceras avec la volonté de servir ton Pays et de continuer l'œuvre de la Dynastie, en te conformant ainsi aux principes que je t'ai inculqués. Ces principes, je les ai, reçus moi-même de mon Père, le roi Albert; ils ont toujours inspiré mon attitude au cours des dures années d'un règne que je laisse à l'Histoire le soin de juger.

La sympathie et la confiance avec lesquelles la population, tout entière t'a accueilli, me permettent de déposer définitivement les pouvoirs royaux sans appréhension pour l'avenir et avec la conscience du devoir accompli.

Mesdames, Messieurs,

Je suis convaincu que vous soutiendrez mon fils avec abnégation et loyauté dans l'accomplissement de sa tâche constitutionnelle.

N'oublions jamais qu'elle comporte le maintien de l'indépendance nationale et de l'intégrité territoriale de la Belgique et du Congo belge.

Mes chers compatriotes,

Au moment où je dépose ma charge, mes pensées ne peuvent se détacher des années que j'ai vécues au milieu de vous.

Le souvenir me restera toujours présent de l'émotion qui m'a étreint lorsque, l'an dernier, après une si longue séparation, j’ai remis le pied sur le sol de ma Patrie.

Comme vous, j'aime mon pays.

J'ai partagé vos joies comme j'ai partagé vos peines, en me tournant avec une particulière sollicitude vers les plus humbles d'entre vous.

A tous ceux qui, si nombreux, n'ont cessé de me rester fidèlement attachés, j'exprime toute ma gratitude. Je conserverai précieusement dans mon cœur le souvenir de leur affection.

Les dernières paroles que je prononce comme Roi des Belges sont pour vous rappeler avec force, mes chers compatriotes, que l'avenir de la Patrie dépend de votre solidarité nationale, et pour vous demander de vous grouper avec ferveur autour de mon fils, le roi Baudouin.

Je vous en conjure, soyez unis.

Que Dieu protège la Belgique et notre Congo !

Translation:

Ladies and Gentlemen:

On July 31, 1950, to restore concord to the country, I agreed that the exercise of the royal powers should be entrusted to my son; my intention was to definitively renounce the throne, if all the Belgians rallied around Prince Baudouin.

I consider that this has been achieved.

This is why I have decided to abdicate today.

I have resolved upon it with the sole concern to safeguard the unity of the country and to serve the monarchical institution which the National Congress, in 1831, placed at the basis of our Constitution.

I have gathered you here because the national interest and the stability of the Dynasty alike require that my decision to put an end to my reign be accompanied by a solemn manifestation of concord.

I will not speak of the past.

But my duty, as a Sovereign, requires, in this last moment of my reign, that I render a fervent homage to the military and civic virtues which the Belgian people have manifested in the course of the cruel and dramatic hours through which they have passed.

Justice has not always been rendered to them.

I affirm that in 1940, the army fought valiantly, to the utmost limits of resistance, and that the population, under enemy occupation, worthily manifested its traditional virtues of endurance, courage and patriotism.

I salute the memory of those who sacrificed their lives for the country.

My dear Baudouin, it is with pride that I transmit to you the noble and heavy mission of carrying, henceforth, the Crown of a Belgium which has remained, despite the most terrible of wars and the upheavals that followed, territorially and morally intact, free, and faithful to her traditions.

This mission, you will exercise, with the will to serve your country and to continue the work of the Dynasty, conforming yourself, in this way, to the principles I have inculcated in you. These principles, I myself received from my father, King Albert; they always inspired my attitude during the hard years of a reign I leave to History the care of judging.

The sympathy and the confidence with which the whole population has welcomed you permit me to lay down the royal powers definitively, without fear for the future and with the consciousness of duty accomplished.

Ladies, Gentlemen,

I am convinced that you will support my son with abnegation and loyalty in the accomplishment of his constitutional task.

Never forget that it involves the maintenance of national independence and the territorial integrity of Belgium and the Belgian Congo.

My dear fellow-countrymen,

At the moment I lay down my charge, my thoughts cannot detach themselves from the years I have lived among you.

The memory will always remain present to me of the emotion that seized me, last year, when, after so long a separation, I set foot on the soil of my native land.

Like you, I love my country.

I have shared your joys and sorrows alike, turning myself with a particular concern towards the humblest among you.

To all those, so numerous, who have never ceased to be faithfully attached to me, I express all my gratitude. I will preserve in my heart the precious memory of their affection.

The last words I pronounce as King of the Belgians are to remind you, forcefully, my dear fellow-countrymen, that the future of our country depends on your national solidarity, and to ask you to gather yourselves, with fervor, around my son, King Baudouin.

I enjoin you, be united.

May God protect Belgium and our Congo!
If your King gave you this speech, how would you feel?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Posting

For family reasons, I will not be posting much for the rest of this week. I will be back on Monday. God bless.

Astrid & Lilian


Recently, I posted on Queen Astrid and Diana, Princess of Wales, who are all too often falsely compared. Today, I would like to discuss another pair of tragic royal women- Queen Astrid and Princess Lilian of Belgium- who are all too often falsely contrasted.

A black legend has pursued Lilian, just as a golden legend has surrounded Astrid. Lilian has been portrayed as devilishly scheming, selfish and ambitious; Astrid, as angelically innocent, altruistic and humble. Leopold III has been accused of betraying Astrid's memory by marrying Lilian; one would think he had divorced the Queen to wed the alluring young commoner...

Despite some striking differences, however, Astrid and Lilian were similar in many ways. The contrasts are obvious. Astrid was born a Swedish princess; Lilian, a Flemish commoner. Shy, quiet, and emotionally vulnerable, Astrid gradually grew in confidence after her marriage. Bold, assertive, and incredibly resilient, Lilian became hesitant and indecisive with the passing of the years; many bitter experiences of betrayal had left her unsure of whose advice to trust. Astrid died violently at the tragically young age of 29; Lilian passed away peacefully at 85. 


Nonetheless, there are many parallels between the two ladies. Both tall, slim brunettes, Astrid and Lilian shared remarkable beauty, intelligence, elegance and charm. Both were devoted wives to King Leopold III, and each bore him three children. Both mothers strove to provide the royal family with a tender home environment. Each was also deeply concerned with the plight of the less fortunate. During the economic crisis of the 1930's, Astrid was famous for her charity work. After her son's heart operation, in 1958, Lilian took a great interest in cardiac patients, and established a Cardiological Foundation which has saved the lives of thousands of people.

