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Landscape - Death of Roland in 778
© RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre museum) / Gérard Blot
Publication date: December 2019
The myth of Roncesvalles
The only famous episode of the reign of Charlemagne which does not directly involve the future emperor of the West, the tragic death of Roland at the Col de Roncesvalles is a prolific literary and then pictorial subject but a very uncertain event from a historical point of view: his exact location, even its existence, are still debated. Revealed after the death of the king by the Charlemagne life of Eginhard and above all mythologized by the Roland's song, the battle would have taken place on August 15, 778. Michallon witnesses the revisiting of the Middle Ages by romantic artists, but remains a neoclassical painter who is interested at the end of his short life in painting landscapes after nature, outdoors and not in the workshop.
True to his way, Michallon refused to paint a battle scene in favor of his vision of Pyrenean nature - which he had never contemplated - and to focus on the hero's lonely death. The latter was placed just below the center of the canvas, an ocher ravine illuminated by the sun which indicates the place where the trap was set. It was against this rock which marked the end of his life that Roland, in a last burst of energy, struck his sword - that the Roland's song appointed Durandal to the XIe century. He is supported by a companion who is either the count of the palace Anselme le Preux, also killed during the battle, or more probably Olivier, brother-in-law of Roland, who protects him with his shield. Contrary to what one might expect from a painter who clearly has a knowledge of the epic serving as the main source of battle, Roland is not depicted blowing in his olifant to call for help Charlemagne. The small figures visible on the right represent the adversaries who flee after committing their crime obtained by treachery. But more than these humans enhanced with red, which with a white plume, Michallon is interested in a majestic, sublime nature, that which is praised in his time by the nascent romanticism, that which is visited and described by first tourists. The painter balances the power of the elements - a sky laden with threatening clouds, high impenetrable rocks - with symbols of the passage from life to death: the famous indentation between the cliffs, the flowing mountain torrent, the golden leaves of the trees that symbolize autumn (while the scene is supposed to take place on August 15). The mountain stone serves both as a setting for a heroic death and as material for the tomb of what was then considered to be Charlemagne's nephew.
The obscure sources of the national myth
The study of available period sources suggests that Roland never existed, and in any case was neither Charlemagne's nephew, nor prefect of the Brittany March (a function that did not exist in 778) . In addition, the site of Roncesvalles is not clearly identified in the Pyrenees and the battle, described in chronicles quite late, may have taken place years later. The legend of Roland's fight, propagated by literature (especially the Roland's song) and illuminations, allowed the myth to take root. This myth, no doubt created from scratch, signals a political will to rewrite history which has strengthened over time. In 1819, after the end of the Napoleonic adventure, it is not innocent to paint a famous episode in the reign of the one who was both the first Frankish emperor and one of the consolidators of the kingdom and the monarchy. If Michallon obscures the religious issue by avoiding representing the enemy and does not embrace Orientalism, he brings to the fore the chivalrous and feudal values denounced under the revolution and battered by a new nobility of the sword. Roland, personally and politically linked to his overlord, is the emblem of the loyalty of the vassal, a highly topical issue in these times of political upheaval.
- history painting
- rome price
- Middle Ages
- heroic figure
The Battle of Roncesvalles. In history, legend and historiography (proceedings of the Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port conference, August 12, 1978), Bayonne, Labourd, 1979.
Isabelle Duran-Le Guern, Bernard Ribémont, Charlemagne. Emperor and myth of the West, Paris, Klincksieck, 2009
Renée Mussot-Goulard, Roncevaux, Saturday August 15, 778, Paris, Perrin, 2006.
To cite this article
Alexandre SUMPF, "The death of Roland"