There’s nothing like an artist with angst.
Jean-Paul Laurens was a master of the French School during the late 1800s, and professor at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He was at the top of his game. He was teaching upstarts to rise as the crème de la crème, and doing it at one of the best art schools in the world. He had talent oozing out of his pores. And Laurens loved, loved, LOVED to paint historical scenes. But he wasn’t exactly a happy camper.
“Saint John Chrysostom Confronting Aelia Eudoxia,
Empress of Constantinople” 1894.
(Muséedes Augustins, Toulouse, France)
Jean-Paul had an ax or two to grind with the Roman Catholic papacy and its fallible history. Perhaps he had his knuckles rapped a few too many times when he was young. Perhaps he was a victim of a plaid skirt. At any rate, Laurens‘ work often focused on ugly, historical stains in the papal tapestry.
Laurens has been described as being strongly anti-clerical. Probably. To accuse him of hating all things Catholic, however, would be wrong. Rather, he had a vehement dislike of misused power and political oppression – especially in the Church. His devotion to the Faith and his respect of revered Church fathers is evident. This is obvious in his “Saint John Chrysostom Confronting Aelia Eudoxia, Empress of Constantinople.” The elderly Saint is rendered with great care and sensitivity. The artist could have easily jumped the fence and shown Chrysostom as a raving lunatic, but Laurens carefully played his cards in showing the Saint as animated; as righteously angry; as fearlessly ﬁghting for the Faith. In contrast, the Empress is shown as immovable and unfeeling. Eudoxia decided to exile Chrysostom – ultimately condemning him to death – for his part in calling attention to her sins. Laurens has depicted the Empress as a piece of stony architecture. In spite of being surrounded by glorious light and opulence, there is little visual interest to redeem her.
“The Excommunication of Robert the Pious”
1875. (Musée d’Orsay
Laurens often used the lack of mercy as a driving force behind his pieces. Like ‘Chrysostom before the Empress,’ “The Excommunication of Robert the Pious” focuses on a damning historical event, but in this case the sacred/secular tables are turned.
Robert II of France is more commonly referred to as Robert the Pious, but Robert‘s piety was plagued by ﬂaws in the marital realm. Robert’s father, Hugh, had arranged a marriage for his son, but as soon as pop died Robert divorced his Queen and set his eyes on another. His cousin. The Church promptly did its duty and excommunicated the King.
Lauren’s painting is decidedly sympathetic toward Robert, even though the artist knew the King would eventually set his eyes on yet a third wife. In the painting, the King slouches on his throne, holding his cousin-wife close to him. Laurens loads the canvas with theatrical devices, leading even the most clueless viewer across the stage. A heavy vertical tapestry points to the royal throne that is weighed down by the crest-fallen couple. The scepter has fallen – the King‘s hand too weak to hold it. A large candle, which sadly looks like an enormous Pall Mall cigarette, has been blown out and thrown down by the retreating, shadowy clergy as a symbol of their unequivocal verdict and condemnation.
“Pope Formosus and Stephen VI”
(”The Cadaver Synod”) 1870.
(Musée des Beaux Arts, Nantes, France)
One aspect of Laurens’ work that sets itself apart from his contemporaries’ is the unique theatrical handling of subject that went beyond the standards of the French School. He contrived pivotal moments to dramatize each event. Laurens then employed careful lighting to enhance those moments. Every nuance of gesture and pose were pushed to theatrical bounds. These ingredients pop up decades later in the work of Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, a host of others during the Golden Age of Illustration, and even much later in the work of illustrators such as Frank Frazetta. To that end, it could be said that Laurens was a proto-illustrator. His intent was to tell a story, and he forced the medium to accomplish that task. Some contemporaries faulted him for trying too hard in the telling, and opinions have since waﬄed from appreciation to distaste. His work is certainly beautiful and esthetically fulﬁlling, but it is the story that ﬁrst confronts the viewer, and the story is paramount to esthetic considerations.
Laurens’ talent as story-teller is evident in one ﬁnal example that puts nails in the coﬃn and drops it in the hole. And then digs it out again. “Pope Formosus and Stephen VI,” more famously known as “The Cadaver Synod,” is so bizarre in subject that it appears as if straight out of some cheesy novel. The artist took an unsavory event in the papal annals and depicted it in, um, “living” color.
Pope Formosus was not a very popular pontiff. To his credit, neither was his successor, Pope Stephen VI, who so disliked the former that he disinterred Formosus’ body, put it on trial and condemned it to, uh, I dunno, death or something. Propping up a dead guy must have caused a stink in the Vatican, because Stephen was imprisoned soon after, and condemned to death by garroting. Nice guys.
One cannot look on such paintings and ponder their historical events without concluding that a much greater Power is certainly in control – thanks be to God. Regardless of heinous actions within church bodies, the Word shall yet remain; God‘s purpose in His Church will be brought to fruition.