Both Astrid and Lilian were noble, warm and loving women. True, Lilian was undeniably a stricter, more demanding, and less understanding character. Yet, she was not the "iron woman" of the black legend, she, like Astrid, had a sensitive and tender heart. When her first grandchild, Alexandra, was presented to her, she dissolved in emotion before the baby. It is important to remember that Astrid had a strict side as well; the golden legend shrouding her memory has sometimes reduced her to an image of saccharine sweetness. Her childhood friend, Anna Sparre, however, recalled that the apparently timid and fragile young woman could, on occasion, be swiftly transformed into a "goddess of Justice," fierce and stern, when she had to defend a wronged loved one (Sparre, p. 114).

Finally, Astrid and Lilian shared profound religious faith. Raised as a Lutheran, Astrid converted to Catholicism out of deep conviction, confiding to Anna: "My soul has found peace" (Sparre, p. 128). Despite many portrayals of Lilian as merely a glamorous, sophisticated worldling, she was also very religious. At a commemorative service after her death, one of her chaplains testified to her deep faith and remembered that she had earnestly asked him one day: "How should a Christian view death?" She had listened to his reply very attentively, at length, and, afterwards, had asked him to deliver the sermon at her funeral (Verwilghen, p. 63).

In "Souvenirs de la Princesse Lilian," an article published, on October 29, 2003, in La Libre Belgique, Jacques Franck remembered the Princess in moving terms:
Le temps permettra-t-il jamais de faire le vrai portrait de la femme qui disait encore, quelques semaines avant de mourir, « personne ne me connaît»? Rien de ce qui a paru sur elle jusqu'à ce jour ne rend justice à la richesse de sa personnalité, l'étendue de sa culture dans plusieurs domaines, la force de son caractère, le charme de sa présence, la délicatesse de sa bonté, que peuvent attester aussi bien sa femme de chambre Janine, qui resta 51 ans à son service, que les gendarmes qui assuraient la protection d'Argenteuil, enfin sa terrible exigence envers elle-même qui avait entraîné une incontestable exigence envers les autres: qui n'a pas les défauts de ses qualités?

Will time ever permit there to be drawn, the true portrait of the woman who was still saying, a few weeks before she died, "nobody knows me?" Nothing which has been written on her, hitherto, does justice to the richness of her personality, the breadth of her culture in many fields, the strength of her character, the charm of her presence, the delicacy of her kindness, which can be attested to by her chambermaid, Janine, who remained in her service for 51 years, as well as by the guards who provided the security at Argenteuil- finally, her terrible strictness towards herself, which led to an undeniable strictness towards others: who does not have the vices of their virtues?
Astrid became an icon of the ideal royal consort; Lilian, a target for the vilest of anti-monarchist attacks. What is the true contrast between the two women? Perhaps, that the Queen's goodness has been generally acknowledged, while the Princess', tragically, has been denied, neglected, outraged.

References:

Sparre, Anna. Astrid mon amie. 2005
Verwilghen, Michel. Le mythe d'Argenteuil: demeure d'un couple royal. 2006.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Raversijde

A painting of Raversijde by Prince Charles

HERE is some information on the Provincial Domain of Raversijde, an important Belgian historic site, near Ostend on the North Sea. Raversijde has long been associated with the royal family; a former estate of King Leopold II forms the heart of the domain, and Prince Charles of Belgium, the bohemian younger brother of King Leopold III, spent the last few decades of his life here. A museum dedicated to the Prince keeps his memory alive. I am not particularly favorable to Prince Charles, due mainly to his disloyalty to his brother, Leopold III, during the post-war Royal Question, but he was, undeniably, an important member of the royal family. He was also, like his grandmother, the Countess of Flanders, a gifted artist.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Letter by Empress Carlota

In The Life of Maximilian I, Late Emperor of Mexico (1868), Frederic Hall includes a moving portrayal of the tragic Empress Carlota, born Princess Charlotte of Belgium. She seems to have inherited the intelligence of her father, King Leopold I of the Belgians, the "Nestor of Europe," combined with the charity and devotion to duty of her mother, Louise-Marie, the "Holy Queen." Hall includes a touching letter addressed by Carlota to the prefect of Puebla, during her visit to the city on her birthday, June 7, 1864.

Señor Prefect:

It is very pleasing to me to find myself in Puebla, the first anniversary of my birthday which I have passed far from my old country. Such a day is for everybody one of reflection; and these days would be sad for me, if the care, attentions, and proofs of affection, of which I have been the object in this city, did not cause me to recollect that I am in my new country, among my people. Surrounded by friends, and accompanied by my dear husband, I have no time to be sad; and I give thanks to God because he has conducted me here, presenting unto him fervent prayers for the happiness of the country which is mine. United to Mexico long ago by sympathy, I am today united to it by stronger bonds, and at the same time sweeter- those of gratitude. I wish, Señor Prefect, that the poor of this city may participate in the pleasure which I have experienced among you.

I send you seven thousand dollars of my own private funds, which is to be dedicated to the rebuilding of the House of Charity, the ruinous state of which made me feel so sad yesterday: so that the unfortunate ones may return to inhabit it who found themselves deprived of shelter.

Señor Prefect, assure my compatriots of Puebla that they possess, and will always possess, my affections.

CARLOTA.

A Filial Tribute

In honor of Father's Day (although, in Belgium, it took place last Sunday), I am reposting this.

In 1975, the centenary of the birth of King Albert I, his son, former King Leopold III, granted an interview to the Belgian journal, La Revue Générale, in which he discussed Albert's life and character, and recalled the deep affection between himself and his father. It is a moving tribute, very much to the credit of both Albert and Leopold. Here are some excerpts from the interview, translated into English. (The quotes in the original French may be found here)
I felt very close to my father; a great affection united us and I admired him greatly. I will tell you what I loved most in him: his kindness, his moderation, his sense of honor, his respect of the human person, his freedom of thought, his tolerance; as well as his moral rigor, his simplicity, his wonderful balance, a balance which enabled him to overcome, with ease and serenity, the difficulties of life.

