Painting the Merovingians: the bicentenary of Évariste Vital Luminais 2

Évariste Vital Luminais (1822–1896), Psyché (1886), oil on canvas, 52 x 82 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first article celebrating the bicentenary of Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), I looked at the start of his career with a selection of his paintings up to 1879, during which he migrated from his initial gentle social realism to early French history, in particular the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks.

In 1880, Luminais painted one of the strangest episodes in semi-legendary European history, in his major work showing The Sons of Clovis II floating on a bed-like raft on the River Seine.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), The Sons of Clovis II (1880), oil on canvas, 190.7 × 275.8 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

The original (above) is now in Sydney, Australia; from that the artist made a copy (below), now in Rouen, in which he elaborated the detail at the foot of the raft.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), The Sons of Clovis II (1880), oil on canvas, 197 × 276 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Rouen, Rouen, France. Wikimedia Commons.

To understand these in the context of history, I’ll go back to the first of the Merovingian kings, Childeric I (c 437-481), who ruled the north of France and Belgium from Tournai, in modern Belgium. It was his son King Clovis I who put the Merovingian rulers in charge of a proper country, the kingdom of Francia, the ancestor of modern France.

Clovis was born in Tournai in about 466, and succeeded Childeric in 481 when he was only fifteen, at which time he’d still not converted to Christianity. His court had partially converted, but to Arian Christianity which had been declared heretical back in 325. It was only when Clovis married Clotilde, a princess of the Burgundian kingdom, that he was exposed to Catholicism.

In 486, when he was just twenty, Clovis defeated the Romans at the Battle of Soissons, and in 491 defeated the Thuringians to the east. He forged an alliance with the Ostrogoths in the south (in modern Spain) by marrying his sister Audofleda to their king, Theoderic the Great. His turning point came in the Battle of Tolbiac, fought against the Alamanni of western Germany at some time between 496 and 508, which Luminais painted in about 1848. On Christmas Day in 508 he finally converted to Catholicism in a small church near modern Reims, being baptised there by Saint Remigius.

Clovis II (637-657/8) succeeded as king of Neustria and Burgundy from 639, initially with his mother acting as regent, then a succession of influential nobles. He married Balthild, an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat who had been sold into slavery in Gaul. They had three sons: Chlothar (who succeeded Clovis), Childeric, and Theuderic.

A persistent legend grew up that, in about 660 (by which time Clovis was already dead), the king went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While he was away, he entrusted his kingdom to his oldest son, Chlothar, under Balthild’s regency. However his older two sons fell out with their mother, and conspired to seize power from her. Clovis rushed back to control this revolt, and ponder what to do with his sons.

Clovis wanted to execute them both, but Balthild proposed punishment which would deprive their limbs of all power, so they couldn’t revolt again. Although the language is ambiguous, it appears that the main tendons, particularly those of the hamstrings, were cut in their arms and legs, although this is referred to as énervé in the French. The helpless boys were placed on a raft on the River Seine, as painted by Luminais, and floated downstream to Jumièges, near Rouen, where Saint Philibert took them in and gave them shelter.

Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne - Le dernier des Mérovingiens - Evariste-Vital Luminais -Joconde 04400000403
Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), The Last of the Merovingians (before 1884), oil on canvas, 210 x 172 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne, Carcassonne, France. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

For a couple of centuries, Merovingian kings were among the most powerful in Europe, but they then assumed a more ceremonial role, with the mayor of the royal palace becoming the effective ruler. Among the notable mayors was Charles Martel, who effectively ruled both Neustria and Austrasia, an area spanning northern France across deep into modern Germany. Childeric III assumed the throne in 743, but had no real power. Four years later one of Martel’s sons Pepin the Short, then a co-mayor, decided to seize the throne, and enlisted the support of Pope Zachary.

The distinctive feature of all the monarchs of the Merovingian dynasty was their long hair. In early March 751, Pope Zachary removed Childeric from the throne and, as show here in The Last of the Merovingians (before 1884), ceremonially cut his hair into a tonsure, then put him into a monastery.

Luminais didn’t only celebrate the Merovingians in paint, but he also painted Breton legendary history. Gradlon the Great (Gradlon Meur or Mawr) was ‘king’ of Cornouaille, in the south-west of the Brittany peninsula during the fifth century, where he was associated with the story of the submerged city of Ys.

Gradlon fell in love with Malgven, the Queen of the North, and the pair killed her husband, the King of the North. She bore him a daughter, Dahut, who was possessed by a half-fairy, half-woman who had been rejected by Gradlon in the past. Dahut turned the city of Ys into a place of sin and debauchery. However, it was below sea level, and relied on walls and a sea gate to keep the waters out.

One night, when she was drunk, Dahut stole the key to the sea gate from her sleeping father, and opened the gate up, flooding the city. Gradlon woke up and rescued Dahut on his enchanted horse, but her sins kept dragging them back into the sea. Eventually Saint Guénolé (Gwendole or Winwaloe) pushed Dahut into the waves, which were immediately calmed. She was engulfed by the sea, and became the Breton equivalent of a siren.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), The Flight of St. Guénolé and King Gradlon (1884), oil on canvas, 50 × 70.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Rennes, France. Photo by Caroline Léna Becker, via Wikimedia Commons.

