Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen


The Excommunication of Robert the Pious

Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921). Le Musée d’Orsay - Paris. 1875.

Jean-Paul Laurens’ painting dates from the Romantic period in which the depiction of historical scenes thrived. Yet we see no romantic entwining of bodies in ‘The Excommunication of Robert the Pious’, no chaos of emotions. The composition and general view of this painting is very cool, clear, and linear, apparently devoid of passion. Straight lines prevail in this classic scene that reminds us of Jacques-Louis David’s paintings. Yet, this picture dates from 1875, more than fifty years after David’s death.

The scene of Laurens’ picture is impressive and overwhelming in menace and tension. The ceremony of the excommunication has ended. The bishops of the Church are leaving through the massive Romanesque door of the mighty castle. King Robert II remains alone on his throne, abandoned by his courtiers. Only Berthe, his love, clings to him. The king’s sceptre has fallen on the ground. Robert and Berthe stare, transfixed in horror at the overturned candle, the sign of the end of their spiritual life. They are alone and isolated, imprisoned in the lines that grow in the form a cross over them. The vertical beam of the cross is drawn by the floor pattern, over the vertical lines of the throne. The lines continue to the ceiling in a tapestry of the same straight lines. The horizontal lines of the throne and the side-couches suggest the arms of the cross. The king and the queen are caught in the cross. The throne stands on a slightly heightened dais, the form of which is equally a cross. The grey-blue pattern on the tiles of the floor lead straight to the king and his lover, and seems to assault them. Has Jesus, innocence, again be crucified? Or has a spell of intolerance been cast over the future life of Robert and Berthe, so that they will only experience disasters and unhappiness in their lives? Jean-Paul Laurens has used colours and composition that match the theme wonderfully. Berthe is dressed in a white robe, but an orange band is tied around her waist, emphasizing a pregnancy. She wears the white of innocence and virginity, but she clings desperately to the king, now also in fear. Robert wears the red cloak of his royalty, but this red can also be remarked in the cloak of the bishop who leaves the hall. Above the throne hangs a tapestry with Romanesque designs, and above Robert hangs the image of the God Pantocrator, the terrible creator of the universe. The ‘Excommunication of Robert the Pious’ is a terrible scene, turned into a remarkable painting with powerful ideas.

Jean-Paul Laurens wanted to show the intolerance of the Christian clergy and the evil that the clergy could bring on well-meaning people. He sought tolerance in French society and expressed thus his idea that tolerance could only be realised in a totally secularised state. Jean-Paul Laurens was born in 1838. He painted in Paris, but came oly after 1870 to present heroic historical themes. He died in 1921.Laurens painted for famous halls of the political elite of his country. In the halls of the Palace of the Légion d’Honneur of Paris, Laurens painted a large scene of the founding of this order. He was an atheist, a humanist who condemned the religious fanaticism of the Roman-Catholic Church. In that he was the opposer of artists like Louis Janmot of Lyons, who vowed to spirituality, the existence of the soul, and who saw only in religion a possible saving from debauchery. Laurens’ vision of society was different. For him only a society focused on humanity and on the individual rights of man could be the basis for the new and future French State. With these ideas he was in line with a large part of the French middle class of new wealth. This society had grown up with the ideas of Voltaire and Diderot and of the French Revolution of 1789, of the times of Illumination, which refused the return to Christianity proposed by certain Romantic writers and painters.

A bust of Laurens, made by the sculptor Rodin, stanss in the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts. It shows a long, somewhat narrow head with receding front, a long beard. Laurens looks like an ascetic, thoughtful man. This was a man who defended his ideas. One of his paintings relates for instance the ‘Liberation of Resistants of Carcassone enmasoned by the Inquisition’, a whole program of engaged art in its title. This battle between Christian and atheist convictions raged all through France of the nineteenth century. The conflict delivered remarkably engaged paintings of both sides, such as this ‘Excommunication of Robert the Pious’ that we present here. Another painting of Laurens is as macabre. It shows the popes ‘Formose and Stephan’. In 896 Pope Stephan VI had the body of his predecessor, Pope Formose, dug up from his grave. The putrefied skeleton was put on the papal throne and Stephan held a simulacrum of a trial over Formose for having occupied the papal function illegally. The picture of Laurens shows the putrefied corpse of Formose on the throne and the judges of the trial condemning the past pope. Laurens showed clearly these past excesses of Christianity and enjoyed of course enthusiasm and sympathy for his ideas in the defenders of secular humanism.

