La Luministe by Paula Butterfield

A fictionalised biography set in France in the mid to late 19th century

When the story opens, Berthe Morisot is a young girl who, along with her sister Edma, is allowed by their parents to study painting prior to the inevitable marriage. While Edma makes a suitable marriage, Berthe refuses the role society and parents have assigned her and hopes to make a career as a serious artist. Such a career for a respectable woman was unthinkable in those days. When she meets the great Édouard Manet and falls under his spell, her desire to enter and conquer his world becomes her overriding passion.

This book is not a page-turner. Nor is it a conventional romance. It is a detailed and fascinating look at Paris at a time after the Franco-Prussian War when the city was undergoing great changes; a time when the new boulevards were being laid out; when artists well-known today were struggling to make names for themselves and impressionism was a new movement setting itself against the constraints of the staid Salon. Mostly it’s about Berthe and her fraught relationship with Manet as she struggles to find herself as artist, lover, and woman. She’s a very nuanced character. We see her in moments of weakness, despair, envy, and self-doubt, but she never let’s go of her vision, and we have to root for her. And it’s also about Manet, a libertine who loves life and lives it to the fullest. There is also a supporting cast of famous names.

The writer goes deep into the complex love affair between Berthe and Manet. The prose is excellent. The book is a sensual delight that must be not just read but experienced. It’s always a pleasure to rub shoulders, in a manner of speaking, with the good and the great of the art world. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I recommend it for anyone who likes literary fiction, but It is a must for those interested in art history.

I wrote this review for Discovering Diamonds.

Of Cathars, Catholics and Crusaders

Crusading fervour was at its height in the medieval period. ‘Free Jerusalem!’ Death to the infidel!’ ‘God wills it!’ These were the rallying cries that drove men – and some women – from their homes, to mortgage their lands, to risk their lives in arduous travel and then face the Saracens in battle. But, as we know, many were diverted along the way by the promises of Venice, the riches of Constantinople, attacks on Jews and never made it to the Holy Land. Of those who did survive the trek, the great lords were at least as interested in carving out principalities for themselves, as they were in freeing the holy places. Lesser men were greedy for loot to take home.

In the early 13th century, Pope Innocent III, who is considered one of the most powerful of the medieval popes, proclaimed a crusade. Not against the infidel in the Holy Land but against French Christians in Languedoc. It is known as the Albigensian Crusade and was directed against a people who believed and practised their religion differently than Orthodox Catholics: a heretical sect called Cathars. As a bonus, to stir the zeal of prospective crusaders, who might have preferred the Holy Land, Innocent offered them any land taken from Cathars – land, incidentally, of which King Philip II was suzerain.

One could recognise a Saracen by his brown face and mode of dress, but how to tell a Catholic from a Cathar, unless the latter was discovered during one of their rituals? But did it really matter? Is it true that Arnald-Amalric, Abbot of Citeaux said during the assault on Beziers, ‘Kill them all. God will know his own.’? Whether he said it or not, the French knights went at it with crusading zeal. Thousands of Cathars went to the stake. Many more thousands of orthodox Catholics were killed in battle, during sieges, or by execution.

The Albigensian Crusade is a shameful episode in the history of the Church, and the subject of my new book.


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