Horace Vernet first travelled to Algeria following the French army on its conquest of North Africa. His first of many visits to the country came in 1833. Vernet was a devout Catholic in the pay of the colonialist Second Empire: unlike Eugène Delacroix and Eugène Fromentin, both eager to embrace the foreign experience on their visits to Algeria, he took little interest in the Arab and Berber cultures. As such, his work remains hidebound by the conventions of Orientalism.
The open-air mass that gave this painting its title was held on 14 June 1853 after the conquest of the mountainous Babors region. The celebrant was Dom François Régis, abbot of Our Lady of Staoueli on the banks of the Aguerioune wadi, south-east of Algiers. The priest’s trunk is shown in the bottom right-hand corner. Vernet attended the mass and declared himself deeply moved by the celebration of the Christian God in a heathen land. He commented on his work, “The moment I chose was the moment of elevation, when the cannon replaced the little bell and the smoke of gunpowder replaced incense”.
The monumental painting was presented at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855. In the foreground, the defeated Kabyle chiefs and a row of kneeling Zouaves, or light infantry troops, create a sense of depth of field. The rifles and the priest’s hands joined in prayer guide the viewer’s gaze up to the rustic wooden cross and the altar heaped with flowers. At its foot lies a pile of drums, signifying the alliance of the cross and the sword. Vernet chose the moment when the priest elevated the host. God’s immaterial presence is immanent in the cannon smoke drifting on the breeze, enveloping the scene in a veil of mystery.
Davy Depelchin and Roger Diederen (eds.), L’Orientalisme en Europe. De Delacroix à Matisse, exh. cat. Marseille, Centre de la Vieille Charité, Paris, Hazan, 2011: 148.
Stéphane Guégan (ed.), De Delacroix à Renoir. L’Algérie des peintres, exh. cat. Paris, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, Hazan, 2003 : 164-166, and n. 75.
Mary Anne Stevens (ed.), The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse. European Painters in North Africa and the Near East, exh. cat. London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1984: 231, and n. 120.