Jean-Paul Laurens, Pope Formosus and Stephen VI (The Cadaver Synod), 1870, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France.
n a career that spanned over two decades, Jean-Paul Laurens painted some of French art’s most plaintive historical moments: two young princes huddled together, waiting for their inevitable demise; a king slumped on his throne, his queen clutched beside him, contemplating his official damnation; a deposed emperor finding his pride ahead of the firing squad. But none of Laurens’s art shocks as much as Le Pape Formose et Étienne VI – Concile Cadavérique de 897 (Pope Formosus and Stephen VI – The “Cadaver Synod”, 897).
Its simple title belies the severity of its scene—a medieval pope harangues the decomposed yet freshly attired corpse of his forebear, a jury of fellow bishops whispering to one another in the background. Without a title or context, viewers might see the painting as a tasteless parody. However, Laurens’s work depicts a real trial during the Medieval Catholic Church’s nadir.
Arguably the nadir of the papacy, the so-called “Cadaver Synod” of 897 saw Pope Stephen VI place the corpse of his predecessor on trial for spiritual misdeeds. In reality, Stephen VI held the trial as a favor to noble patrons with a political vendetta against the earlier pope. Jean-Paul Laurens’ painting captures the grim mood of a court aware of predestined notoriety.