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The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew

Jean-Baptiste Deshays (1729-1765). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Rouen. 1758.

Saint Andrew was the brother of Saint Peter. He was really the first apostle. Very little is written in the Gospels on Andrew, except in reference with Peter. But in the ‘Golden Legend’, many stories of his life are told. He seems to have been on conversion missions in Greece and in Asia Minor. The ‘Golden Legend’ mentions Scythia, Ethiopia where he would have liberated Matthew, then Achaia or Greece. He found his death by martyrdom in Greece.

According to the ‘Golden Legend’, Andrew converted Maximilla, the wife of Aegeus the Roman Governor of Patras in the Peloponnesos. When he heard of this, Aegeus commanded the Christians to sacrifice to the idols. Aegeus and Andrew argued over this. Aegeus particularly asked Andrew how the apostle could state that Jesus suffered death freely, when everybody knew that Jesus was denounced by one of his own disciples, imprisoned and crucified. But Andrew proved that Jesus’s passion was indeed voluntary and he explained the mystery of redemption to the proconsul. But Aegeus only called all this inanities and again wanted to force Andrew to offer sacrifices to all the Gods. Andrew refused. Aegeus threw Andrew in prison, had him flagellated and bound hand and foot to a cross so as to make his agony last longer. Andrew hung alive on the cross and preached to thousands of people. He was not crucified on a cross in the normal shape, but on a cross in the form of an X, a saltire. On the third day like this, the crowds started to threaten the proconsul, saying that such a gentle man as Andrew should not be made to suffer so. Aegeus wanted to release Andrew, but nobody could even touch the saint for Andrew had prayed to the Lord to not let him come down alive. Andrew died as a dazzling light shone out of the heavens and enveloped him. Aegeus was seized by a demon and died in the street. Maximilla buried the saint.

The martyrdom by crucifixion on the saltire of Andrew was a frequent theme of painters. It was the single best-known legend of Andrew’s life and always spectacular for devote viewers. There are many further legends also about the relics of Saint Andrew, among which one that tells of the relics being brought to a place in Scotland in the fourth century, to a site hence called Saint Andrews. Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland and he remained that also of Greece. The Saint Andrew saltire is in the national banner of Scotland.

Pictures of Andrew’s martyrdom were made for churches dedicated to the Saint. Such was also the case of Jean-Baptiste Deshays’ painting ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew at the Moment when, before being attached to the Cross, one demands of him to adore Idols.’ The large painting was made in 1758 for the altar of the church of Saint Andrew, or Saint-André-de-la-Porte-aux-Fèvres, of the French city of Rouen. Rouen is a town laden with history. Joan of Arc was burned here on the marketplace in the fifteenth century. Rouen lies halfway between Paris and Le Havre, between the largest capital and one of the largest seaports of Europe. Large ships could fare into the Seine at Le Havre, sail up to Rouen and come thus closest to Paris. Rouen was always a rich town as it formed the link between Normandy, France’s seacoast and Paris. Rouen has preserved much of its medieval charm. Its cathedral, painted by the Impressionist artist Claude Monet in all shades of light and colours, is a splendour of Gothic architecture.

Jean-Baptiste Deshays was born in Colleville of France in 1729. France was still in the Ancien Régime under the frivolous regent and kings that had succeeded to Louis XIV. In 1753 Deshays was already a laureate of France’s Prix de Rome and he left for Italy. He returned to France around 1758 and had received before he left for Italy the commission to paint three panels for the Saint Andrew church of Rouen that had been newly built F10 . He first made the ‘Martyrdom’ in that same year 1758, then the ‘Entombment’ in 1760 and the ‘Flagellation’ in 1761. Deshays died young in 1765. Too young, for Jean-Baptiste Deshays was a painter of great intelligence and force, and he had a fresh, individual taste, although he remained rooted in the French Academic tradition.

The picture of ‘Andrew’s Martyrdom’ is very dramatic. As we have seen in many Baroque paintings, oblique lines create movement. Deshays applied this structural element to its summum. Many oblique lines intersect and depart from each other. One such line is formed by the direction of the body of Saint Andrew and this is a diagonal of the lower half of the frame. From along Andrew’s head starts another oblique line; one of the beams of the saltire cross. On the other diagonal the Roman proconsul Aegeus shows the statue of Jupiter. An angel drops from the sky in another intersecting line and various other directions can be discerned in the sticks and beams of the lower part of the painting. These lines support the theatrical, dramatic, dynamic effect of the scene.

In the core of the painting is Saint Andrew’s emaciated, long, pale body. Andrew throws his arms to heaven in a gesture of abandonment, answered by the angel who brings him already the crown of martyrdom. Andrew seems to invoke God as a witness to his pains. The invocation is of course the contrary of what the proconsul Aegeus at the left, dressed in a Roman toga, wants of the saint. Aegeus shows Andrew the statue of Jupiter and commands Andrew to adore the idol. Aegeus and the statue are painted in dark colours and so are the other figures. Thus, the complete light is brought on the body of Andrew, as the ‘Golden legend’ told, and the Christian scene forces the old idolatry into the shadows.

Jean-Baptiste Deshays has mixed several scenes in the altarpiece. Andrew is forced on his knees by a slave guard, in front of the idol statue. His martyrdom looms behind him on the X cross. And an angel brings him the crown of the martyrs together with a promise of salvation of his soul. Andrew is standing on a platform to which lead stone stairs. Downward is his tomb and the apostle already wears the white linen of the shroud. This element also contrasts with the high blue sky, out of which falls the angel. Heaven and earth are thus emphasised. The sky is a wonderful blue, which is repeated symmetrically by a blue cloak thrown over the stairs. This may be a symbol of the Roman emperor’s blue. Further details are interesting. The saltire on the back looks like crossed Roman columns, the symbol of a world that temporarily prevails over Christianity, but will ultimately be destroyed. A furious, wild dog claws over the blue cloak, maybe a reference both of the near end of the Roman Empire and of the ferocity of the flagellation of Andrew.

Jean-Baptiste Deshays painted a picture with a sound structure of intersecting lines, with an intelligently thought out scene, in marvellous colours and in a dynamic composition. Remarkable about this picture is that it was made in times when François Boucher and Jean-Antoine Watteau were painting frivolous scenes in Rococo style. These painters worked in Paris and at the court of the king, whereas Deshays worked in provincial Rouen. A more austere Classicism was being revived, yet more natural and spiritual and this style influenced some of the visions of the Baroque. Deshays was one of the main representatives of an innovative trend that never left French artistic spirit. He definitely died too young.

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