This painting, by the French artist Jean Alaux (c. 1788-1858), portrays a momentous event from the life of King Clovis (r. 481-511). Clovis was a formidable warlord who consolidated the Merovingian Dynasty’s power over the Franks and spread Frankish influence to encompass most of France. In particular, the artwork shows the important moment when King Clovis decided to be baptized into the Roman Catholic Church, as opposed to the Arian sect of Christianity that was popular with other Germanic peoples of that time. Traditionally, Clovis’ baptism is dated to the year 496, soon after a military campaign against the Alemanni. Nevertheless, as historians are wont to do, this traditional date has been contested, and proposals have been made to push the date of the baptism to a later period in King Clovis’ reign. The ceremony was carried out by Saint Remigius, bishop of Rheims. Decades after the event, Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594) wrote an account of Clovis’ baptism in his Ten Books of Histories, also commonly known as the History of the Franks, in which Bishop Gregory commented:
“The public squares were draped with coloured cloths, the churches were adorned with white hangings, the baptistry was prepared, sticks of incense gave off clouds of perfume, sweet-smelling candles gleamed bright and the holy place of baptism was filled with divine fragrance. God filled the hearts of all present with such grace that they imagined themselves to have been transported to some perfumed paradise. King Clovis asked that he might be baptized first by the Bishop. Like some new Constantine he stepped forward to the baptismal pool…As he advanced for his baptism, the holy man of God addressed him in these pregnant words: ‘Bow your head in meekness, Sicamber. Worship what you have burnt, burn what you have been wont to worship” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, II.31).
It is this scene that Jean Alaux re-creates in his painting. King Clovis can be seen undergoing his baptism at the hands of Bishop Remigius of Rheims, surrounded by a crowd of spectators. The onlookers, however, were more than just an audience. As the story goes, 3,000 of King Clovis’ followers were also baptized on that day.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.