His simple tastes have often been mentioned. It is true that he was simplicity itself. He enjoyed neither the honors nor the ceremonies to which he was bound; he endured them as a duty of his charge. He lived simply at Laeken, and even more so, with his family at La Panne, during the First World War.

He was authentic and genuine, and all frauds irritated him. He had a horror of boasting and vanity, and detested... flatterers. True human contact was always precious to him. That is why he loved to talk with his people, and, when he went unrecognized, he was all the happier for it. It is also why he loved the guides who accompanied him on his climbs in the mountains. With them, he was an alpinist and no more. His hours in the mountains would be the happiest of his life, after those he spent with his family.

We really were a family. My father and my mother were united by a wonderful love... and this love never weakened: a love which needed no words and demonstrations, but which was the substance and the happiness of their life. It is a great privilege for children to grow up with a couple who never ceased to project the image of a perfect union...

My affection for my father was the light of my youth. He concerned himself with us, our games, our problems, our formation. How often did we walk together in the park at Laeken, which we loved so much! We used to talk of so many things. This moment, which I looked forward to so much, was one of my joys. We were close, and alone...

Despite the tragic circumstances, my father and my mother were happy during the war. It actually gave them the opportunity to give the best of themselves; my father, in the trenches with his soldiers, my mother, with the wounded.

My father was fundamentally a man of peace, who was forced into war. He was always convinced that a country must be ready to defend itself, if its cause were just. I will never forget something he said to me, and, above all, the circumstances under which he said it to me. It was in 1914, in Antwerp, when we were boarding the ship for England. He was serious, for the situation was tragic. He was thinking, no doubt, that we were parting for a long time, perhaps forever.

He said to me, then: "You will look after the army. Belgium must always have a good army." It was his last piece of advice. I was twelve years old, and I have always remembered it...

Throughout the war, he remained unshakably attached to a principle: that of sparing the blood of his soldiers. That is why he insisted on retaining the unique command of the Belgian army and why he condemned the mad and murderous offensives on certain fronts...

Events proved him right. He rendered immense services to the Allied cause, but he did it while respecting the life and honor of his soldiers, and while taking care that no futile sacrifice be permitted.

Perhaps, it is for this reason, that my father, who had become, for Belgium and the world, the "Knight-King," was able to return, so normally, to the tasks of peace. Peace was his world, restored to him. We know, with what scrupulousness, and with what tenacity, he consecrated himself to his task. He realized how great is the action of an attentive sovereign, and he saw his ministers frequently, and presided at their Council every time important decisions were at stake: he insisted on this...

He took tremendous care to keep himself informed. Early in the morning, he found the time to read journals and reviews, including the foreign press. He made notes as he read. He answered letters which, he considered, merited a personal reply. He read and spoke several languages. His readings were not limited to the press: he liked to categorize himself as a 'great reader', with many different interests, from literature to technology to the sciences. My father was also very painstaking; he insisted on accuracy and precision...

I would like to say so much more! His respect for others was so great that he hesitated to influence even his own children. Every human being must be himself: that is why he disliked servility to orders, and that is why he found it difficult to forgive those who had deceived him or who had taken advantage of him. That is also why loyalty was so important to this man, who made it the rule of his life...

Such was my father, whose memory dwells in my life: a man of deep faith, yet who hated intolerance; a man who was famous throughout the world, yet wonderfully simple; a man of duty who never, for a moment, forgot those who had been entrusted to him; very timid, yet very courageous; a man who was genuine, and who needs no legend in order to remain a fruitful memory and an admirable example, a man who was also, for me - and above all- my father.
(Taken from the transcription of the interview recorded by Col. Rémy in Le 18e jour: la tragédie de Léopold III, roi des Belges, 1976, pp. 28-35)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Prayer Request

A close relative of mine just passed away. Please remember him in your prayers. 

Friday, June 19, 2009

"Cette croix..."

Not long before ascending the throne, Albert of Belgium wrote to his sister, Princess Josephine: "I hope that this Cross, a so-called "crowned" state in life, (cette croix qui est une situation dite 'couronnée') does not fall too soon upon my shoulders." He did not view his kingship as a pleasure, but rather as a duty.

All too often, monarchs are portrayed as a useless burden on their country, living in luxury at the people's expense. It is forgotten that a sovereign's position entails a great deal of sacrifice. Who would want to devote his or her whole life to complex and difficult questions of public policy, war and peace? To be surrounded by intriguing courtiers and politicians? 

These difficulties are compounded in the case of a country like that which Albert inherited in 1909. Belgium was small, weak, surrounded by predatory neighbors, divided by language, class, ethnicity, and religion. Young Prince Albert anticipated all the difficulties of his future position. His daughter, Marie-José, in her memoirs, quotes a letter he wrote his wife, Elisabeth, not long before his accession. In the letter, he implores her aid and support (which she gave him wholeheartedly) as he cannot trust anyone else.

Despite his realistic understanding of the difficulties he would face as King, Albert undertook the role courageously. In the years and months before his accession, he strenuously and thoughtfully strove to prepare himself for rulership. Some excerpts from his letters to Elisabeth illustrate his state of mind:
I cannot deny it, the time has come to work to exhaustion, in order to acquire, not an ability, which is impossible, but a knowledge sufficient to exclude, at least, ridicule from the function destiny will inflict on me in the future.

I believe, I hope that I will be able to put myself to work, I mean by that, no longer to have any other objective than that which relates to self-improvement. But if I could succeed, despite everything, in rendering myself useful to my country, it would be the fulfillment of a high ambition, and the recompense for many pains...
Albert saw Elisabeth's collaboration as essential in carrying out his task:
You have everything necessary to fulfill the role of Queen: heart, intelligence, tact, and grace. Do it! It is, truly, an appeal from the depths of my heart, that which I address to you, in the name of the sincere love that unites us and could find such fruitful new avenues.
Despite the sacrifice it involved, Albert undertook his role with idealism and hope:
Embellished by work and effort, I believe life becomes more beautiful. It is the battle of every day; one pursues an ideal, one goes toward a goal, in the end, I believe, one comes to know what one is seeking, and, I imagine, one even closes one's eyes, once and for all, having earned tranquillity and peace of conscience.
A very serious King. 

