“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 a 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.
But then, on August 22, an attempt was made on Coligny’s life. The king denied all knowledge of the attempt, but Protestants were suspicious, wondering who was responsible and what it meant. Meanwhile, rumors spread among Catholics that the Huguenots were infuriated by this attempt and that they might soon take their revenge. The next day the royal council held an emergency session and determined to kill the Huguenot leaders. The gates to the city were locked to prevent anyone from leaving and soldiers were dispatched under the command of Henri of Guise.
Early on Sunday morning, soldiers burst into Coligny’s quarters and slaughtered him. They threw his body from a window where crowds later mutilated it and paraded it through the streets. The soldiers then turned on other Protestant leaders, dragging them from their beds, and killing them. Soon the city militia and Roman Catholic mobs began to kill Protestants wherever they found them, ruthlessly putting to death men, women, and children. The violence soon spread beyond Paris to at least a dozen other cities where both soldiers and mobs continued the violence. It was said that in Lyon the river flowed red with the blood of the hundreds or thousands of bodies thrown into it. This orgy of violence continued for weeks. We have no accurate record of the number of Protestants killed, but certainly it was in excess of ten thousand and may reach much higher than that.
Francois Dubois was an eyewitness to the Paris massacres and captured the ugly drama in his painting “Le massacre de la Saint-Barthelemy,” a painting that is history as much as it is art. There we see Coligny’s body being thrown from a window, and then decapitated, there we see Catherine coming to inspect the violence and its results, there we see hundreds of bodies being thrown into the river. This painting reminds us that as the gospel transforms people, it also creates enemies. It reminds us that the Christian faith has been established only by blood—the blood of the Savior and the blood of his followers. It warns us that we do not place our hope or trust in princes or rulers. It assures us that to be a friend of Jesus is to be an enemy of Satan and those who rule this world on his behalf.
Not surprisingly, Protestant and Catholic historians have long differed on the causes of the massacre. Protestants have usually held that Catherine de Medicis was behind the plot as a means to rid the kingdom of Protestants; Catholics have held that the massacre began as a preemptive defense against a Protestant plot to overthrow the government. Regardless, it indelibly revealed the depth of hatred toward Protestantism and toward the true gospel. Pope Gregory XIII celebrated this massacre as a holy event and even issued a medal to commemorate it. Like many other Catholics at the time, he regarded it as an act of divine retribution to stamp out heretics.
One sad effect of the French massacres is that many Protestants recanted their faith, sometimes out of fear of death and sometimes out of discouragement, believing the massacres to be proof of God’s disfavor. For a time it seemed that the Protestant cause in France had been completed crushed. Yet much like the violence against the early church in Christianity’s infancy, this violence would strengthen the church around the world, for many Huguenots fled for safer lands, and as they went, they took the gospel with them. France’s loss was the world’s gain.
For more information on the massacre, consider this excellent article from Christianity Today.
More in The History of Christianity in 25 Objects:
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Introduction
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Augustus of Prima Porta
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Rylands Library Papyrus P52
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Alexamenos Graffito