This painting, by the Dutch-French artist Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), endeavors to re-create a scene from the Battle of Tolbiac (or Zülpich), fought between the Franks and the Alemanni at the turn of the 5th and 6th centuries. Depicted atop a black horse, with his arm stretched skyward, is the ruler of the Franks at that time—King Clovis (r. 481-511). This campaign by the Franks against the Alemanni was said to have occurred around the year 496, but the accuracy of the traditional timeline is still debated, and others suggest the date of the campaign and battle should be pushed back to the year 506. Such chronological arguments are the joy of historians, but the Alemanni campaign is especially debated because of the impact it was said to have had on King Clovis and his successors. According to tradition and legend, a battlefield experience during the Alemanni campaign set King Clovis on the fast-track to converting to Christianity. Gregory of Tours (539-594), a bishop and historian, recorded the supposed religious influence that the Alemmani campaign had on King Clovis:
“Finally war broke out against the Alamanni and in this conflict he was forced by necessity to accept what he had refused of his own free will. It so turned out that when the two armies met on the battlefield there was great slaughter and the troops of Clovis were rapidly being annihilated. He raised his eyes to heaven when he saw this, felt compunction in his heart and was moved to tears. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he said…I want to believe in you, but I must first be saved from my enemies.’ Even as he said this the Alamanni turned their backs and began to run away” (History of the Franks, II.30).
Such is the scene that Ary Scheffer re-created in the painting above. It shows King Clovis pleading for spiritual aid in his battle against the Alemanni. After the campaign was over, Clovis’ Christian wife, Queen Clotilde, worked quickly to capitalize on her husband’s religious experience. She called in Saint Remigius, bishop of Rheims, and together they convinced King Clovis to be baptized and to officially convert.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.