The whole of France is bathed in the blood of innocent people and covered with dead bodies. The air is filled with the cries and groans of nobles and commoners, women and children, slaughtered by the hundreds without mercy.” So read a Genevan diplomatic dispatch from the autumn of October of 1572 in a description of what would come to be known as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, one of the most bloody and horrifying episodes in the history of the church.
This awful event is captured in a painting from the era, “Le massacre de la Saint-Barthelemy,” the lone surviving work from artist Francois Dubois, an eyewitness to the massacres. It hangs today in Musee cantonal des Beaux-Arts, in Lausanne, Switzerland and captures the ugly violence that for a time almost seemed to stamp out the spread of Protestantism in one of Europe’s greatest kingdoms. This, Dubois’ painting, is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we can trace the history of Christianity.
From the first spark of Reformation in the opening years of the sixteenth century, Protestantism spread quickly and within just a few decades, it was a powerful presence through most of Europe. Protestantism gained a significant foothold in France where, by the 1560’s, there may have been upwards of two million Protestants, known as Huguenots. The rise of Protestantism in kingdom dominated by Catholicism brought inevitable political instability and France endured several bloody civil wars. The Catholic factions were led by a succession of weak kings under the influence of the powerful Guise family and dominated by the queen mother, Catherine de Medicis. Meanwhile, the Protestants were led by Gaspard de Coligny along with the Bourbon princes Henri of Navarre and Henri of Conde. These leaders wanted the Protestant churches to receive legal recognition and Huguenots to have freedom of worship. This was, of course, unthinkable to the Guise family and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
On August 18, 1572, prince Henri of Navarre married Margaret of Valois, the sister of King Charles IX. This was a political marriage between a Protestant prince and the sister of the Catholic king and it seemed to portend a new era of peace and stability. Many Protestants were invited to Paris for the ceremony and they both arrived and participated unmolested.