Robert II was the son of Hugo Capet, the first Capet King. Robert succeeded his father in 997. Gerbert, bishop of Reims, educated him. This bishop had been appointed by the king and by a French synod, against the will of the pope of Rome so that the popes looked at France with unusual mistrust. Robert learned Latin, mathematics, mechanics, politics and Catholic piety. Soon, he became known as Robert the Pious. The pope continued to protest against the nomination of Bishop Gerbert. King Robert gave in to wishes of the pope to reinstall Arnulf, and not his friend Gerbert, as bishop of Reims, which gave the popes a power over France they would never lose. The king was betrothed to Berthe, the widow of Count Odo of Champagne. Not only was he family of Berthe, but also the godfather of one of her sons. A direct spiritual connection lay therefore between Robert and Berthe. The Church considered a marriage incestuous. Pope Gregorius V declared the marriage illegal in 998 and excommunicated the king. Robert at first ignored this, but both he and Berthe saw her next pregnancy become a miscarriage as a sign of the wrath of God. Around the year 1000, which was considered as a possible ending of all times, Robert dicorced from Berthe to marry Constantia, the daughter of the count of Aquitaine. Soon however, he lived again his now double marriage with Berthe and he asked the pope for the perùission to remarry Berthe. Robert died in 1025.

Jean-Paul Laurens had taken up this romantic theme to defend his secular convictions. King Robert II was pious, a fine king and a learned man. He loved honestly, yet was condemned by popes asserting their power over France’s kings and thus over France itself. This image must have been very powerful indeed to atheist and humanist French politicians, so that one can understand that Laurens was commissioned paintings of historical themes that were signs of intolerance of the Christian Church.

Jean-Paul Laurens’ painting belongs to a style called Historical Painting, a movement that was particularly in fashion in the second half of the nineteenth century. The subjects of historical painting were epic scenes, showing important scenes of the national history of the countries of the artists. They were not idyllic, not of landscapes or of seascapes. The scenes called for grandeur, for energy, for deeds larger than man. They show proud men, conquerors, emperors, kings. The men were fighting, sometimes losing a battle, sometimes winning, but always fighting. This was the new virtue of the end of the nineteenth century: fight always, and even in losing, be always proud and always surpass yourself. Then you could achieve anything you wanted, conquer new territories, master new ideas, be independent, and be your own man. The paintings inspire an enormous dash and spirit. The motto was foremost, ‘dare and you’ll succeed’.

This of course was the spirit of the times. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the beginning of man really bringing nature’s enormous hidden powers to massive use. Coal, oil, fire and water were used in formidable industries. Ores were smelted, poured in forms and beaten to huge beams that were turned into bridges and railroads. The power of steam was harnessed and directed: huge locomotives could be made to run at more than fifty kilometres per hour. People started to fly in the airs in machines of wood and iron. The old art of the alchemists yielded stupendous transforming results and new compounds like Bakelite, the first plastic, were constructed. Adolf von Bayer and Ernest Solvay founded chemical factories and invented new chemical processes. The structure of matter was investigated, the effects of its inner forces applied. Werner von Siemens built the first electric tram in 1879.

The triumphs of industry and science were displayed in world exhibitions. The first one was held in 1851 in London, then followed almost every five years by Paris, London, Paris, Vienna, Philadelphia, Paris, Sidney, Brussels, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Barcelona, Paris, Chicago and so on. Distances were conquered too: industry, money, science were world phenomena for the first time. It had all been done before, but never on such a scale, at such speeds, with so much power. Man began to apprehend that there were no limits to what he could do with these powers. In Egland, Isambard Kingdom Brunel dug canals of hundreds of kilometres long. In France, Alexandre Eiffel built a slender iron tower of more than 300 meters high for the world exhibition of Paris of 1889. Eiffel also worked a lot in Hungary: he built the bridge of Szegedin and the West Railway Station of Budapest, which is a masterpiece of iron and glass. And some like Jules Verne dreamed far out of what might be achieved by science: voyages in balloons around the world, to the interior of the earth, living in the seas. ‘Twenty miles under the Seas’ dates from 1869.

Heroic times for Titans were to be matched by pictures of monumental dimensions. But the new industrialist men were simple, humble of character, and modest. They were no aristocrats, no dukes, earls, and kings. They did not yet think of having themselves painted leading their workmen. Some portraits were made, and certainly the first photographs, but no heroic paintings of themselves. Examples of heroism and grandeur could be found in history. To match the times, the new industrial rich and the political powerful that supported the arts commissioned large works of painters, who were naturally inclined to look to the themes of their own education. Which was history. Since the commissioners were mostly politicians wanting to decorate the new large public halls, parliaments, exhibition halls, the first theme to be found was national history.

With the power of industry grew once more the confidence in man and his accomplishments. Religion was not needed anymore. The antagonism against Christianity and its influence over the State soared. The politicians and industrialists of France refused the predominance of Christian thought and of the Christian clergy in affairs of the state. They were in need for publicity and for polemics to represent their ideas. Jean-Paul Laurens was a magnificent painter, who adhered to the trend for de-christianisation of the state. He proceeded to showing the intolerance of the Church.

Historical painters were many.
In Belgium painted Louis Gallait. He was born in 1810 in Tournai, the town of Rogier Van Der Weyden and Jacques Daret. He died in 1887. Gallait worked in Brussels and made huge paintings, monumental historical scenes of Belgium’s past. He went in the circles of industrials of Tournai and Brussels. In 1863, he made a series of full-length portraits of historical figures for the Brussels Senate Hall. Louis Gallait looked to historical themes of great power. The most powerful man that had ever reigned over the Belgian territories was Emperor Charles V of the sixteenth century, an emperor born in Ghent, so naturally Gallait painted a scene of Charles’ life, a scene in which all the important nobles of the imperial court were assembled. This was a painting of huge dimensions, 4.85 by 6.83 meter, on the ‘Abdication of Charles V’.

Among the most known Hungarian historical painters are Bertalan Szekely and Gyula Benczur. Benczur made a painting called ‘The Recapture of Buda Castle’ in 1896. Benczur started to paint it as early as 1885. It was completed for the Millennium Celebrations in Hungary (ref. H2). These festivities celebrated the thousandth birthday of the Hungarian nation, since the first Magyar King Arpad had then entered the land that was later to be called Hungary. From May to June 1896, the festivities amazed Hungarians and the world. In one regal procession the Royal Crown of Hungary was placed in a crystal carriage, escorted by military guards and by the Keepers of the Crown with halberds, all riding on splendid horses, and thus brought to the Matthias Church and ro the Royal Palace of Buda. In another grand procession , mounted escorts of officials of the 89 municipalities and of the National Assembly rode in full regalia of panther skins, shakos, plumes, and swords, preceded by heralds holding silver trumpets. The procession saluted the King and Queen in the Royal Palace, lowered the colours, and then marched back to the Matthias Church to escort the Crown back to Parliament. A National Exhibition was held in the City Park. Buildings had been erected, pavilions of Budapest history. There were ethnographic exhibitions, military displays, pavilions of commerce, and of monetary business. There was an agricultural exhibition and a pavilion of public education. Most astounding was the Hall of Industry in which stood huge cast iron columns, leading to an iron-supported all-glass roof, and wide glass windows. The capital’s patronage of the arts was proven by Gyula Benczur’s ‘Recapture of Buda castle’, displayed at the exhibition.

Hungary has fathered many excellent historical painters which are far too less known. One reason of course, is that their paintings are either frescoes or too large to travel much and far. So these painters are not represented in the major museums of the world. One has to visit the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest to discover them. Amongst these painters, Victor Madarasz is one of the best. He won a gold medal on the Paris exhibition or Salon of 1859 with a picture of the Mourning of Laszlo Hunyadi, a scene of 1457 telling of the killing of Hunyadi who fought the Turks. Other painters of historic scenes are Sandor Liezen-Mayer, Mor Than and Bertalan Szekely. Bertalan Szekely for instance made a painting of the Discovery of the Body of King Louis II at the battle of Mohacs.

