by Alexandra Tuschka
The scene to be deciphered here is already revealed to us by the picture's title. On the right, on a simple wooden pulpit and seen from below, is John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople in the 4th century AD. His goals of abstinence and asceticism are expressed in the simple white cloak, he is also hairless, wearing no symbols or adornment other than the cross on his clothing. The churchman was known for his public speeches and for denouncing abuses of authority - ecclesiastical as well as state. The Frenchman Jean-Paul Laurens depicted such a scene on canvas in 1893. The painter was associated with the academy and for the most part depicted history paintings, sometimes showing rather unknown scenes. In doing so, he managed to summarise history to its climax, as he did here. In this case, we see the bishop's pleading and, opposite, the arrogant empress on the other side. The theme of the confrontation between church and state was also topical in the Third French Republic, so that the subject of the painting was not chosen by chance.
It is not difficult for us to see that the empress has fallen prey to pomp. She stands on the imperial hill in the Hagia Sophia, the painter has enveloped her in a bright, subtle glow of light. She looks somewhat rapt, as if the pleading request does not concern or reach her. The archway with paintings, the chandeliers (one almost resembling a crown) and the precious gold painting on the walls complete the impression. Next to the empress sits her entourage; less present, but equally ignorant.
The composition is, in the spirit of the academy, well thought out. Thus the man's cramped hands are in the centre of the picture. His vehemently outstretched arms illustrate the direction of his words. He can only be seen from behind. The so-called "profile perdu", the "lost profile" nevertheless shows us a clearly pain-distorted face. This pain, however, is only mental; this stylises the man as the hero in this picture. The slight lower view of the scene gives the impression that we are also present in the church, at the foot of the pulpit. The central axis continues to clearly divide both scenes and the painter thus allows both parties to literally face each other.
Many painters of this time meticulously pursued the claim of depicting history as truthfully as possible. The established name of this movement today is "Historimus". Geromé, a contemporary of the painter, studied antiquity extensively to make his scenes look as authentic as possible. In his "Pollice verso" we also see the juxtaposition of the emperor with a gladiator, who looks questioningly at the audience to weigh up whether the inferior may live or must die. Since little is known about the moment itself, the painter has created a fantasy moment here. In doing so, he strove to create the impression of a Byzantine atmosphere: Mosaic, carpet and architecture lean towards these influences. In doing so, Laurens neglected the real appearance of the Hagia Sophia.
Our story becomes even more exciting: after this scene, the empress had the man of God banished in 403. But his firm support among the people made her row back soon afterwards. She gave Chrysostom a great reception, and he too was conciliatory. When shortly afterwards the empress wanted to erect a statue of herself in front of the Hagia Sophia, the clergyman refused to dedicate it. As a result, he was dragged out of the church in 404 and banished. This scene is depicted by the painter Constant: the ruthless ruler on her throne, the aged ascetic sitting on the floor.
This rarely depicted subject was quite interesting in art because of its stark contrasts and the idealisation of a man who stands all alone for the "right values" and opposes the ignorance and disregard of the empress and her followers.
Jean-Paul Laurens - Saint John Chrysostom and Empress Eudoxia
Oil on canvas, 1893, 131 x 164 cm, Musée des Augustins, Toulouse
Jean-Léon Gerômé - Pollice verso
Oil on canvas, 1872, 96.5 x 150 cm, Phoenix Art Museum in Phoenix
Jean-Joseph-Benjamin Constant - Eudoxia banishes John Chtysostomus
Oil on canvas, 19th century, location unknown