9. Seasons and Elements (Fire)

Seasons and Elements (Fire) (set of four). Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in public domain

These wall hangings are the glory of the Met’s Louis XIV period room. But who are the people represented on them? The man on the cloud to the left is easy to identify: the cloud and lightning-bolts make him Jupiter, but the big hair suggests that he is Louis XIV *as* Jupiter. Surprisingly, the woman on the right is not the queen, but Louis’ second major mistress, Athenaïs de Montespan, for whom the wall hangings were made, and the boy in armor to her right is their second son, Louis César (the Comte du Vexin after Louis legitimized and ennobled him).

Madame de Montespan, beautiful and tempestuous, was the most colorful of Louis’ mistresses. During the vast Affair of the Poisons that convulsed Paris from 1677 to 1682, she was accused of participating in black masses, with dead babies cut open over her naked body to distill poisons for the king. The accusations seem unlikely, frankly, because while many were executed, exiled, or sent to the galleys in the affair, nothing happened to Madame de Montespan at all. But it does seem likely that she at least visited the witch in question, if only to get aphrodisiacs, since she was on the verge of losing the king’s affection to their children’s governess, the king’s third and final major mistress, Madame de Maintenon.