Dossier: Le Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy
A signal piece in the collection and a historical treasure
François Dubois depicted a major episode of European history in minute and horrific detail
Le Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy (The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, around 1572-1584) depicts the slaughter of Huguenots unleashed in Paris on 24 August 1572, and carried out over several succeeding days. The terrible events began on the eve of the saint’s day so it is known as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. This history painting is the only known work to date by François Dubois. The artist stages for all time the main episodes from a bloody page of the French Wars of Religion. Beyond the quality of its execution, this painting on wood panel is exceptionally valuable as a document of the events. It is one of the rare contemporary depictions of the massacre whose creator may have been an eyewitness.
The picture is a veritable catalogue of cruelty, including a pregnant woman who has been disembowelled, children dragging an infant at the end of a rope, a man impaled on a cook’s large skewer, and naked cadavers piled high. Over 150 figures are depicted, making clear the scale of the massacre.
François Dubois portrays the massacre’s protagonists in a manipulated view of the French capital. His Paris features, for example, buildings standing side by side that are quite distant from one another in reality. On the left rises the Church of the Convent of the Grands-Augustins (no longer standing), then we see the Seine and the Pont des Meuniers , and finally the Louvre with Catherine de’ Medici and the mansion in front of which Admiral Coligny, the head of the Protestant faction, is depicted being tossed from a window, then lying decapitated on the ground and being castrated. His naked body is also represented in the background in the upper right being dragged through the streets.
Video presentation (in French)
‘L'histoire par l'image’
Production: Rmn - Grand Palais
24 heures, Florence Millioud-Henriques - "À Lausanne «Le massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy» fait sa star"
Excerpt (translated here):
‘It is a memory painting, the only one that is contemporaneous with the events, besides a few prints. And we refuse to lend it only because it is a question of fragility’, explains the head curator, Catherine Lepdor. ‘We consider it our duty to show it and present it in schools. Its fame is a good reason to come especially to Lausanne and has brought us a number of significant visits, like that of [the French stage and screen director] Patrice Chéreau, when he was preparing his film “La reine Margot”, or Jean Lacouture, who was working on his biography “Montaigne à cheval”. It’s a painting that must be seen – and seen up close.’
For more information
Frédéric Elsig (ed.), De la Renaissance au Romantisme. Peintures françaises et anglaises du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, Les Cahiers du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne no. 18, 2013, no. 2.
Dominique Radrizzani, ‘Les protestants et les coiffeurs. De Simon Goulart à Christian Boltanski’, Le monde selon François Dubois, peintre de la Saint-Barthélemy, ed. Ralf Beil, Les Cahiers du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne no. 13, 2004, 20-29, no. 42.
Off with their heads!
A story taken from the book
‘Hey, look, they’re talking! Fifteen works from the museum tell you their story.’
8-year-olds and up.
Appearance in the credits sequence from ‘The Young Pope’ series
‘Le Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy’ appears at the very end of the gallery crossed by Jude Law in the title role during the opening credits of Paolo Sorrentino’s series.
The Young Pope, 2016, co-production HBO, Sky Atlantic, Canal +