(the quotes in the original French, taken from Marie-José's memoirs, may be found here)

Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, 1867

The Mad Monarchist commemorates this tragic anniversary. Through his marriage to Princess Charlotte of Belgium (Empress Carlota), Maximilian was an uncle of King Albert I of the Belgians. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Peter Paul Rubens

Self-portrait with first wife, Isabella Brant

Peter Paul Rubens was the foremost Northern European painter of his day and remains one of the most beloved Flemish artists. Here is a biography, courtesy of the Peter Paul Rubens Virtual Gallery. 
Peter Paul Rubens (June 28, 1577 - May 30, 1640) was a prolific seventeenth-century Flemish Baroque painter, and a proponent of an exuberant Baroque style that emphasized movement, color, and sensuality. He is well-known for his Counter-Reformation altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and history paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects.

In addition to running a large studio in Antwerp which produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe, Rubens was a classically-educated humanist scholar, art collector, and diplomat who was knighted by both Philip IV, king of Spain, and Charles I, king of England.

Rubens was born in Siegen, Westphalia, to Jan Rubens and Maria Pypelincks. His father, a Calvinist, and mother fled Antwerp for Cologne in 1568, after increased religious turmoil and persecution of Protestants during the rule of the Spanish Netherlands by the Duke of Alba. Jan Rubens became the legal advisor (and lover) to Anna of Saxony, the second wife of William I of Orange, and settled at her court in Siegen in 1570. Following imprisonment for the affair, Peter Paul Rubens was born in 1577. The family returned to Cologne the next year. In 1589, two years after his father's death, Rubens moved with his mother to Antwerp, where he was raised Catholic. Religion figured prominently in much of his work and Rubens later became one of the leading voices of the Catholic Counter-Reformation style of painting.

In Antwerp, Rubens received a humanist education, studying Latin and classical literature. By fourteen he began his artistic apprenticeship with Tobias Verhaeght. Subsequently, he studied under two of the city's leading painters of the time, the late mannerists Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen. Much of his earliest training involved copying earlier artists' works, such as woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger and Marcantonio Raimondi's engravings after Raphael. Rubens completed his education in 1598, at which time he entered the Guild of St. Luke as an independent master.

In 1600, Rubens traveled to Italy. He stopped first in Venice, where he saw paintings by Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto, before settling in Mantua at the court of duke Vincenzo I of Gonzaga. The coloring and compositions of Veronese and Tintoretto had an immediate effect on Rubens's painting, and his later, mature style was profoundly influenced by Titian. With financial support from the duke, Rubens traveled to Rome by way of Florence in 1601. There, he studied classical Greek and Roman art and copied works of the Italian masters. The Hellenistic sculpture Laocoon and his Sons was especially influential on him, as was the art of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. He was also influenced by the recent, highly naturalistic paintings by Caravaggio. He later made a copy of that artist's Entombment of Christ, recommended that his patron, the duke of Mantua, purchase The Death of the Virgin (Louvre), and was instrumental in the acquisition of The Madonna of the Rosary (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) for the Dominican church in Antwerp. During this first stay in Rome, Rubens completed his first altarpiece commission, St. Helena with the True Cross for the Roman church, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

Rubens traveled to Spain on a diplomatic mission in 1603, delivering gifts from the Gonzagas to the court of Philip III. While there, he viewed the extensive collections of Raphael and Titian that had been collected by Philip II. He also painted an equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma during his stay (Prado, Madrid) that demonstrates the influence of works like Titian's Charles V at Muhlberg (1548; Prado, Madrid). This journey marks the first of many during his career that would combine art and diplomacy.

He returned to Italy in 1604, where he remained for the next four years-first in Mantua, and then in Genoa and Rome. In Genoa, Rubens painted numerous portraits, such as the Marchesa Brigida Spinola-Doria (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), in a style that would influence later paintings by Anthony van Dyck, Joshua Reynolds, and Thomas Gainsborough. He also began a book illustrating the palaces in the city. From 1606 to 1608, he was largely in Rome. During this period Rubens received his most important commission to date for the high altar of the city's most fashionable new church, Santa Maria in Vallicella (or, Chiesa Nuova). The subject was to be St. Gregory the Great and important local saints adoring an icon of the Virgin and Child. The first version, a single canvas (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble), was immediately replaced by a second version on three slate panels that permits the actual miraculous holy image of the "Santa Maria in Vallicella" to be revealed on important feast days by a removable copper cover, also painted by the artist.

The impact of Italy on Rubens was great. Besides the artistic influences, he continued to write many of his letters and correspondences in Italian for the rest of his life, signed his name as "Pietro Paolo Rubens", and spoke longingly of returning to the peninsula-a hope that never materialized.

Upon hearing of his mother's illness in 1608, Rubens planned his departure from Italy for Antwerp. However, she died before he made it home. His return coincided with a period of renewed prosperity in the city with the signing of Treaty of Antwerp in April 1609, which initiated the Twelve Years' Truce. In September of that year Rubens was appointed court painter by Albert and Isabella, the governors of the Low Countries. He received special permission to base his studio in Antwerp, instead of at their court in Brussels, and to also work for other clients. He remained close to the Archduchess Isabella until her death in 1633, and was called upon not only as a painter but also as an ambassador and diplomat. Rubens further cemented his ties to the city when, on October 3, 1609, he married Isabella Brant, the daughter of a leading Antwerp citizen and humanist Jan Brant.

In 1610, Rubens moved into a new house and studio that he designed. Now the Rubenshuis museum, the Italian-influenced villa in the center of Antwerp contained his workshop, where he and his apprentices made most of the paintings, and his personal art collection and library, both among the most extensive in Antwerp. During this time he built up a studio with numerous students and assistants. His most famous pupil was the young Anthony van Dyck, who soon became the leading Flemish portraitist and collaborated frequently with Rubens. He also frequently collaborated with the many specialists active in the city, including the animal painter Frans Snyders, who contributed to the eagle to Prometheus Bound and his good friend the flower-painter Jan Brueghel the Elder.

Altarpieces such as The Raising of the Cross (1610) and The Descent from the Cross (1611-1614) for the Cathedral of Our Lady were particularly important in establishing Rubens as Flanders' leading painter shortly after his return. The Raising of the Cross, for example, demonstrates the artist's synthesis of Tintoretto's Crucifixion for the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, Michelangelo's dynamic figures, and Rubens's own personal style. This painting has been held as a prime example of Baroque religious art.

