“And, indeed, I found plenty of charm in these bright projections, which seemed to have come straight out of a Merovingian past, and to shed around me the reflections of such ancient history.“ (Marcel Proust, “Swann’s Way”)
Glorifying the past was a trademark of the Romantic Movement. Amidst the political turmoil of the long 19th century, the romantically moved hotheads usually did not take long to climax even the “once upon a time” of a seemingly innocent fairy tale into a revolutionary message. A nation, Goethe mentioned, was supposed to have a national epic if it wanted to count for something while mountains, rivers and forests became identity-establishing symbols, usually personified and subsequently depicted as half-clad females, languishing appetisingly in an explosion of light on the respective Romantic spot or, became heroines virtuously armoured in scale mail, swinging the national colours in a previously half-forgotten battle. Especially the downtrodden ethnicities of the post-Napoleonic multinational empires revelled in Romantic nationalism, from Galway to Heidelberg, Helsinki, Budapest and Athens, “freedom!” was on the lips of every self-respecting individual, at least in a spirit, and reaching for muskets and stuff to erect barricades on the high street of the provincial capital of the back-of-beyond one inhabited always was a political possibility. But Romantic nationalism wasn’t the playing fields of the humiliated and insulted alone. Far from it. The major voices in the Concert of Europe revelled in it as well, to celebrate their own leitmotif, especially if they got their noses bloodied in some event or the other and called out for revenge. In the process, the recourse on ancient history itself usually was somewhat unscientific, ruins, old texts and unearthed artefacts usually were interpreted to fit in the romantically moved political programme and during the rising tensions between France and the German-speaking states, Gauls and ancient Germanics became role models and rallying points on both sides of the River Rhine. Back in the day, Caesar claimed the tribes dwelling on the left side of the river called themselves “Celts” while they might or might not referred to themselves as Gal(a)to. Greek folk etymology already connected the derived term “Galateans” with the word γάλα, gála "milk" with their milk-white skins and during the Middle Ages, le coq gaulois began to crow, the Gallic rooster, since the Latin word for said poultry, gallus, was so wonderfully similar to “Gaul”. During the French Revolution, the cocky fowl finally became an unofficial national symbol and the idea to start French history in the days of the ancient Gauls instead of those of Christian Merovingian royalty began in earnest. Along with the idea of having blond or ginger drooping-mustachioed, long-haired, winged-helmet-wearing, boar-feasting, freedom-loving Roman- and German-trashing barbarians hence known as Gauls as one’s ancestors. And one artist, almost lost to oblivion these days, codified this image, the “Painter of the Gauls”, Évariste Vital Luminais.
|Either a Gallic or Merovingian barbarian on the rampage: |
Évariste Vital Luminais: "Le Ravissement" (1889)
|Calm Horror - Évariste Vital Luminais: "Les Énervés de Jumièges" (1880) *|
|Half Gaul, half Merovingian, riding a steed à la Delacroix:|
Évariste Vital Luminais imagination of Merovech, the half-mythical
progenitor of the Merovingian kings of the Franks
* according to an old legend, the two sons of the 7th century Merovingian King Clovis II of Neustria, rebelled against their father while he was on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. In a Freudian primal scene, their returning sire defeated and unmanned (unnerved) the two juvenile miscreants by cutting their tendons and setting them adrift on the River Seine on a raft. They were later rescued and nursed back to health by monks of Jumièges Abbey in Normandy. A legend indeed, since Clovis II was otherwise known as the “Child King”, lived to the age of 21 and albeit he sired three sons who succeeded him as kings of Neustria, Austrasia and Burgundy, all parties involved were hardly old enough to enact the legendary drama for real. However, Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1960 about Luminais’ arguably best-known painting on display in Rouen: “I remained for a long time affected by the calm horror which it evokes."
And more about Évariste Vital Luminais on: