On the 400th Anniversary of his Death, Maximillian III

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He captured me, that first day, with the enigmatic expression on his face. It seemed fathomless to me, a different mood depending on the part of the room I was standing in, and that, of course made me have to understand.

The portrait, Maximillian III, Archduke of Austria, is part of the Herman H Levy art collection which has been on loan to the Kelowna Art Gallery — where I work — for several months. Part of the loan agreement stipulated that someone be in the gallery with the art at all times, ensuring the safety of these priceless works from the over-exuberance of the viewers. Since this became my task, I was fortunate to spend a portion of each shift in the presence of these masterworks. I was fortunate to spend a portion of each day with Max.

Within the art community, who hasn’t heard of Peter Paul Rubens? It is a famous name. Rubens painted in the Flemish Baroque tradition, and although he had a studio full of apprentice artists painting with him, he was known to have reserved the most important portraits for his own completion. Therefore, though there is no way of guaranteeing that Rubens himself painted the portrait of Maximillian III, Archduke of Austria, it seems plausible.

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Whomever the artist, he did a masterful job, and the attention to detail astounds me. From the lip churl to the vein throbbing in his forehead and the long eyelashes framing his intelligent brown eyes, the artist captured this man’s likeness in exquisite detail. And, since I’ve always had a thing for brown eyes, I decided to google Maximillian, and learn about his life.

Maximillian was a member of the House of Habsburg, which originated in 1438 and was one of the most influential dynasties of Europe until 1740, when they failed to produce a male heir. Queen Elizabeth II descends from their line, but their ethnicity is Austrian with Spanish, Italian and French influence. Maximillian’s great grandfather, Maximillian 1 became Holy Roman Emperor in 1508, but due to the dangers of travelling from Austria to Rome, he broke a longstanding tradition of papal coronation, and instead was declared Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Julius II at Trent. Once broken, this tradition was never reinstated. Maximillian I struggled with the French, and was plagued by financial issues throughout his life, and therefore became obsessed with arranging marriages for both his children and himself which would increase his fortune and power. He also, in 1496, banned all Jews from Styria and Wiener Neustadt and later ordered the destruction of all Jewish literature, with the exception of the Bible.

Maximillian II was born in Vienna, Austria, but spent his formative years at Innsbruck, Tyrol, meaning he was primarily educated in Italy by humanist scholars. He also came into contact with Lutheran teachings and corresponded with the protestant Prince Augustus of Saxony. None of this went over well with his strongly Catholic family, or with his extremely devout wife, whom his uncle arranged for him to marry to strengthen his ties with Spain and with Catholicism. The relationship between branches of the Habsburg family grew strained, and in 1553, Maximillian II is believed to have been poisoned on behalf of a cousin. He survived, and went on to father 16 children with his wife (9 surviving) and to become Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke of Austria, King of Bohemia, King of the Romans, King of Hungary and Croatia. All of this despite only living to the age of 49.

Maximillian III was 18 when his father died. Since he was the fourth surviving son, he did not inherit his father’s many titles, despite being his namesake. His eldest brother, Rudolf II, would succeed their father. Rudolf was educated in Spain and returned home quite aloof and stiff. This concerned their father, who was disdainful of the Spanish, but pleased his Spanish mother, who saw his new traits as courtly and refined. Either way, Rudolf would for the rest of his life be somewhat elusive and a homebody who ruled ineffectively.

Rudolf would spend his life studying the occult subjects of astrology and alchemy, and collecting mannerist art. He also had numerous affairs, some with the men at his court and several with women — resulting in many claims that he had fathered illegitimate children. He did negotiate for marriages (with himself as the groom), but unsuccessfully, and he never married. Later in his reign, he moved the capital from Vienna to Prague, and in Prague Castle he housed his art collection. He allowed a lion and a tiger to freely roam the castle, and compensation to the victims of their attacks were documented in castle account books. Rudolf would eventually be stripped of his power by younger brother, Matthias, and would die nine months after losing his final title (Holy Roman Emperor).

