Skip to main content

John Everett Millais, A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1852,_on_St._Bartholomew%27s_Day

In 1852, the pious British artist John Everett Millais (who has been featured elsewhere in this blog), painted a heart-rending image called A Huguenot, on St Bartholomew’s Day. Here, beside an ivied wall, two young lovers furtively embrace. The air is thick and the sky, one imagines, is clouded. Deep greens and rich yellows emerge from moist shadows and throb with an inner light. Like most of Millais’s paintings, the details are captivating and the textures are luscious. Millais was a prodigy skilled at rendering the subtlest effects.

Millais’s audience in 1852, viewing this painting at the Royal Academy, knew these lovers were doomed. The painting takes place on August 24, 1572, the day of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Stoked by paranoia, suspicion and misguided zeal, Catholic mobs will murder thousands of Huguenot Protestants. On this day, a white band on the arm and a cross in one’s cap was a sign of faithful Catholicism. It could put the mob off your scent and perhaps save your life. In Millais’ image, a Catholic young woman begs her Protestant beau to play-act, to wear the band, to ensure his survival. He tenderly refuses. The rest is lamentable, heart-breaking history.

Millais painting is a bit like a religious “Romeo and Juliet.” The feuds of the two “families” (Catholic and Protestant) are the dangerous, high-stakes backdrop for an innocent story of doomed love. If only everyone could just get along!

Today, there are more than 30,000 Christian denominations of widely varying sizes. Most of those denominations were formed by some kind of falling out, whether personal, financial or doctrinal. Often, the causes of schism are too tangled and overlapping to completely sort out. Disagreements between the ancient churches (for example, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy) have been flavored by centuries of, yes, theological disagreement, but also cultural misunderstanding and unfortunate military disasters. Meanwhile the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther, while adept at expressing compelling ideas simply, was not without his prejudices, questionable alliances and sometimes foggy motives. In practically every Christian schism, it is very hard to cry “good!” or “evil!” Everything that gains momentum is probably a little bit right.

Today is Valentine’s Day, when we commemorate an ancient saint who defied Roman law to marry Christians to each other. Perhaps, today, we can take his example to heart, along with the example of the doomed lovers in Millais’s homage to 1572. In our secular 21st century, where the enemy without is now more vivid than the enemy within, can we Christians “marry well” (to use an Italian expression)? That is, can we combine our gifts and our qualities to make something winsome, beautiful and new? (The Italians use this phrase particularly regarding flavors of ice cream. Flavors that si sposano bene – marry well – go together just right.)

A few weeks ago, a Dominican monk brought a golden monstrance, holding a consecrated Host, to a conference room at my Protestant university. He sat it upon a table and invited us to regard it in silence together, prayerfully considering Christ’s sacrifice and gifts of grace. There were dozens of us there: Catholics, Orthodox, mainliners, evangelicals, charismatics. And probably some “nones.” But we all sat together, shoulder to shoulder, joined in contemplation, discipline and respect.

The world may be dark, and the Christian candle may seem (sometimes) to gutter, but  at least the families don’t bicker so much anymore. It is no longer true that an unbanded arm is tantamount to a “kiss of death.” Nor, thankfully, is it true that Christian newlyweds kiss to their doom as with St. Valentine. (The saint was beheaded for his efforts, along with some of the people he helped).

So, on this St Valentine’s Day, may we Christians of all kinds marry well, like innocent lovers and Italian gelato. May we see how the Lord has redeemed our schisms through the separate gifts we can share. May we cooperate, build and embrace, expecting the best of each other in trust. May we come together in a “holy kiss” of life. (2 Cor 13:12)

Katie Kresser

Seattle Pacific University
Katie Kresser is Professor of Art History at Seattle Pacific University.