Rubens used the production of prints and book title-pages, especially for his friend Balthasar Moretus-owner of the large Plantin-Moretus publishing house to further extend his fame throughout Europe during this part of his career. With the exception of a couple of brilliant etchings, he only produced drawings for these himself, leaving the printmaking to specialists, such as Lucas Vorsterman. He recruited a number of engravers trained by Goltzius, who he carefully schooled in the more vigorous style he wanted. He also designed the last significant woodcuts before the 19th century revival in the technique. Rubens established copyright for his prints. Most significantly in Holland, where his work was widely copied through print. In addition he established copyrights for his work in England, France and Spain.

In 1621, the queen-mother of France, Marie de' Medici, commissioned Rubens to paint two large allegorical cycles celebrating her life and the life of her late husband, Henry IV, for the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. The Marie de' Medici cycle (now in the Louvre) was installed in 1625, and although he began work on the second series it was never completed. Marie was exiled from France in 1630 by her son, Louis XIII, and died in 1642 in the same house in Cologne where Rubens had lived as a child.

After the end of the Twelve Years' Truce in 1621, the Spanish Habsburg rulers entrusted Rubens with a number of diplomatic missions. Between 1627 and 1630, Rubens's diplomatic career was particularly active, and he moved between the courts of Spain and England in an attempt to bring peace between the Spanish Netherlands and the United Provinces. He also made several trips to the Northern Netherlands as both an artist and a diplomat. At the courts he sometimes encountered the attitude that courtiers should not use their hands in any art or trade, but he was also received as a gentleman by many. It was during this period that Rubens was twice knighted, first by Philip IV of Spain in 1624, and then by Charles I of England in 1630. He was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Cambridge University in 1629.

Rubens was in Madrid for eight months in 1628-1629. In addition to diplomatic negotiations, he executed several important works for Philip IV and private patrons. He also began a renewed study of Titian's paintings, copying numerous works including the Madrid Fall of Man (1628-29). During this stay, he befriended the court painter Diego Velazquez. The two planned to travel to Italy together the following year. Rubens, however, returned to Antwerp and Velazquez made the journey without him.

His stay in Antwerp was brief, and he soon traveled on to London. Rubens stayed there until April, 1630. An important work from this period is the Allegory of Peace and War (1629; National Gallery, London). It illustrates the artist's strong concern for peace, and was given to Charles I as a gift.

While Rubens's international reputation with collectors and nobility abroad continued to grow during this decade, he and his workshop also continued to paint monumental paintings for local patrons in Antwerp. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary (1625-6) for the Cathedral of Antwerp is one prominent example.

Rubens's last decade was spent in and around Antwerp. Major works for foreign patrons still occupied him, such as the ceiling paintings for the Banqueting House at Inigo Jones's Palace of Whitehall, but he also explored more personal artistic directions.

In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife, the 53-year-old painter married 16-year-old Helene Fourment. Helene inspired the voluptuous figures in many of his paintings from the 1630s, including The Feast of Venus (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), The Three Graces (Prado, Madrid) and The Judgment of Paris (Prado, Madrid). In the latter painting, which was made for the Spanish court, the artist's young wife was recognized by viewers in the figure of Venus. In an intimate portrait of her, Helene Fourment in a Fur Wrap, also known as Het Pelsken, Rubens's wife is even partially modeled after classical sculptures of the Venus Pudica, such as the Medici Venus.

In 1635, Rubens bought an estate outside of Antwerp, the Chateau de Steen (Het Steen), where he spent much of his time. Landscapes, such as his Chateau de Steen with Hunter (National Gallery, London) and Farmers Returning from the Fields (Pitti Gallery, Florence), reflect the more personal nature of many of his later works. He also drew upon the Netherlandish traditions of Pieter Bruegel the Elder for inspiration in later works like Flemish Kermis (c. 1630; Louvre, Paris). Rubens died from gout on May 30, 1640. He was interred in Saint Jacob's church, Antwerp. The artist had eight children, three with Isabella and five with Helene; his youngest child was born eight months after his death.

Portrait of Anne of Austria 
Interior of a barn in winter
Albert & Isabella with their patron saints; in the middle, Our Lady appears to St. Ildefonso

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Marche-les-Dames

Credits: Jean-Pol Grandmont

Photos of the abbey and cliffs of Marche-les-Dames, near Namur, Belgium. Today, Marche-les-Dames is best known for being the site of the tragic death of King Albert I. Yet it has a fascinating older history. According to Bradshaw' s Illustrated hand-book for Belgium and the Rhine (1897):
The village owes the first part of its name to its situation on the confines of the ancient district of Namur ( Marche, frontier limit), and the latter part refers to the foundation of the Abbey, which still attracts a number of visitors to Marche-les-Dames. An affecting tradition connects its origins with the first crusade. When in the reign of Albert III, the crusaders set off for the Holy Land, such of their wives as were unable to follow them assembled in the rustic and lonely valley...they raised a modest chapel, in which, praying for the deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre, they waited for the return of their husbands. But out of the many warriors who had been to seek for glory on the burning plains of Palestine, very few, indeed, regained the green hills of their native land. When the crusaders who had escaped death returned to the banks of the Meuse, desolation reigned in the Valley of Notre Dame du Vivier, as it was then called. Most of those wives learned they were widows, and resolved to end their days in the retreat which they had chosen, and young girls, made fatherless, joined them. An abbey was founded there, which, in three centuries afterward, adopted the rule of St. Bernard...
Credits: Jean-Pol Grandmont

I always find it very poignant that King Albert died here; as a crusader ought to be, he was pious and heroic. Like the crusaders' wives, Queen Elisabeth waited anxiously and in vain for his return (in this case, from climbing the cliffs), and her husband's loss plunged her into mourning and desolation. 

Monday, June 15, 2009

Belgium's Lost Prince

Above, we see Prince Baudouin of Belgium (1869-1891), older brother of King Albert I. Baudouin was the first of the four children of the Count and Countess of Flanders. As the only legitimate son of his uncle, Leopold II, died as a child, Baudouin was raised as the heir to the Belgian throne. A young man of great promise, he died tragically, at age 22, of pneumonia (according to some accounts, complicated by renal hemorrhage). He was deeply mourned by his family and people.