In order to strip his brother of power, Matthias made conciliatory concessions to Protestant rebels in Hungary. With their help, he forced Rudolf to yield lands to him in 1608, then used his armies to keep Rudolf prisoner in Prague Castle until Rudolf finally conceded the crown to his brother. Matthias’ allegiance with the protestants resulted in the Peace of Vienna, which guaranteed religious freedom in Hungary and Transylvania. He also made religious concessions in Austria and Moravia. This did not go over well with the Catholic Habsburgs, and particularly with Maximillian III. Not only was Max a devout Catholic who objected on religious grounds, politically, he wanted to guarantee the succession of Catholic Archduke Ferdinand.

Max was born in Weiner Neustadt on October 12, 1558. In 1585 he became Grandmaster of the Teutonic Order. This was a Catholic military organization which was founded to protect Christians as they went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem (and also to create hospitals). In other words, they were involved with the Crusades and later with the Inquisition. They carried out campaigns against their protestant neighbours, although by the 1500’s they were losing territory and power. As Grandmaster, Max was their leader.

My little protestant heart quakes slightly as I read this. Every shift now I have drifted over to Max’s portrait to study his expression, and one of the things I have noticed is that the man looks formidable. Was he cruel, I have wondered, because within the curve of his lip it has seemed possible. Now, I think, maybe I have my answer.

Of course, he was a product of his life and his time. Maximillian III, who grew up in a home divided by religion, in a time of religious conflict with the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation occurring live and in living colour instead of just in a history book on a shelf, was never going to be a character my 21st century sensibilities could easily embrace, no matter how much I enjoy his portrait.

Max was a candidate for the Polish-Lithuanian throne. He was elected, even, by a segment of Polish society. The catch was, in a glitch of early attempts at democracy, Sigismund III Vasa (of Sweden) was elected, as well. This led to a military campaign which started the war of Polish Succession. Although Max had considerable support in Poland, he was defeated at the Battle of Byczyna, and his army suffered huge loses. They retreated to the city of Byczyna, but Sigismund’s army turned their guns on the city. Max surrendered. He was 30 years old at the time of his capture, and despite renouncing his claim to the Polish throne, he was held prisoner for a year and a half. This was largely due to the inefficiency of his brother Rudolf, who was still leader at that time, yet did nothing to attempt to free Max. Eventually, the Pope intervened, and only then was Max freed.

Max served as regent for his young Catholic cousin, Ferdinand, from 1593-95, then in 1595 he succeeded his uncle (Ferdinand II) to become Archduke of Further Austria. At this time, Maximilian “proved to be a solid proponent of the Counter-Reformation” (thanks, Wikipedia). Although I’m not entirely sure what that looked like, it sounds somewhat ominous to me, and again I think, possibly not a nice man. In 1618, the year Maximillian III died, the Bohemian Protestant revolt began, and in response Max imprisoned Klesl (who had worked with Max’s brother Matthias to guarantee religious freedom). While Klesl was imprisoned, Max revised his policies. That year, before he died, Maximillian successfully saw Ferdinand succeed Matthias as Holy Roman Emperor.

Max lived to be 60 years old. From what I have been able to ascertain, he never married and never had children. Perhaps that is why, when I look closely at the portrait, I invariably read loneliness in his eyes.

I have two more shifts with Maximillian before he returns to his home. Because I imagine loneliness when I see his face, I have grown into the habit of greeting him every day.

“Good morning, Max,” I will say, as I walk past his spot on the wall.

Well okay, I think it, I don’t actually say it. I’m weird, not crazy. I know he’s dead; I know he’s not really here. Still, sometimes when I look at the masterpiece Rubens painted I am reminded of the various Indigenous peoples who refused to have photographs taken, believing the camera would steal their soul. Sometimes, I feel as if I know him that well.

The Portrait of Maximillian III, Archduke of Austria, was painted in 1615. Max would have been 57 years old at the time. Three years later, on November 2, he would be dead. This means that in 9 days from this writing, Max will have been dead for exactly 400 years. Although he is buried at Innsbruck Cathedral, I suspect that after 400 years, even his bones have returned to dust. And yet, for the past three months I have stared into his face on a regular basis.

No wonder he and his family have captured my imagination.

I have two shifts left with Max. It seems to me, after all I have read, that he didn’t lead a particularly happy life as he and his dysfunctional family grasped for power and attempted to alter worldviews. He may have come from powerful bloodlines, but he was a mediocre historical figure, really. And yet, 400 years later, I can say without doubt, he had beautiful brown eyes, and lashes to die for. And part of me is sorry to see him go.

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