In the year 1635, the papal throne was occupied by Urban VIII Barberini, the 232nd successor of Peter and one of the greatest popes of his century. Urban VIII inspired the Baroque movement to reach a zenith for, although less than outstanding as a pontiff, he outdid himself as a town planner, architect and patron, transforming Rome into a fabulously modern city, a city in any case on a par with the requirements of the new moral framework for art, its new ethical code.
Now let us transfer our thoughts from Rome to Paris, for it is with France that we are concerned. In Paris, there was no pope, but a king - Louis XIII, son of Henry IV and Maria de'Medici - who reigned over France. Louis XIII was a strange king, to whom history and historians would pay many a disservice, because it is always hard to admit that a man who is a historical figure could have been unhappy.
He was a great king, but an unhappy one, faced as he was by three sworn enemies who were, at the same time, his closest associates. In first place as an enemy, and perhaps the worst of the three, was his own wife, Anne of Austria, who spent her time thwarting her husband's plans. His own brother, Louis of Orléans, was another enemy, claiming legitimate rights to the throne of France should Louis XIII fail to provide an heir apparent. The third enemy was officially a collaborator of the King: Richelieu, who exercised absolute power and governed not only France, but Europe as well.
Thus Louis XIII, a secret and silent person known for never batting an eyelid, found himself surrounded by three packs of wolves, led respectively by his wife, his brother and - the most powerful of the three groups - his chief minister.
Opaqueness can be said to describe the times: no one knew how things would turn out, what the King would decide. Would Richelieu follow the King or, on the contrary, hinder his policies? The impenetrability of the political scene found compensation in the transparency marking the cultural and spiritual realms during the same period. Indeed, how strange it is that often, in cities of the size and importance of Paris, it is during the worst political droughts that flowers of extraordinary purity tend to blossom.
For your consideration, several examples of this cultural and spiritual transparency. This was a time when the Abbé de Saint-Cyran (Jean Duvergier de Hauranne) served as confessor and spiritual adviser of the Port-Royal abbey. The (Jansenist) Port-Royal movement was getting under way. At the same time, St. Vincent de Paul, then a priest not yet canonized, together with Louise de Marillac, founded the Sisters of Charity, one of the first orders to promote abnegation on behalf of the poor. And, finally, it was then that one of the greatest theologians in history, Moïse Amireau, published his renowned work on predestination, which had a great impact on the spiritual outlook born of the Counter-Reformation, especially among the French.
Thus, mid-XVIIth-century Paris was bathed in two atmospheres: the impenetrability surrounding the royal palace and, in counterpoint, the luminosity, the transparency, surrounding the cathedrals and churches.
To avoid reducing the century to a dualism between opaqueness and transparency, three more important facts must be considered. The year 1635 saw the foundation of the Académie Française; it also saw the birth of "Le Cid" by Corneille, and "Discourse on Method" by Descartes. These three events also highlight the transition from Italy to France, as the focal point of history for several decades to come.
However, the ensuing political upheavals were so great that a number of storms blew across the land, strewing to the wind, indeed relegating to total anonymity, the works and the very identity of Georges de La Tour. Only three centuries after the creation of this mysterious gaze did its author again come to light, taking up his rightful place within the artistic patrimony of the XVIIth century and among the greatest painters of the world.
This artist's "rebirth" hinges on several key dates.