Baudouin was particularly close to his eldest sister, Henriette (pictured below). As their niece, Marie-José, describes in her memoirs, the two siblings shared a sense of family, and a love of religion, duty, country, and tradition. According to Henriette:
At 21, Baudouin declared he would always be a traditionalist, that strength lay in tradition alone. He declared himself neither revolutionary, nor liberal, nor modern...It took courage to say this, in our democratic Belgium!
In contrast to his shy younger brother, Albert, Baudouin moved with ease in high society and enjoyed the companionship of his peers. Whereas Albert hated hunting and felt no interest in riding and dancing, Baudouin excelled in the traditional aristocratic pursuits.

In her diary, Henriette described Baudouin in the highest terms:
Baudouin was a born leader. From childhood, he held all three of us by the hand. How well he would have been complemented by his brother, Albert, if the two had been able to serve their country together! Albert, the younger one, has always preferred to take second place, and to serve a leader rather than to be one himself...Albert has a heart of gold, but, from his earliest childhood, he was irascible, and extremely sensitive, whereas in Baudouin, we were never able to find a single fault, apart from his excessive modesty.
Henriette also discussed the similarities between the two brothers:
Albert, like Baudouin, has this instinct for finding things out: to see them for himself so as not to be duped and so as to be equipped to govern...Both brothers spoke Flemish and Walloon, which neither the Count of Flanders nor King Leopold II knew, and enjoyed expressing themselves in Marollian and other dialects.
Albert great admired his older brother, and deeply regretted his loss. During World War I, he told Henriette:
"Ah! If Baudouin had survived, how different our life would have been, how much happier! What strength to be two instead of one! He would have done everything better than I."
After Baudouin's death, the press launched lurid campaign to slander his reputation. Malicious rumors circulated, to the effect that he had committed suicide or been murdered over a love affair. In her grief and indignation, Henriette wrote:
How could they launch, after his death, these tragic and painful lies! It is incomprehensible. It is true that people cannot recognize the virtue of princes, and that they so easily believe evil! He was the strongest of us all, yet he succumbed in two days! The mistake was not to announce that he had been taken to bed with a high fever. People invented stories of brawls, even of murder...over a woman. They made comparisons with the drama of Mayerling, although Baudouin became aggressive and violent whenever he spoke of Rudolf. He had experienced an impression of disgust at what he saw in Vienna during the Archduke's funeral...
Baudouin's fate prefigured that of his family. For years to come, tragedy and calumny would continue to haunt the Belgian royal house.

Below, we see one of the artistic works of the Countess of Flanders, dated shortly after Baudouin's death. The sombre tones, perhaps, reflect his mother's grief.

(The quotes in the original French may be found here)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Lilian & Esmeralda

Above, we see the late Princess Lilian of Belgium, second wife of King Leopold III; below, her youngest daughter, Princess Marie-Esmeralda. Mother and daughter were certainly very alike in appearance! In character, too, according to Esmeralda. In Léopold III, homme libre, Jean Cleeremans quotes her as saying: "My mother and I have the same character; both of us are stubborn and lively." Both forceful, determined personalities, the two princesses had a relationship characterized by tension and conflict as well as love and tenderness. Fortunately, the love prevailed; their disputes always ended in reconciliation. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Lilian and her elder daughter, Princess Marie-Christine, who became tragically estranged from her mother and the rest of her family.

Princess Esmeralda has admirably defended the memory of her much-maligned parents. In 2002, following her mother's death, she granted an interview to La Libre Belgique, entitled "Ma mère telle qu'on l'a peu connue" ("My mother as few knew her.") It is a fascinating description of Princess Lilian, a very great lady despite certain faults of character. It is also a touching filial tribute. Esmeralda praised her mother's many charitable initiatives, especially her establishment of the Princess Lilian Cardiological Foundation, which has saved the lives of thousands. Here is an excerpt:
A l'occasion de son décès et toute sa vie durant, beaucoup de choses ont été écrites sur elle qui l'ont réduite au rang d'épouse de mon père. Ce qu'elle était effectivement puisqu'elle considérait qu'il était la passion de sa vie. Ma mère était une passionnée de manière générale, mais elle a fait énormément de choses dans la discretion. Une foule de gens en témoignent maintenant. Mon frère et moi ne cessons de découvrir qu'elle a aidé beaucoup de monde. Elle n'en parlait jamais. Il y avait en elle un besoin de générosité et de vouloir bien faire parfois mal perçu. Elle a été violemment critiquée, souvent par des gens qui ne l'avaient jamais rencontrée. Il arrivait que ce soit si excessif qu'elle préférait en rire plutôt de s'en montrer blessée. Seules les attaques contre mon père la mettaient très en colère. Fière et obstinée, elle était pourtant reservée. Elle savait l'issue de la maladie qui l'a emportée. Jamais elle ne s'est plainte, n'a manifesté la moindre peur ou faiblesse. 

On the occasion of her death, and throughout her life, many things were written about her which reduced her simply to my father's wife. That is, in fact, what she was, as she considered him the passion of her life. My mother was a passionate woman in general, but she did a tremendous amount discreetly. Many people are testifying to it now. My brother and I are constantly discovering that she aided many people. She never spoke of it. There was, in her, a need to be generous, to do good, which was sometimes taken ill. She was violently criticized, often by people who had never met her. Sometimes it became so extreme that she preferred to laugh about it rather than to appear wounded. It was only the attacks on my father that enraged her. Proud and obstinate, she was, nonetheless, reserved. She foresaw the outcome of the illness that carried her off. Yet she never complained, never exhibited the slightest fear or weakness. 
May she rest in peace. 


Friday, June 12, 2009

Queen Astrid & Diana, Princess of Wales


On the internet, I keep encountering comparisons of Astrid and Diana. The Belgian queen has been called the "Princess Diana of the 1930's." Yet, despite some parallels, the two ladies were tragic in very different ways.

Astrid and Diana were both the youngest daughter in their families, with two older sisters and a younger brother. Both were shy and emotionally vulnerable girls, placed in a high profile position beyond their expectations. Both were very attractive, fashionable, graceful and gifted women. Both had a deep need and capacity for love and affection and were famous for their charity work. They shared great charm and popular appeal; both were called "Queen of Hearts." Tragically, both died young in car crashes, in foreign countries, at the end of August, leaving orphaned children behind. Strangely, the site of Diana's accident, the Alma Tunnel, is close to a square called the Place de la Reine Astrid.

