Charles III: A portrait of quiet traditionalism

News & Politics

This week, King Charles III’s first royal portrait as king was unveiled in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Jonathan Yeo, son of conservative politician Tim Yeo, painted the oil-on-canvas work. Immediately, online observers were struck by the hellishness of the image.

The portrait depicts Charles clad in red formal military garb against an abstract field of the same color. Yeo’s circular, churning brushstrokes make the background and foreground appear to melt into one another.

In the deeper, historical Anglo lore, butterflies were often understood as the souls of the faithfully departed on their way to the afterlife or in purgatory.

Charles stands determined, facing the observer directly, his weight evenly distributed, his shoulders straight. Only in his face and hands does the turbulent translucence of his surroundings give way to resolute opacity.

On X, Michael Knowles observes, “At risk of being consumed in a sea of (violent, dangerous, red) modernism, His Majesty nevertheless emerges as an emblem of tradition. The regalia have lost some definition, but the face and hands—the man—remain clear.”

Keen Royal observers will understand Knowles’ reference. Charles’ quiet traditionalism has been overshadowed by scandal, but it remains nonetheless. Mark Sedgwick writes:

“As Prince of Wales, he was famous for his environmentalism—an apparently very modern stance. What could be more up to date than going green? In reality, however, his views are anachronistic. …The king’s environmentalism derives from his support for a little-known philosophy, Guénonian Traditionalism. … For [His Majesty], the fundamental problem is that modern Westerners have lost touch with the spiritual tradition that informed the past, and that is why they despoil their surroundings.”

René Guénon, French-Egyptian founder of the traditionalist perennialist movement of the 20th and 21st centuries, argued that the “primordial tradition” — the sense of deep connection between people and place — was last widely understood in the West among the scholars of the Middle Ages.

For Guénon, and King Charles, “the loss of this primordial tradition is a defining characteristic of modernity. Modernity focuses on technological triumphs that are fundamentally unimportant, ignores all that is truly important, and values illusory ideals such as equality and individual freedom.”

The king considers direct natural despoilment to be but one form of this greater spiritual disintegration. His criticism of modern architecture and agriculture share in the basic reactionary premise.

King Charles requested a certain detail to be added to his new portrait when asked to think of a message for future generations: a butterfly, landing on his shoulder, meant to sum up his reign for school children in the future.

So, we know its purpose, but what does the monarch butterfly — the only other clear subject of the portrait — represent?

On one hand, butterflies signify rebirth, transformation, natural beauty, the final journey of a long-gestating caterpillar: all representative of King Charles, whether of his values or his path to the throne.

In fact, one of Guénon’s most recognizable works of metaphysics is entitled “The Multiple States of Being,” in which he posits that being itself is best understood in terms of a hierarchy of potentialities, some manifest and some un-manifest, which can be brought into the realm of practical reality through deep focus on what is essential. The butterfly and its journey perfectly represent Guénonian thought.

In the deeper, historical Anglo lore, butterflies were often understood as the souls of the faithfully departed on their way to the afterlife or in purgatory. Almost universally, they are associated with the feminine principle.

Considering King Charles’ sentimentality, and as another nod to King Charles’ deep sense of traditionalism, I believe the monarch butterfly whispering into his right ear could be another monarch: Queen Elizabeth II, his faithful mother.

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