I’m looking at a painting of a man who died in 1572. It hangs in the St. Louis Art Museum, near an arch in a hallway connecting the huge room housing the art of the Enlightenment and a smaller gallery for American art of the 19th and early 20th centuries. On a recent evening, my wife and I joined 16 others from our church for a walking lecture by a student at Covenant Theological Seminary.
The tour wasn’t about the museum’s collection; instead, it focused on particular paintings and how they represent the power of ideas in culture, and how they relate more broadly to ideas and events of the times they were painted, and to our own time. The theme of this tour was how ideas in the 19th century reinvented the world, and we spent most of our time with the Naturalists and the Impressionists. But first, there was this introductory stop in the Renaissance collection. And that’s where I wanted to linger.
The hallway contains paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries. The museum doesn’t have much from this era. And this particularly painting, of a man named Gaspard de Coligny, is very easy to miss, just another face on the wall. Other, more interesting (and larger) paintings are nearby. This one is a miniature portrait, perhaps 8 inches by 10 inches. The artist was Francois Clouet (1510-1572), famous for his miniature portraits of the French and English royals of the time, and most famous, perhaps, for a drawing of Mary Queen of Scots, not for this painting of de Contigny.
He was a handsome man, with ice blue eyes and a penetrating gaze, known for his integrity and his faith. He corresponded with John Calvin. He was a leader of the French Huguenots, a military man who led victorious armies and won a short two years of official toleration for the Protestants from the French king. He was named Admiral of France. He helped organize and fund settlements in what eventually became Florida and Argentina. More remarkably, he was an advisor to the Catholic king, and increasingly influential at court. And that was his undoing. He survived one assassination attempt, possibly masterminded by the king’s mother, Catherine d’Medici. He didn’t survive the second two days later.
On St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572, an assassin stabbed de Coligny in his Paris home, then pushed him out of the window to the street below. To make sure the job was finished this time, he was beheaded. The murder triggered an outburst of violence against the Huguenots in Paris and across France that left anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000 dead. Persecution continued for years. Eventually, most of the remaining Huguenots departed for Holland, Scotland and America.
Their departure had enormous consequences, bad for France but good for the places they settled. France lost a major portion of its middle class, and it would reap the harvest of class injustice and hatred 200 years later in the Reign of Terror. De Coligny’s death was a part of the religious wars that so plagued Europe after the Protestant Reformation, wars that eventually led thinkers to look for something other than faith, something like human reason. And you follow the thread from there, from the Enlightenment to the French Revolution to Romanticism (“feelings, not reason, reign supreme”) to Naturalism and Impressionism (“my individual feelings reign supreme”) right through the 1960s and to our own day.
De Coligny was 52 or 53 when he died. His family survived; one daughter married William the Silent, Prince of Orange. His son and a grandson were in the French military, so at least part of the family remained in France.
I look at his face, the face in the painting, and I see the determined look of a man leading armies to defend what he believed. He was so well regarded for his integrity that a Catholic king trusted him, despite standing on the opposite side of the religious divide of 16th century Europe. He was intellectual enough to correspond with John Calvin.
His faith, and his integrity, threatened powerful interests. And they killed him for it.