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The Soul

The Poem of the Soul

Louis Janmot (1814-1892). Musée des Beaux- Arts - Lyon. 1835-1881.

Louis Janmot is a less-known painter from Lyon in France, born in 1814 when France had its first emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Janmot made few paintings, most of which can be seen in Lyon only. He lived all his life in Lyon, the second town of France, till 1891. He spent a short time in Rome in 1835. He was a pupil of the great Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. So we find in Louis Janmot the crisp design and the dry colours of French Neo-Classicism and of the Ingres portraits.

The paintings of Janmot have much in common with Pre-Raphaelite paintings in subject, colours, design, and emphasis on flowers and nature. Yet Janmot had no contact with that group and the first better-known Pre-Raphaelite paintings date from about five to ten years later. Janmot blended the same ingredients as the Pre-Raphaelites did. A touch of romanticism, melancholy, love of nature, the grace of flowers amply used. He applied a design of well delineated contours, simple and dry colours, and a realism in presentation that remind of Italian fresco painting. Janmot reached a new purity in style to present other scenes than classic ones. Purity of feelings inspired by religion, search for higher life were the ingredients also used by Janmot, just as by the Pre-Raphaelites. All were looking for a new spirituality, new ideals and since no such ideals could be found in their present world, the search could only be in the imagination, in mystical unions, in the soul.

Janmot has made an extraordinary accomplishment that has remained unique in Western European painting. He dedicated all his life to a series of thirty-four paintings called ‘The poem of the soul’. Eighteen of these paintings, which date from 1836 to 1855, are painted in colour. The seventeen drawings, which he made after 1855, are in black and white. The paintings are accompanied by a long poem on the same subject. Paintings and poem document and explain each other.

The poem is about the birth and life of a boy, a new soul on earth F6 . God and the angels decide on life (Génération divine), a guardian angel brings life to earth (Le passage des âmes) and the boy finds a loving mother (L’ange et la mère). The boy is joined by a companion girl (Le printemps). They play together in an ideal and untouched paradise. Both their souls retain images of their previous life in the heavens (Souvenir du ciel). The children remain together from childhood to adolescence. They leave their family (Le toit paternel), face the dangers of a secularised university (Le mauvais sentier), the wrong path for them, which will lose their souls (Le cauchemar). But they encounter a wise man who teaches them religious education (Le grain de blé) and shows them the path of Catholic faith (Première communion). The children grow up to adolescents (Virginitas) and start to love each other with a pure platonic love (L’échelle d’or). Time goes by (Rayons de soleil). They climb the hills of life (Sur la montagne), live a simple life in the midst of nature (Un soir). Their souls join (Le vol de l’âme) and fly to the heavens (L’idéal). But the boy cannot follow and is thrown back to earth where he mourns on the tomb of his beloved (Réalité).

The black and white drawings take over from that point. The boy still lingers in the solitude of a forest (Solitude), yet he finds new energy at the beaches, a new touch of infinity to his soul (L’infini). He dreams and receives the revelation of carnal beauty (Rêve de feu). The lovers are joined (Amour), but in a true sensual, earthly love now. Only for a short time: the dream ends (Adieu), the lady has to leave again. In solitude, the young man falls in despair and doubt (Le doute). This is a moment the devil has awaited (L’esprit du mal). He tempts the boy to an orgy (L’orgie), so the youth loses his soul and his God (Sans Dieu). The black hooded phantom now accompanies the man (Le fantôme), his fall continues to a total ending (Chute fatale). In a macabre scene, the man is bound to the corpse of his beloved (Supplice de Mézence), tearing it with him across mountains, and all the generations of Evil are visited by him (La génération du mal). His soul however longs again for purity. He prays and his mother intercedes on his behalf to God (Intercession maternelle). Finally, faith triumphs over evil (La délivrance) and the soul is elevated to the Heavens (Sursum corda).

Janmot has been thoroughly inspired for his poem and series of pictures by Catholic faith. He was one of the representatives of a struggling generation. Since the end of the eighteenth century France and Europe had entered a struggle for the education of the young. For Janmot this was a struggle for the soul of man.

