St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

A major painting in the history of Protestantism, as a founding work in the Protestant heritage.

On August 24th, 1572, the infamous three-day long “St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre” took place in Paris. Thousands of Protestants were trapped in an enclosed city and murdered. The episode happens in the midst of a religious war.

This painting’s original in the Musée cantonal de Lausanne (MCBA) was painted by François Dubois, a Protestant artist who sought asylum in Geneva between 1572 and 1584, shortly after the events he depicted. It constitutes a unique testimony in that the artist was very likely to have witnessed these events, perhaps event some of the actions actually depicted in the painting. It makes it “a testimony, a rare approach of those times”, as explained by the MCBA’s cultural mediation department.

Indeed, very few direct representations of these tragic events still exist. This explains why this painting, although highly subjective, has become over time the emblematic image of the massacre and of more generally of the 16th century wars of religion. To this day, it is featured in many history books to illustrate that era.

Dramatisation

Let’s have a closer look at the geographical settings. Various emblematic buildings of Paris at the time are represented (the Seine river, the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the church of the Grands-Augustins, which has now disappeared, the Buci city gate, which had been intentionally closed, the Louvre palace, the house of Admiral de Coligny, the leader of the Protestant party…). It is, of course, a symbolic representation which does not mean to be realistic but rather aims to place the spectator “as if facing a theatre stage”. On this stage, pleading and unarmed victims are massacred by heavily equipped hordes, while the Seine overflows with corpses. The assassination of Admiral de Coligny by the Duc de Guise is also featured in three stages: defenestration, decapitation, emasculation. In the background, queen Catherine de Medici herself, is seen contemplating a pile of corpses. An important hagiographical debate then ensued on the part played by this central figure of political power in these massacres.

In the middle, a figure stands out: a gentleman in red, wearing a cape and a hat, seems to be frightened. Some commentators have held that he is a Catholic, placed here by the artist to remind us that the conflict was primarily based on political opposition, and that far from all Catholics were filled with hatred against the Protestants…

Source : www.reformes.ch

 

François Dubois (1529-1584), St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, c. 1572-1584.
Facsimile of the original ( owned by Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne) and displayed at the International Museum of the Reformation, Geneva.