Yet the similarities end here. The differences between the two women are even more striking. Astrid was a royal Swedish princess; Diana, a British aristocrat. Astrid was raised a Lutheran, converted to Catholicism after marrying the Belgian Crown Prince, and found peace and serenity in her faith. Diana belonged to the Church of England, but never seems to have had the deep and comforting religious life Astrid experienced. At any rate, she appears to have suffered much more emotional turmoil than Astrid ever did. In their family background and marriages, Astrid and Diana cannot be compared at all. Diana came from a broken home, suffering severely from her parents' divorce. Astrid grew up in a loving, united family, the daughter of happily married parents. The two women's own marriages recalled their early experiences. The Prince and Princess of Wales differed considerably in age, interests, and temperament, and the Prince was in love with another woman. The marriage, not surprisingly, proved unhappy. Tragically, both spouses became unfaithful and their union ended in divorce. King Leopold III and Queen Astrid, by contrast, were close in age, kindred spirits, and deeply in love. They formed a happy and devoted couple separated only by death.

So, in the end, I think Astrid and Diana were very different. May God have mercy on both and give rest to their souls.

Monday, June 8, 2009

"Monte à l'autel, ô prêtre, et fais couler les grâces!"

The abbey of Orval

I wanted to post this poem, addressed, to the future Abbot (and restorer) of the Cistercian monastery of Orval, Charles (in religion, Dom Marie-Albert) van der Cruyssen (1874-1955), on the occasion of his ordination. During World War I, Dom Albert had been one of Belgium's most decorated combatants. In peacetime, he was intensely concerned with Catholic social and political action. In 1925, however, he decided to devote himself entirely to religion. He was a heroic and saintly man; many anecdotes, letters, and prayers testify to his charity, fortitude, and spiritual depth. 

Dom Albert van der Cruyssen was an intimate friend of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth; the King and his cabinet assisted him in restoring Orval during the late 1920's. The Abbot was very devoted to King Albert; they seem to have had deep spiritual discussions and Dom Albert later remembered his Sovereign as "a great Christian, who could say to himself every day: 'I do not fear death, I am ready.'" Dom Albert was also close to King Leopold III and his second wife, Princess Lilian. Henri Baels, Lilian's father, was one of the Abbot's best friends, and, in his capacity as Minister of Public Works, and, later, Governor of West Flanders, greatly aided in the restoration project. 

I found this poem very moving. (I will add a summary in English in the comments box).

Au P. Marie Albert 
de la Grande Trappe
à l'occasion de sa Première Messe
20 Décembre 1925

1918-1925
"La grande guerre où les meilleurs sont tombés."

Les braves, les meilleurs ne sont pas tous tombés,
Non: lorsque sur l'autel de la terre natale
Ces martyrs affirmaient leur ferveur filiale,
Tous ne furent pas consumés. 

La rafale de fer, le feu, l'eau, les hivers,
Les heroïsmes fous et la longue patience,
Tout ce qui a sauvé la Belgique et la France,
Beaucoup sont passés à travers.

Dieu sur ces vaillants preux avait un grand dessein:
Leurs anges les couvraient de boucliers terribles...
Et la mort, se cabrant, a percé d'autres cibles,
Faites pour un moins haut destin.

Il est pourtant digne d'envie
Celui qui meurt pour sa patrie!
Existe-t-il un sort plus beau?
Et quel est ce destin plus haut?

S'abattre sur la terre aimée
Qu'on arrache à la brute armée, 
Mourir en donnant tout son coeur,
Quel plus noble idéal, Seigneur?

Alors ces héros, ces hosties,
Dont vous n'avez pas pris les vies,
Pour quelle oeuvre les gardiez-vous?
Seigneur tout bon, montrez-le nous!

Sept ans sont passés depuis la grande guerre,
Et une fête illustrée au petit monastère 
Est préparée.
Un prêtre aujourd'hui va monter
Pour la première fois à l'autel. Gaudete,
Superexaltate! Louons avec les anges
Le Très-Haut qui descend diviniser nos fanges,
Que nos coeurs et nois voix bénissent le Seigneur!

La Belgique et la France en ce jour de bonheur
Sont ici toutes deux. Abbé, moines, moniales,
Famille, amis émus, parentés idéales,
Et parentés de chair, noblesse selon Dieu
Et noblesse de sang au Sauveur, en ce lieu,

Vont s'unir tous ensemble à la première messe
De ce bienheureux prêtre, oint d'huile d'allegresse,
Parmi nous désormais ouvrier de salut,
Père qui rompt le Pain aux fils du peuple élu,
Mandataire d'En-Haut, prince parmi les princes.

Ah! pourquoi le Seigneur voulait que tu revinsses,
Pourquoi tu n'es pas mort dans les eaux de l'Yser,
Ce grand jour nous explique, homme de Christ, Albert!

Tu n'es pas mort pour la cité charnelle,
Puisque Dieu pour bâtir Jérusalem nouvelle,
T'avait prédestiné. Les intérêtes humains 
Sauvés, ton oeuvre reste: il consacre tes mains. 
La terre est délivrée, il faut sauver les âmes:
Les ténèbres, le deuil et le péché réclament, 
Et la terre des coeurs a soif du sang de Dieu!

Pour que l'amour divin l'embrase de son feu,
En dissipe la nuit et en fonde les glaces, 
Monte à l'autel, ô prêtre, et fais couler les grâces!
Va! ton sort est rempli, ne rêve rien de plus:
Prêtre, monte à l'autel et donne-nous Jésus!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Birthday of King Albert II

Today, Belgium's reigning monarch, H.M. King Albert II, celebrates his 75th birthday. He was born June 6, 1934, the second son and third child of King Leopold III and Queen Astrid of the Belgians. He was named after his illustrious grandfather, King Albert I, tragically deceased in a climbing accident only a few months before. At the age of 14 months, Prince Albert (titled "Prince of Liège") lost his mother, equally tragically, in a car crash. He would know no mother until his father's re-marriage, amidst World War II and Nazi occupation, with Lilian Baels, a lovely young Flemish commoner. Leopold and Lilian were married in a secret religious ceremony in September, 1941, and later, in December, in a civil wedding. After the second ceremony, the royal children were introduced to their step-mother, and welcomed her with open arms. In July, 1942, Lilian gave birth to a son, Alexandre. Albert was pleased to no longer be the youngest...