The French Revolution of 1789 had secularised French society. The clergy had originally sided with the masses. Representatives of the second state, the Clergy, had even joined at first the third state, the Commons, in the National Convention. The Bishop of Autun, Talleyrand and the Abbé Sieyès were convinced revolutionaries. They played important roles in the different stages of the revolution. But religion was soon to be repudiated by the revolutionaries. The possessions of the Church were increasingly confiscated.

Unscrupulous merchants bought the convents, abbeys, cloisters and churches to turn them into staple houses or to use them as quarries for other buildings. The Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon, for instance, was once a cloister for nuns: the Saint-Pierre convent. The nuns had to leave at the French Revolution and the convent was to become the Palais Saint-Pierre, one of the National Museums of France. The churches and monasteries were pillaged for their works of art, not only in France but also in all the occupied territories, including the Vatican. The works of art were sent to the French National Museums, both in Paris and in the country, such as the Lyon Museum. One of the Catholic monuments that were sold during the Revolution, bought by merchants and turned into quarries was the Saint Donatian cathedral of Bruges. The same fate fell to the cathedral of Liège. But also the buildings of the French monasteries and churches of Cluny and Citeaux, the very monuments that epitomised Christian spirituality in France, were demolished, and so was the ancient cathedral of Saint Martin at Tours with many others. These splendours of medieval art did not survive the Revolution.

Soon, Priests had to swear allegiance to the Revolution and to the French State. Many priests refused, especially in the countryside. People in Brittany and Flanders supported their priests and revolted. The monarchists generally defended Catholic faith. The Vendée uprising by the Chouans was definitely both aristocratic and Christian inspired. At the same time, philosophers and writers defended their Christianity.

The nineteenth century was really the century of the battles of ideas. Monarchists versus republicans, religious versus anti-clerical tendencies, liberal bourgeois classes versus socialist and upcoming communist ideas, conservative versus the new scientific thought. These conflicts which started in the eighteenth century in the France of the Enlightenment but which then remained intellectual exercises until the French Revolution of 1789, tore Europe at all intellectual seams. Some form of equilibrium was found in the beginning of the twentieth century, and then only after World War I.

The philosophical currents that affected Janmot most were republican and secular versus monarchist and Catholic. Many of these struggles were centred on education. In 1824, the Dean of the Universities of France, Freyssinet, decided to give responsibility for primary education to the Catholic clergy. In 1833 another Minister of Education revoked this again. In 1834, the Abbé Félicité de Lamennais published his ‘Paroles d’un croyant’ in which he supported the democratic movements versus the political and religious authorities. Emperor Louis-Napoleon alternated between resolutions in favour of the Church and against it, according to prevailing tendencies, once supporting the Pope and then forcing upon him measures to reform his Papal States.

In 1877 the French president Mac Mahon was opposed to the government of Jules Simon. Mac Mahon supported the French Catholics and the Pope. But a Member of Parliament, Gambetta, launched a ferocious campaign against the president, crying the now famous words, ‘Le Catholicisme, voilà l’ennemi’ or ‘Catholicism, there is the real enemy’. This led to a crisis in French government and the Republicans as opposed to the Christian Conservatives won the new elections. Later, in 1879 under president Jules Grévy and his government France engaged in deliberate politics secularised the French State again. Projects of law were proposed to stop the educational religious orders. The law was voted in 1880. It forbade religious congregations, among which the Jesuits, to continue to teach and forbade the clergy to hold functions in university education. The French Republicans wanted a French State free of the influence of the Catholic orders and thus of Rome. They felt that the State was all-important and that society had to be directed by the Assemblée instead of by religion. Most of the Republicans refused to call their actions directed against Catholicism, for their rules applied equally to Protestant and Jewish associations.

Janmot had foresight of these developments. His painting ‘Le mauvais sentier’, the wrong path, is a hallucinating representation of Janmot’s feeling about secular education in France. At each step of the children along their road of knowledge, science and literature professors grow out of the wall and lead, tempt them further into what Janmot considered to be the wrong, entirely secularised path. This kind of education corrupted the soul.

In 1880, the Republican former Minister of Education, Jules Ferry, who had become Président du Conseil, published various further laws against the unauthorised congregations, such as the Jesuits, dissolving them effectively. Jules Ferry wanted these laws to become more popular so he decreed that primary education would be entirely secular but also entirely free of charges. Jules Ferry left government in 1882 for the even more anti-clerical Gambetta. French education was secularised; the Catholics had lost the official battle for the soul. French society was definitely to be de-christianised.

But as late as 1900 the struggle was not finished. In France, a new law on associations was then once more directed against Catholic congregations. The Minister of Cults, Waldeck-Rousseau sent a letter to the bishops of France reminding them of the interdiction for monks to preach. And in 1901 the Assemblée adopted a law inspired by the now President of the Council, Waldeck-Rousseau, to forbid congregations to form without permission of the State and the Préfets of France had to control the revenues of the orders annually. The Catholic congregations resisted and new severe anti-clerical politics started that would lead ultimately to the final separation of Church and State. It was during these times that the monks of the abbey of Solesmes for instance, who were dedicated to the study of Gregorian music, had to leave their monastery in France and immigrated to England. Eventually, of course, they would return. You can still hear in Solesmes today the most elevated, dignified Gregorian religious music as a proof of the indestructibility of religious feelings in Europe.

In 1902 and in 1904 France again adopted anti-clerical laws, now by Emile Combes who had succeeded to Waldeck-Rousseau. Combes had to resign when the Minister of War Louis André was forced to admit that in order to guard the right morale of the army the Republican convictions of officers had been inscribed on cards, and that Catholic officers were blocked from promotion. Louis André had written this in private letters to the Freemasons, which became published. But anti-clericalism continued in France. As late as in 1905, under the government of Aristide Briant, further laws were voted that guaranteed freedom of conscience. But no cult would be supported nor given salaries to. All the possessions of the Church would be given to cultural associations. This law was the highest point of secular influence in France.

These struggles between Republican and Catholic convictions happened not only in France, but also in other countries.

In Belgium, liberal and Catholic governments alternately came to power, Catholic and anti-Catholic street revolts succeeded each other. In 1854 the parliament signed the Convention of Antwerp restoring the influence of the clergy on education of children from 12 to 18. But later, in 1879, the Belgian then liberal government adopted a contrary law to organise primary school secular education by the State, whereupon the Church responded by organising its own schools funded by the parents. This was the foundation for a dual system of education in Belgium that has survived until this day.

Comparable adverse tendencies can be found in the history of Italy, where the Pope would lose his Papal States to the newly found young state of Italy that grew out of northern Piedmont. The Piedmont armies beat the Pope’s army led by General Lamoricière in 1860. In 1864, the Pope published the bull ‘Quanta Cura’ in which liberal and socialist philosophies as well as the religious neutrality of nations were refuted. Italian royal armies finally entered Rome in 1870. The Pope excommunicated King Victor-Emmanuel. But the Popes were henceforth confined to the Vatican.

In Germany, the Iron Chancellor Bismarck met hostility from the Catholic Centre Party to his politics of liberalism. In 1872 Bismarck forced a law to be adopted by the Reichstag that withdrew from the Church all power in education and in cultural matters. All schools were put under the control of the State. That same year Bismarck obtained the interdiction of the Jesuit order. With these laws the Chancellor inaugurated a cultural battle that has since been called the ‘Kulturkampf’. But the Catholic Centre Party was fortified even by these reforms and won the elections of 1874. Fifteen Alsacian members of the Reichstag openly protested against the anti-clerical school laws. Chancellor Bismarck at that dramatic moment in Bad Kissingen, where he spent a holiday, was the victim of an attempt on his life by a young Catholic who was hostile to the campaigns of the Kulturkampf. The laws were not withdrawn. In 1875 Pope Pius IX joined Germany’s political conflict. In his Papal bull ‘Quod Numquam’ he condemned the German laws of 1874. Bismarck reacted by having the Reichstag vote a new law directed once more against the German religious orders and congregations, confiscating their possessions and he demoted from his Episcopal functions the Count-Bishop of Breslau, Heinrich Förster. Only in 1878 the new Pope Leon XIII proposed to the German Chancellor to negotiate the end of the Kulturkampf. A new adversary had stood up to Bismarck by this time, the Social Democrats and Bismarck needed the Conservatives. In 1880, the German Chancellor had the Reichstag vote the fist laws softening the earlier edicts, thus ending the Kulturkampf.