The version known as The Flight of St. Guénolé and King Gradlon (1884) at Rennes is clearly a late study, showing Gradlon on the right, with Dahut still clinging onto him, and Saint Guénolé riding alongside, gesticulating with his right hand. The remains of Ys are still visible on the horizon.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), Flight of King Gradlon (1884), oil on canvas, 200 x 310 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Quimper, Quimper, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The finished version, Flight of King Gradlon (1884) and now at Quimper, is a superb narrative painting, and shows Luminais’ skill at painting horses, as well as capturing motion frozen almost photographically. Now it is Gradlon who is seen thrusting Dahut away from him, as his horse rears up to help shed its burden.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), The Death of Chilperic I (1885), oil on canvas, 240 x 189 cm, Hôtel de Ville, Lyon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, Luminais returned to the Merovingians in The Death of Chilperic I (1885). Chilperic I is not to be confused with the better-known Childeric I (440-481/2) who was the father of Clovis I. Just to make matters more complicated, there was also a Chilperic I who was the king of Burgundy from 473 until about 480. I believe that this painting shows King Chilperic I of Neustria (or Soissons), born in around 539, crowned in 561, and murdered in September 584.

Although they weren’t entitled, Chilperic’s brothers forced him to share his kingdom, with his eldest brother Charibert becoming king of Paris until he died in 567, when Paris was shared between the four brothers. Unpopular with the church, he was returning from a hunting expedition to his royal villa of Chelles when he was stabbed to death.

The only motivation that I can see for Chilperic’s death to be commemorated in a painting is that an operetta about his life was first performed in 1864, and may have been undergoing revival at the time. Luminais shows a servant and a courtier carrying Chilperic’s body onto a small timber platform. In the distance, caught in a patch of sunlight, the rest of the hunting party is seen.

A year later, Luminais turned to classical narratives.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), Psyché (1886), oil on canvas, 52 x 82 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Psyché (1886) and her love for Cupid is the central thread in the novel written by Apuleius in the second century CE, which became lost and was rediscovered in the Renaissance. Psyche was the youngest of three daughters of a king and queen. Because of rumours about her being an incarnation of Venus, Venus herself was offended, and ordered Cupid to exact revenge. However, Cupid instead scratched himself with one of his own arrows, and fell helplessly in love with Psyche.

Cupid managed to marry Psyche by stealth, and made her pregnant. However Psyche was not aware that Cupid was her husband, and tried to see and kill the monster which she was convinced slept with her each night. Instead, she wounded herself on one of Cupid’s arrows, and was struck by the feverish passion of love too.

She then set off on a quest to find her husband. This took her through a succession of trials imposed by Venus. The last of these was to take a box (in Greek, pyxis) to obtain a dose of the beauty of Proserpine, the Queen of the Underworld. Psyche made her way to the entrance to the underworld, and paid Charon the ferryman two coins for her return trip. Proserpine provided the dose as pleaded by Psyche, and she set off on her return. Eventually Jupiter had a proper wedding arranged for Psyche and Cupid, and everything was regularised.

Luminais chooses to show what is probably the key moment in the whole novel, and a peripeteia of sorts: Psyche, picked out in white and clutching the pyxis in both hands, being rowed across to the underworld by Charon, with a boatful of the dead. She stares straight at the viewer, an unusual and powerful pictorial choice.

A recurring theme in Luminais’ other paintings is that of the ‘primitive’ carrying off an abducted woman. Just as the British have a stereotype of Vikings landing and carrying away many of their women, so there are parallels with warring tribes throughout Europe.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), The Bounty of War (date not known), oil on canvas, 99.7 x 80.6 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Luminais’ undated The Bounty of War is one example of a group of captive women being herded along by the victors, just in front of the cattle they had also acquired.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), The Abduction (1887-9), oil on canvas, 220.5 × 157 cm, National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Courtesy of National Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires, via Wikimedia Commons.

What makes The Abduction (1887-9) unusual is that both the abductor, a well-muscled man with red hair (indicating Celtic roots), and the abducted, a shapely young woman with long black hair, are completely naked. Once again Luminais paints the horse bearing them with finesse, as it wades across the river towards the opposite bank.

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821–1896), Norman Pirates of the Ninth Centry (1894), oil on canvas, 189 x 144 cm, Musée Anne-de-Beaujeu, Moulins, France. Wikimedia Commons.

To the British, the Normans, who invaded Britain following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, were French. In truth they had also invaded the north (Channel) coast of France from their Norse origins, and were as alien to the French as to the British. Norman Pirates of the Ninth Century (1894) is set before the Duchy of Normandy became established as a fiefdom in 911, and shows Norsemen busy doing what the stereotype holds to be their characteristic activity: coming by sea, landing, raping and pillaging, then carrying off the best of the surviving women, back to their base.

The woman shown being manhandled back to a boat is very fair of skin and has long blonde hair, in contrast to the Normans, who have red and brown hair. In Luminais’ simplified racial code, this would make the men Celtic, which seems puzzling in the context of his other paintings.

Évariste Luminais was active, and highly successful in the Salon and commercially, during a time of great change in French painting, with the rise of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. His paintings were hung alongside those of Gérôme, another vividly realistic painter who showed Orientalist and Roman spectacle.

With almost no accessible literature available on Luminais, and but a small range of his works, it is impossible to do him justice. What I see in these few accessible paintings suggests that history has done him great disfavour.


Wikipedia (in French).
Les Énervés de Jumièges – the strange legend (in French).