The royal family's captivity in Germany and Austria from 1944-1945 was a terrible ordeal for Prince Albert. The lack of food caused him to develop hunger edema. A leg injury treated perfunctorily by an SS guard turned into gangrene, but, fortunately, Lilian's vehement insistence on obtaining proper medical attention saved the leg of the future King. 

After the war, false accusations of treason would delay King Leopold's return to Belgium for five years. Prince Albert shared his family's Swiss exile from 1945-1950, attending high school in Geneva. In 1950, he accompanied his father and older brother, Baudouin, on the return journey to Belgium. Sadly, however, in 1951, further political agitation compelled King Leopold to abdicate. He was succeeded by Prince Baudouin.

On July 2, 1959, Prince Albert married a reigning beauty, Donna Paola Ruffa di Calabria, of mixed Italian and Belgian descent. The couple have three children, Prince Philippe, Princess Astrid, and Prince Laurent. After a long conjugal crisis, Albert and Paola were reconciled in the early 1980's.

During the reign of his brother, King Baudouin I, Prince Albert performed many official duties. From 1958 to 1993, he served as the President of the Belgian Red Cross. In 1962, he became Honorary President of the Board of Directors of the Belgian Foreign Trade Office. In this capacity, he presided, during the next few decades, over many trade missions throughout the world. To honor his achievements in this field, the Prince Albert Fund was established in 1984 to train foreign trade specialists. The Prince also took an active interest in urban planning, housing, nature conservation, and the preservation of historical monuments and sites. In 1969, he became President of the European Ministerial Conference on the protection of the cultural and architectural heritage. 

On August 9, 1993, after the death of King Baudouin, Prince Albert was sworn in as sixth King of the Belgians.

I wish His Majesty every blessing on his birthday, and many more to come!

Marie-Antoinette and Diana, Princess of Wales


Incidentally, I am considering posting on Diana and Queen Astrid, another pair of tragic royal women who are all too often falsely compared with one another.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Marie-José's Memoirs

In 1971, Queen Marie-José of Italy, daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, published her memoirs. In this work, entitled Albert et Elisabeth de Belgique, mes parents, she discusses her childhood and youth in Belgium prior to her marriage with Prince Umberto of Savoy in 1930. She focuses on her parents, beginning with their engagement in 1900 and ending with Albert's death in 1934. The style is clear, concise, sober, and sensitive. The book is a tribute to Albert and Elisabeth, widely admired for their heroism during World War I, and regarded by their daughter as model sovereigns. Yet it is also a fascinating portrayal of a lost time, and of a wide range of modern political, cultural, and scientific figures. The memoirs have been translated into Italian as Giovinezza di una Regina (Youth of a Queen).

Throughout the book, Marie-José emphasizes that her parents' mutual love and complementary qualities enabled them to support and assist each other in their difficult and challenging roles as King and Queen. Both are portrayed as highly intelligent and sensitive, but with contrasting temperaments: Albert, thoughtful, reflective, reserved, steady, philosophic; Elisabeth, lively, energetic, spontaneous, imaginative, impulsive, artistic. Yet, Marie-José shows, they strove to forge a strong union, enabling their characters to complement one another in an exceptionally harmonious manner. It would be rare, their daughter asserts, to find two people collaborating so felicitously for the good of their country, "and even, if one may say so, for the good of mankind."

This is how Marie-José describes her parents' marriage:
Between Albert of Belgium and Elisabeth in Bavaria, a deep love formed a bond of an exceptional quality, a bond which only grew stronger, equally so in the years that were happy and peaceful as in those which would be tragic and painful. I do not consider that I am committing an indiscretion by publishing extracts from (their) correspondence. I think, on the contrary, that they will contribute to illustrating the depth and purity of their love. 
The letters are, indeed, very touching, and I would like to cite a few here. The day after the engagement of Marie-José's parents in Neuilly, Albert, who had been obliged to leave Elisabeth for Brussels, wrote to her:
...May you be as happy as I wish. You will always be able to count on my infinite love, and my absolute loyalty. After leaving you...everything seemed so empty to me that even the crowded streets of Paris seemed to me to be a desert...
Elisabeth immediately replied:
It is 11:45 in the evening, and I feel so lonely and so sad without you! In the few days I have been with you, I have come to love you with all my heart! Truly, I love you so much! In a way that I never would have believed I could love someone. You are so good and kind to me that it touches me and makes me happy. You know that I cannot express sufficiently what I feel for you, but I think you understand me...
After a visit to Elisabeth's family in Bavaria during their engagement, Albert wrote to his future bride:
During this visit to Possenhofen, so pleasant, but all too brief, I have come to know you even better, and, above all, if I may confess it to you, I have been able to appreciate all the qualities of heart, intelligence, and kindness, with which my dear Lisa is filled, and which had conquered me from the first day I had seen her. You know that I, myself, do not have many qualities, but I can promise you, in all sincerity, to have one: that of trying to please you always, and also of trying to deserve to have a wife such as you...
To which Elisabeth responded:
When will the time come when there will be no more of these terrible separations? I was so happy to have been with you. Every hour we pass together, is, for me, that greatest pleasure that exists...Every time I see you again, I love you even more. How happy I will be the day I no longer have to leave you.
Albert and Elisabeth seem to have taken the motto of Belgium, "union makes for strength," as the motto of their marriage. As Albert wrote to Elisabeth:
Husband and wife must find the greatest happiness in being together. It must be the best company that is sought out, and equally so for the one and for the other...

In life, there are many difficulties, always, everywhere, and for everyone, but if one is firmly united in a family by a strong mutual love, one does not fear them and one is sure to find, at home, the true happiness of this earth...
Many years after Albert's untimely death in a climbing accident, Elisabeth confided to her daughter, Marie-José: "Ever since the cruel separation from your father, I have not been able to live a single day, without his memory being present to me, and everything I have done, I have done out of fidelity to his memory."

An inspiring story. 

(The quotes in the original French may be found here)
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