Sometimes, something “societal” or “cultural” will smack me upside the head. Why do the news media seem so hostile to faith? Why does it seem that our entire society is getting more hostile to faith? Why do people often talk about faith only in cartoon caricatures? Or why is it that our so-called cultural and academic elites sneer at anything to do with faith, especially the Christian faith?
It’s easy to blame it all on the 1960s, that decade of my coming of age when the whole world seemed to come unhinged. I’ve blamed the 1960s, too, until I began to wonder if all that craziness from that crazy decade was a cause – or an effect. And if it was an effect, then the answer might be in what caused the 1960s.
I found at least part of the answer – in a 400-year-old painting.
Rory McClure was a student at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis who, as a sideline, did private lecture tours at the St. Louis Art Museum. The tours weren’t about the museum’s collection; instead, they 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.
One evening, we joined 16 others from our church to learn how ideas in the 19th century reinvented the world. But first there was an introduction – a painting in the Renaissance collection. That’s where I wanted to linger.
Francois Clouet’s “Admiral Gaspard de Coligny” is a small painting, perhaps 8” x 10”, and it’s easily overlooked. The painting dates from 1567-1570, and in it lies a thread to answering my question.
Clouet (ca 1510 – 1572) painted “miniatures” of members of royal families in France and England and their courts. He lived in a tumultuous time – the Protestant Reformation and the religious wars of the 16th century, likely when a lot of people thought the world had come unhinged. It was a notoriously political time in the French court – with Catherine d’Medici, the mother of King Charles IX, a power to be reckoned with, and Gaspard de Coligny, the most powerful Huguenot in France, serving as a close advisor of the Catholic king.
After a spate of religious wars, France granted the Huguenots official tolerance, lasting all of two years. What happened in late 1572 will likely never be definitely known, but scholars theorize that Catherine, alarmed at de Coligny’s growing influence over her son, plotted the admiral’s assassination. He survived the first attempt, a shooting. Then, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, he was stabbed and thrown from the window of his home in Paris. The assassin (or assassins) finished the job by beheading him. The Paris mob went crazy, attacking Huguenots wherever they found them. The attacks spread across France. Estimates of the dead range from 5,000 to 30,000; persecution continued for years. The remaining Huguenots eventually left for Holland, Scotland and America, leaving France with a much reduced middle class – which helped spur the country in the direction of the radical change of the French Revolution.
And there’s the story, all contained in Clouet’s miniature portrait of the admiral. The painting shows a handsome man, with ice blue eyes and a penetrating gaze (yes, I could see him corresponding with John Calvin, which he did). He was known for his integrity and for his faith, and it says something about the man that his influence was as great as it was. And if had lived, what might have happened, or not happened?
The story doesn’t stop there. It lands right in the middle of the questions I asked in the beginning. The religious wars of the 16th century contributed to the reaction known as the Enlightenment, whose ideas ultimately justified the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, which helped lead to Romanticism and the Naturalists and the Impressionists and to Modernism, and eventually to the 1960s.
It’s not just art, of course. It’s art and philosophy and culture and religion and politics and everyday life involved here. Ideas have consequences. And tidal waves like religious wars and the Enlightenment still ripple hundreds of years later. Challenges to faith, sometimes including persecution and even murder, come with the territory.
This article was originally published by The Christian Manifesto, but the site was redesigned and the archive (with all of my posts) disappeared. So I’m occasionally reposting some of the articles I wrote for the publication.