Joseph Désiré Court (1797-1865)
Le Martyre de sainte Agnès/ The Martyrdom of St Agnes
(Salon de 1865)
Oil on canvas
496 x 812 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen
The scale of the massive work can be seen from the following image:
The exact title of the work is: Martyrdom of Saint Agnes in the Roman Forum, in the Year 303, under Diocletian
Which is really what sums up a huge and massive work in a comparatively few words
It is however rather difficult to see the actual martyrdom notwithstanding that she is at the centre of the work and her death is the theme of the painting
The martyrdom is really subordinate to the study of Imperial Rome
It used to hang in the town hall of Rouen from 1897 to 1925 when it was transferred to the Museum
A distinguished history painter and portrait painter, Court won the Prix de Rome in 1821
In 1853 he was appointed the Curator of the Museum at Rouen where his work now stands
Last year the work was the subject of a number of news articles after it was reported that the French President, M François Hollande, had declined to deliver a speech for the opening of an arts festival in front of the painting and when it could not be moved that it was covered by a blue sheet
In fact he cancelled the visit for some unexplained reason. Vatican Insider also picked up the story
Some said that it was because of its religious subject. Others simply that the glare from the painting would cause problems for the photographers and cameramen who would be there to record the event. Others that he had simply good taste
However it is strange that the story of a martyr who was killed 19 centuries ago for the faith can still cause an Imperial sovereign to stop in his tracks
St Ambrose in his panegyric explained why this young girl was such a great force in her time:
"A new kind of martyrdom!
Not yet of fit age for punishment but already ripe for victory, difficult to contend with but easy to be crowned, she filled the office of teaching valour while having the disadvantage of youth. She would not as a bride so hasten to the couch, as being a virgin she joyfully went to the place of punishment with hurrying step, her head not adorned with plaited hair, but with Christ.
All wept, she alone was without a tear.
All wondered that she was so readily prodigal of her life, which she had not yet enjoyed, and now gave up as though she had gone through it.
Every one was astounded that there was now one to bear witness to the Godhead, who as yet could not, because of her age, dispose of herself.
And she brought it to pass that she should be believed concerning God, whose evidence concerning man would not be accepted.
For that which is beyond nature is from the Author of nature"
More recently Blessed Pope John Paul II remarked:
"As an alternative to the many things we could own, the Lord offers the one thing that is essential: to leave everything for love and to follow him: "Come, follow me" (Mk 10:21).
The virgin and martyr Agnes responded with total generosity and an undivided heart to Christ's invitation: she made her own existence an "eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendour of moral truth" (cf. Veritatis splendor, n. 93).
Because of this, she herself was able to brighten "every period of history by reawakening its moral sense" (ibid.).
Her example encouraged many believers over the centuries to follow in her footsteps."