In celebration of a lifelong love affair that began with a royal wedding on February 14, 1613, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), will unveil Triumph of the Winter Queen: Allegory of the Just (1636) by Gerrit van Honthorst on Valentine’s Day. This will be the first opportunity for visitors to see the monumental Dutch painting (measuring 10 by 15 feet) at the museum, on view through July 21 in the installation Triumph of the Winter Queen.
The recently conserved canvas, on loan to the MFA, depicts Frederick V and his beloved wife, Elizabeth Stuart, the King and Queen of Bohemia—known as the “Winter King and Queen” for the brevity of their reign—surrounded by their 13 children. More than just a family portrait, this allegorical work is a statement about love, war, exile, separation, and loss played out on the world stage. It also serves as a declaration by Elizabeth that she and her family would triumph over the adversity they faced and regain their rightful place as rulers of the Palatinate in central Europe.
To enhance the appreciation of this 17th-century masterpiece, an immersive media experience will be featured in the MFA’s Rosemary Merrill Loring and Caleb Loring, Jr. Gallery. In this setting, Triumph of the Winter Queen will take center stage as the only work on view. Visitors will be able to sit in the gallery as the lights dim and watch a nine-minute film presentation on two screens dramatizing the story of the painting and the people it depicts through maps, music, and spoken passages from the royal couple’s letters. Informational wall text panels also will explore the political and personal histories of the figures depicted, as well as the conservation efforts that restored this grand work.
“We are pleased to welcome the ‘Winter Queen’ to the MFA on the occasion of her 400th wedding anniversary. Thanks to this generous loan, she will hold court in a gallery that will present all the spectacle befitting this magnificent history painting—a triumph for both the family it depicts and the artist Gerrit van Honthorst,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Triumph of the Winter Queen is a sweeping narrative of two pivotal figures in early 17th-century Europe: Elizabeth Stuart (1596–1662) and Frederick V (1596–1632). Elizabeth was a princess, the eldest daughter of King James I of England (James VI of Scotland), who succeeded Queen Elizabeth I on the British throne. In an effort to strengthen his ties to Protestants in central Europe, James arranged for his daughter to marry Frederick V, prince-elector of the Palatinate, a densely forested and mountainous region corresponding to part of modern-day southwestern Germany. Although the marriage was politically motivated, the young couple fell in love and became devoted to one another. After their wedding in England on February 14, 1613, they traveled to Heidelberg, where they lived for five years. Then in 1619 Frederick accepted the crown of nearby Bohemia (in what is now Czechoslovakia) to solidify Protestant influence in a predominantly Catholic area. Subsequently he and Elizabeth moved to Prague and were crowned King and Queen of Bohemia. Their reign was short lived, however, as their right to the throne was challenged by Ferdinand II, the Holy Roman Emperor and Catholic ruler of the surrounding lands. Armed conflict ensued between Catholic and Protestant forces beginning on November 8, 1620, with the Battle of White Mountain. It launched the Thirty Years War, which ravaged central Europe. Frederick’s forces lost to the Catholics and because of his brief rule over the course of one season, he and Elizabeth became known as the “Winter King and Queen.”
The couple fled to The Netherlands, living in exile in The Hague with their 13 children. By the time Elizabeth commissioned sought-after portraitist Gerrit van Honthorst (1590–1656) to paint her family, possibly for their hunting lodge in the Dutch countryside, she had become a widow. Frederick had died (1632) of a fever, and three of the children were deceased, including their eldest son, Frederick Henry (1629), heir to the throne. They are pictured together in the upper left corner of the canvas, bathed in a golden celestial light, the father and son both holding martyr’s palms and wearing crowns of laurel.
Pictured in the area beneath them are two of the couple’s young sons. At the center of the painting, Elizabeth as Winter Queen holds a mace and is seated in a chariot drawn by three lions, who are led by her youngest son in the guise of Cupid, a figure sometimes used in processional images. Under the chariot's spiked wheels Neptune, the Roman god of water and the sea, is shown crushed—a
triumphant moment of revenge for Elizabeth, whose son Frederick Henry drowned in a boating accident.
This imagery and Elizabeth’s intent to show the world that she would be vindicated provide the inspiration for the painting’s title, Triumph of the Winter Queen: Allegory of the Just. Elsewhere on the canvas, Elizabeth’s surviving children are depicted, including her three eldest daughters and her youngest daughter, Sophia, seen about to place a crown on her mother’s head. At the right of the
canvas are Elizabeth’s three oldest surviving sons on horseback, trampling the figures of Death and Envy. Two are dressed as soldiers, with Charles Louis, the eldest, wearing regal ermine pelts—imagery indicating the sons’ resolve to reclaim their family’s lost territories.
“This beautifully restored work clearly shows Honthorst’s talent for orchestrating a large number of sitters into a lively group portrait. He infused the refined depiction with allegorical elements to achieve a courtly ideal, transforming the painting into a processional image in which the family triumphs over past adversities,” said Ronni Baer, William and Ann Elfers Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of Europe, at the MFA. “We have long desired a painting by the artist to complement those by Ter Brugghen and
Baburen in the MFA’s collection (together the three painters were known as the Utrecht Caravaggisti), but could never have imagined so generously receiving on loan such a large and important canvas by the artist.”
Honthorst had spent a decade studying in Rome, where he was influenced by the work of Caravaggio. By the time Elizabeth commissioned him to create a pair of grand allegorical works, he had moved to a courtlier, refined, more colorful painting style. One of these two portraits, which survives only as a fragment, explored the family’s trials and hardships. The other, Triumph of the Winter Queen, signed and dated by Honthorst in 1636, was used by Elizabeth to affirm her family’s right to the Palatinate and to convey her conviction that they would succeed in overcoming their misfortunes. Elizabeth, who died on February 13, 1662—the day before what would have been her 49th wedding anniversary—lived to see her oldest son, Charles Louis, regain control of some of these lands in 1648 with the end of the Thirty Years War. But it was through her daughter, Sophia of Hanover, whose son became King George I of England, that the legacy of Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick V continues to this day.