Work of Art:
Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII
by Jean-Paul Laurens



Title: Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII

Artist: Jean-Paul Laurens

Completion Date: 1870

Style: Academicism

Jean Paul Laurens’ monumental 1870 painting Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII stands as an extraordinary achievement of French academicist technique. Laurens can be appropriately placed among Jean-Léon Gérôme and William-Adolphe Bouguereau among France’s pantheon of  XIXe siècle artists. Born in 1838, he studied under Léon Cogniet and Alexandre Bida at the École des Beaux-Arts and combined a highly detailed style with flawless technical proficiency. Laurens’ approach firstly utilized broad daubs of paint in order to highlight shadowing and then incorporated smaller, precise brushstrokes with a sable-hair pencil. Punctilious use of oil pigments and the ‘building-up’ of layers on the canvas created panoptical scenes of awing splendour.

Laurens’ politics were anti-clerical and republican, which assisted him during the Troisième République. Subservient to its ‘approved’ tastes, he painted the Paris City Hall’s vaulted ceiling, the picaresque series illustrating St Genevieve’s life in the Pantheon and illustrated Augustin Thierry’s Récits des temps mérovingiens. This latter work unfavorably depicted the founding kings as capricious autocrats allied with black-robed churchmen. Many of Laurens’ paintings illustrated medieval settings but are coagulated over with rationalist, liberal prejudices regarding France’s ancient past and the Church. His anti-clerical, anti-royalist biases echoed Diderot’s eschatonic desire for the ‘last king to be strangled with the entrails of the last priest’. In Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII, Laurens delineated his Gothic vision of the infamous papal Synodus Horrenda of January 897 A.D. for his admiring bourgeois audiences.

Ghoulishly engaging, the painting depicts a rotting cadaver dressed in sacerdotal vestments. A gilded cope, headdress and gloves all adorn the corpse’s frame while its eye sockets stare emptily and jaw hangs down. This is the body of Pope Formosus, who was posthumously tried and convicted of violating canon law and perjury. His accusers and judges consisted of lackeys loyal to his papal successor. Pope Stephen VII ascended to the Cathedra Romani and desired to enact a Damnatio memoriae against his predecessor in order to efface him from History. When examined by the inquisitor, a deacon provided answers for the putrefying corpse; presumably the best act of ventriloquism in Western Civilization! Pronounced guilty, a papal seneschal cut three fingers from the cadaver’s right hand and later flung it into the Tiber.

Washing up on the riverbank later, rumours circulated through Rome that the corpse could perform miracles. The Roman mob rose against Stephen VII and deposed him. In July 897, he was murdered while imprisoned. Later, Pope Theodore II (897) rehabilitated Formosus but Pope Sergius III (904-911) reaffirmed Formosus’s conviction. Currently Formosus is not discussed at Roman Catholic universities. Similarly to the Borgia popes, Tridentine historians and theologians will discreetly omit him in order to avoid tarnishing Mother Church’s image in the eyes of the world. Following his politics, Laurens explicitly sought to depict the Church as backward and barbaric by painting this particularly dark scene from its long History.

Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII is absolutely nonpareil in its technical execution and stylistic complexities. Laurens completed it at the dawn of Academicism’s last golden decade before Impressionism. Expertly using chiaroscuro, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the ghastly, pale skull nestled in pontifical vestments. Contrastingly, Stephen VII is ensconced in blackness and gazes  out from under beetled brows with undisguised malice.The cassocked deacon palpably retreats before the inquisitor’s accusing finger while serried ranks of prelatic sycophants observe the grotesque spectacle. The thurifer, carpet and inquisitor’s vestments are deliberately Orientalist in order to highlight Laurens’ conception of Rome as barbarous and alien to Western progress.

Laurens proposes a radical dichotomy between latitudinarian modernity (as exemplified in the Third Republic) and papistic, oppressive autocracy. While an arresting tableau of Gothic complexities, we must be conscious of Laurens’ leftist beliefs. Those drawn to medievalist oneiric visions will surely find much to contemplate in Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII long after they depart from the gallery.

Peter Sayles

Bangor, Maine (2012)

About Peter Sayles

Peter Sayles ist eine junge rechtsextremistischem und glühender New Englander