Battle of Poitiers, October 732
© RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / image RMN-GP
Publication date: December 2019
Helping the endangered homeland
If the story of Charles Martel (688-741) is relatively unknown to the French even today, the same is not true of one of his main feats of arms: a victory over the troops of Umayyad invaders during the so-called battle of Poitiers, in October 732. This room includes 34 painted works retracing the national military history from the battle of Tolbiac won by Clovis in 496 until the victory of Napoleon Ier in Wagram in 1809. German aristocrat of Russian origin who studied painting in Saint Petersburg and then in Paris, he received a large order of royal portraits for the museum and also gave the Gallery a painting on the battle of Ivry (1590), an episode of the Wars of religion.
The great battles that made France
Painted in shades dominated by red, green and ocher, Battle of Poitiers (732) is built on the contrast between two armies located on either side of the median which intersects the painting vertically. Surge from the extreme left - that is to say from the West - towards the center, the Frankish army can be recognized by the fierce determination of the faces and its weaponry, detailed design: bow, chain mail, helmets in metal, two-edged sword and half-francisque brandished high in the sky by Charles Martel himself. Fleeing to the far right of the composition, the men of the Umayyad army have their bodies turned towards the East, but their heads twisted towards the land they are forced to abandon, their faces distorted by fear and hands busy operating a last plunder. If the upper third of the painting barely sketches the site of the battle - which is then unknown - the lower third is, as tradition dictates, reserved for the dying and dead of combat. But the fair-skinned Frank has a hidden face, while the suffering can be read on that of the Infidels, whose complexion is brown, even downright black. The central third concentrates the action which is read from left to right, like a medieval painting: archery preparation, spear attacks, hand-to-hand combat which sees the enemy enraged, but wounded and finally put to flight. The warlord and mayor of the palace towers over this section on a white horse - a sign that this Frankish knight is the equal of a imperator Roman who is granted the triumph. The diagonal starting from the upper right corner inscribes this battle in its religious context with the simple Celtic cross, the future Carolingian dynasty eldest daughter of the Church, ready to bring down its power over the Umayyad leader al-Ghafiqi and to pounce on al-Andalus that he leads and to reduce this people to slaves (nudity and an iron circle around the ankle). At the center of the battle and at the heart of the painting, inserted between men and horses, a mother with features imbued with virginal gentleness protects her newborn. It is she - France and even Europe - the fundamental stake of the battle.
The French gesture in majesty
The battle of Poitiers had a long political resonance rather than a religious and civilizational one. It probably earned the mayor of the palace the nickname of Martel and established the legitimacy of his line, called to replace in the short term a Merovingian dynasty at the end of its rope. It also proved the military might of the Frankish army, whose leader did not fail to point out that it had also triumphed over the ungodly barbarians of the south by the grace of God. Finally, while this victory did not put an end to the "Saracen" incursions, which lasted until 801, it helped to strengthen the border between two important powers in a very fragmented Europe. Saint Louis makes Poitiers figure prominently among Great Chronicles of France and thus creates around 1250 the myth of resistance to a large occupying army, when he himself goes on a Crusade against the Infidels. Six centuries later, Louis-Philippe began the conquest of Algeria: if the echo of the "pacification" operated by Bugeaud on the other side of the Mediterranean is weak, Delacroix has made the country fashionable. It is not difficult to see in Charles de Steuben's painting the influence of Orientalism, but also a discreet justification of the second French colonial age.
- Martel (Charles)
- Museum of the History of France
- Louis Philippe
- Bonaparte (Napoleon)
- Umayyad dynasty
- Middle Ages
- Saint Louis (Louis IX, said)
William Blanc, Christophe Naudin, Charles Martel and the Battle of Poitiers. From history to identity myth, Paris, Libertalia, 2015.
Jean Deviosse, Charles Martel, Paris, Tallandier, 2006.
Jean-Henri Roy, Jean Deviosse, The Battle of Poitiers: October 733, Paris, Gallimard, 1996.
To cite this article
Alexandre SUMPF, "The Battle of Poitiers"