Portrait of Mother Henriette of Jesus, ex-prioress (Marie-Françoise Gabrielle de Croissy) 1745 - 1794 , A Carmelite of Compiègne
Pencil, black ink on blue paper
16,8cm x 13.6cm
Collection Rothschild, Musée du Louvre, Paris
On 17 July, 1794 sixteen women were guillotined in Paris. They were Carmelites Their show trial accused them of acting against the Revolution and they were labelled as « fanatiques et séditieuses »
Today they are known as the Martyrs of Compiègne.
They were beatified by Saint Pope Pius X in May 1906, after he had published his Encyclical Vehementer Nos on Church State relations in France (after the Law of Separation)
Their heads and naked bodies were taken and buried in a common grave at the cemetery at Picpus where their remains were placed with the remains of about another 1300 victims of the Terror including Lafayette
Prior to their death they had made a daily vow of total consecration of themselves to the Divine Will even at the price of their lives so that the Massacres of the Terror would end and peace would return to the Church and to France.
They were arrested and led like lambs to their trial. Notwithstanding the inevitability of the verdict they refused any offers of clemency conditional on their giving up or renouncing their vocations.
They rejected apostasy at the cost of their human lives
At the guillotine they professed their vows anew and they sang the Veni Creator Spiritus while one by one each was executed.
One of the martyrs was Mother Henriette of Jesus, ex-prioress (Marie-Françoise Gabrielle de Croissy) b. 1745 of whom the above is a drawing now in the Louvre.
In 1894 the centenary of the execution was celebrated by the Carmelites including at Lisieux Sister Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus. One is reminded of her Act of Oblation to Merciful Love written the year after the centenary
Sister Mary of the Incarnation (Francois-Genevieve Phillipe) (1761 - 1836) was the one Nun who survived and left a memoir of her life as a Carmelite during the period of persecution. It is from this Memoir that we know of the various events and the nuns themselves who perished under the blade
In 1926 the German authoress Gertrud von Le Fort 1876 - 1971 converted to Roman Catholicism. She had been much influenced by the Carmelite Edith Stein and had met Pius XII when he had been Monsignor Pacelli, the Nuncio in Berlin
In 1931 she published her major novella The Last on the Scaffold (Die Letzte am Schafott). It was based on the Martyrs of Compiègne. It was this work which was the basis for the other major artistic works of the Twentieth Century on the Martyrs.
At that time immediately after the First World War, the Weimar Republic was threatened by the two major totalitarian forces of the Twentieth century: Communism and German Fascism
It was the plight of the individual in such a situation which prompted Le Fort to begin a novel with a central character called Blanche de la Force. Gertrud con Le Fort admitted that this character was based on herself.
By chance she came across the story of the Sixteen Martyrs and decided that the novel would be set in Revolutionary France and that Blanche would be one of the sisters, the youngest and the most fearful, almost petrified by fear. She wrote:
"The point of departure for my own creation was not primarily the destiny of the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne, but rather the character of little Blanche. In an historical sense, she did not exist, but received the breath of her trembling being directly from my own personality, and thus can never be separated from that origin which is hers and hers alone.
Born of the profound horror of a time in Germany clouded by the shadow of destinies on the march, this character rose up before me as if it were the “incarnation of man’s anguish faced with an entire era moving inexorably towards its end.”
This child in perpetual anguish, known familiarly as the “little hare,” this young woman who, for fear of the world, goes into a convent and there tries, mystically, to meld her religious life to the Agony of Christ, already existed in sketches found in my literary compositions well before her destiny was joined to that of the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne.
It was purely by chance that the latter became known to me. A little note, found at the bottom of a page of a book devoted to Catholic orders, told of the Carmelites who sang as they went to the scaffold. It was this that made me decide to transpose Blanche’s story from the present to the time of the French Revolution"
(Le Fort, Aufzeichnungen und Erinnerungen, 93–95, quoted in Gendre, “Dialogues des Carmélites: The Historical Background, Literary Destiny and Genesis of the Opera,” 279.)
In the novella, overcome by the fear which has dominated her whole life, Blanche leaves her companions prior to the trial. However she sees them at the guillotine and runs to join them in the their final oblation.
In her outline of the novella, Le Fort wrote:
"Blanche, whose destiny is to pay, is afraid of the world.
She bears the real nature of the world in herself. She feels that the world’s finiteness is also her own. When she finds out that this fear will always be there to hinder her, she becomes afraid of her fear. This fear of her fear constitutes her actual guilt. . . .
The object of Blanche’s anxiety is fear of death. Death, in this connection, has two aspects: death of the personal entity and death of the whole social class swallowed up by the masses (decline of culture, of social standards, of the “ancien régime”).
This death, so to speak, is the symbol of all that is transient, a penance imposed on the earth for sin (original sin, for it was not she, Blanche, who caused the revolution, but her forefathers).
God chose the weakest, not the strongest one for His means, since “supernature” is to be expelled. This becomes evident when the strong one [i.e., Marie de l’Incarnation] is denied heroism while the weak one [i.e., Blanche] achieves it. Blanche’s fear represents universal fear"
(Gertrud von Le Fort, unpublished draft outline of Die Letzte am Schafott, 2, quoted in La Chevallerie, “Gertrud von Le Fort and the Fear of Blanche de La Force,” 16–17.)
Through the Dominican priest and filmmaker Father Raymond-Léopold Bruckberger (1907 –1998), Georges Bernanos was commissioned to write a screenplay.The title was Dialogues of the Carmelites (Dialogues des carmélites).
Bernanos` work is a different work from that of Le Fort.
It was written when he was dying of cancer of the liver. It is a spiritual work of universal significance. It was written by someone who had feared but who had also seen the horrors of the First World War, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War at close quarters. or him the great European Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-5 was caused by the de-Christianisation of Europe which led to loss of human liberty and civilisation
In turn, Bernanos` work was the basis of the spellbinding opera by Francis Poulenc (1899 - 1963) - Dialogues des carmélites. But again another twist, another interpretation
And finally the films starting with Le Dialogue des carmélites in 1960 in French and directed by Philippe Agostini and Father Raymond Leopold Bruckberger. It starred the eternal Jeanne Moreau.
From the Opera here is Anja Silja in the Death Scene of Madame de Croissy (the character in the opera not the real one) at the Teatro alla Scala di Milano in 2004
Here is Dame Joan Sutherland as Madam Lidoine giving hope and encouragement to her nuns as the time approaches for their execution:
And here is the dramatic finale (with Salve Regina rather than Veni Creator) which was in the Metropolitan Opera production which featured among others Jessye Norman and Regin Crespin:
Terrye Newkirk, OCDS, The Mantle of Elijah: The Martyrs of Compiègne as Prophets of Modern Age
-Sancta Maria, Mater Dei~'s photostream on Flickr: Mother Therese of Saint Augustine and 15 Companions
And very highly recommended is the excellent: Gail Lowther, A Historical, Literary, and Musical Analysis of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des carmélites (MA thesis) (2010) (.pdf file)