In Switzerland, closer to the Lyon of Janmot than Paris, and during his lifetime, a civil war even ensued when the liberal government voted laws against Christian influence. This started in 1834 when a law was voted in Basel to permit secular control over religious affairs. Five years later, with its pastor Bernhard Zitsel, Zürich rose against the liberal government of the canton. In 1843 the Swiss parliament closed the monasteries of Argovia. This provoked a Christian reaction. The Catholic cantons formed a separate federation and called for the help of friendly Catholic nations. France, Austria and Prussia intermediated, but could not avoid armed skirmishes between the two parts. The Catholic town of Luzern was attacked by the liberals, but could hold. The cantons closest to France such as Fribourg, Valais, but also Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden formed the ‘Sonderbund’ or ‘Special Union’ with Luzern to protect themselves together. Geneva however was more liberal and democratic. It would take until 1848 for Switzerland to find harmony again in a new Constitution and the dissolution of the Sonderbund. But a new uprising failed in 1853 in Fribourg. In the histories of Austria, Prussia, Poland, England, Ireland and Scotland similar struggles can be found.

Janmot was a witness to this and as a convinced Catholic, dedicated to more religious values than mere human morals, he entered the struggle as the artist he was, with his ‘Poem of the Soul’ and his paintings. He was also a friend of Pierre-Simon Ballanche, who like himself was from Lyon, born there in 1776. Ballanche tried to reconcile Christian faith with the progressive democratic ideas of the French revolutions. He was a mysticist, writer, poet also and philosopher. Ballanche was a friend of François-René de Chateaubriand, another proponent of Christianism in Romanticism, and frequented the Parisian salon of Madame Récamier – who was also born in Lyon.

The Romantic Chateaubriand converted to Christianism and wrote already in 1802 his ‘Génie du Christianisme’. Chateaubriand feared the coming destruction of nature and thus was one of the first Romantics. The return to nature is a returning theme also in Janmot’s ‘Poem of the Soul’. Janmot uses Classicist techniques for presenting profoundly Romantic and religious ideas. He applied themes from antiquity however as symbols of the republic and past revolutions: the ‘Orgy’ is in a Greek temple and ‘Chute fatale’ or ‘Fatal Fall’ uses forms that could come out of an Ingres or a David painting. Janmot deliberately wanted to break with Neo-Classical French style and clearly favoured the purity of untouched nature.

The paintings of Janmot are magnificent, large and important works of art that illustrate one of the great tendencies of the battle of ideas that were the essence of the nineteenth century. The Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon shows them in all their glory next to each other. The paintings are to be admired as the dedication of a great artist to his ideas. Janmot of course was a great Romantic artist. He devoted his life and his creativity to one idea only, a eulogy in the defence of the soul. Here was an artist not gifted with the power of a genius, devoting all his creative energy to an idea that most people of his times and almost all of ours would mock. We may find Janmot very naive and we may regret his futile effort. Yet, his series on the soul represents the cravings of many persons of Western Europe of the nineteenth century. Many Romantics sought the ideals of medieval and Renaissance Christianism and even though Europe was de-christened in the end, the values and messages of Christianism did not die out. In this way many images of the English Pre-Raphaelites also re-connected with Christianism as did the art of the German and Austrian Nazarenes movement. Artist like Louis Janmot helped and vowed stubbornly to religion. These convictions must be respected, even if we do not share them anymore. Moreover, Janmot made interesting and good paintings.

Janmot dedicated his life to one ideal, an obsession to create a great breath of Christian thought and art. The soul was the noblest possession of mankind and for Janmot it was inspired by God in man. The soul was linked to Jesus and had to be preserved. Did Janmot think to create the ultimate artistic work that would convince the world of his ideas? We will never know, but we have to recognise the work of a genius, tormented by the struggle for ideas in his times, the struggle for the soul, but unwavering in his conviction of the prevalence and higher value of Christian spirituality.

Other paintings:

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