The United Kingdom also knew many historical painters. Among these was an artist called Daniel Maclise. Daniel Maclise was Irish: he was born in Cork of Southern Ireland in 1806, but moved early to London in 1827 to further his career as a painter. He made many historical paintings and particularly he illustrated books of Shakespeare’s plays. He gained a good reputation in the historical genre, so that he was commissioned to paint two large frescoes for the Royal Gallery in the House of Lords in the Parliament of Westminster. These were based on grand themes and national heroes. Maclise lived at the period of the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painters, but his artistic style was separate. He had a gift for grand and large-scale compositions. He painted the scenes that were to the taste of his commissioners who talked of the grand victories of the English. Contrary to the middle-class style of painting of Gallait and Benczur, we find much romantic poetry in his painting of the ‘Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife’.

Historicism is a genre of painting that emerged in all its splendour out of Neo-Classicism and Romanticism of the nineteenth century. Famous battles had been painted long before. Paolo Uccello painted the San Romano battle, Albrecht Altdorfer the battle of Alexander the Great. Classical scenes of Roman and Greek antiquity were common since the beginning of the art of painting. Schools of historical painters existed in all the centuries before and historical scenes were quite popular already in the eighteenth century. In the second half of the nineteenth century however emerged the painting of scenes of more recent history, of medieval times and later.

The motives behind the historical paintings were various. The Hungarian painter Bertalan Szekely used the historic motive of the death on the battlefield of King Louis the Second as a romantic theme: escape to earlier ages, loneliness, sadness, and expression of gloom. Louis Gallait in Belgium and Gyula Benczur in Hungary were honoured painters. They worked for the powerful dignitaries and rich industrialists who commissioned their large epic canvases to glorify the deeds of the country. Thus, Louis Gallait painted for the Belgian Senate, Daniel Maclise for the English Parliament, Jean-Paul Laurens for the Légion d’Honneur, Gyula Benczur for the anniversary of the Hungarian State.

These painters were no flatterers, they did not directly paint to please alone, but what they did and how they did it indeed was acclaimed by the wealthy among whom they lived, and in whose circles they moved. Daniel Maclise combined both: he painted for the eminent politician establishment and yet applied romantic expression to the historical scenes. Jean-Paul Laurens could find in history examples to illustrate his anti-clericalism. The motives were different, the results also different in how they appeal to our senses: we can truly love Szekely’s painting, feel intimately involved in it. We can like Maclise’s scenes and the skilled romantic expression of pathos. We admire the skill and are impressed by Gallait’s and Benczur’s paintings. We look in awe at the coldness by which such powerful emotions are expressed in Laurens’ ‘Robert the Pious’.

Historicism of the nineteenth century was an all-European phenomenon, not limited to one country. Historical paintings are found first and foremost in Hungary. These paintings are too less known in the other European countries and the New World. Szekely, Benczur, Than, Liesen-Mayor and Madarasz made wonderful paintings that are waiting to be more acclaimed. The movement existed almost independently in Belgium, where it was most used by the Walloon, French speaking Belgians like Gallait but also Barthélémy Vieillevoye, Auguste Chauvin and others. Pietro Benvenuti, Giuseppe Bezzuoli, Gaspero Martellini, Enrico Fanfani, Stefano Ussi and others very well represent Italian historicism. These Italian painters have also been somewhat forgotten by our times, they deserve better recognition. Austria had Hans Makart. France was first still in the ban of the imposing Neo-Classicists David and Ingres, but Delacroix in the more rash Romantic way and Laurens in a more neo-classical style especially applied the genre. The nineteenth century remains too much the century of the French impressionists and of the now at least starting to be more discovered English Victorian painters. We tend to forget that this century was rich in many styles.

The historical paintings are marvellous, although less to our taste of the moment. We ought to learn to love them more because they were the expression of powerful feelings of pride, magnificence, a recognition of heroic deeds of the fathers, and a new faith in man’s accomplishments.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.