Étiquette : Vereycken


Afghanistan: Qosh Tepa canal and prospects of Aral Sea basin water management

Let’s start with current events. In August 2021, faced with the Taliban takeover, the United States hastily withdrew from Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries, whose population has doubled in 20 years to 39.5 million.

While the UN acknowledged that the country was facing « the worst humanitarian crisis » in the post-war era, overnight all international aid, which represented more than half of the Afghan budget, was suspended. At the same time, $9.5 billion of the country’s central bank assets, held in accounts at the US Federal Reserve and a number of European banks, were frozen.

Qosh Tepa canal

Despite these dramatic conditions, the Afghan government, via its state construction group, the National Development Company (NDC), committed $684 million to a major river infrastructure project, the Qosh Tepa Canal, which had been suspended since the Soviet invasion.

In less than a week, over 7,000 drivers flocked from the four corners of the country to work day and night on the first section of the canal, the first phase of which was completed in record time.

Politically, the canal project is a clear expression of the re-birth of an inclusive Afghanistan, as the region is mainly inhabited by Turkmen and Tajik populations, whereas the government is exclusively in the hands of the Pashtuns. The latter represent 57% rather than 37% of the country.

According to the FAO, 62.5% of the Abu Darya’s water comes from Tajikistan, 27.5% from Afghanistan (22 million m3), 6.3% from Uzbekistan, 1.9% from Kyrgyzstan and 1.9% from Turkmenistan.

The river irrigates 469,000 ha of farmland in Tajikistan, 2,000,000 ha in Turkmenistan and 2,321,000 ha in Uzbekistan.

So it’s only natural that Afghanistan should harness some of the river’s waters (10 million m³ out of a total of 61.5 to 80 million m³ per year) to irrigate its territory and boost its ailing agricultural production

By harnessing part of the waters of the Amu Daria river, the new 285 km-long canal will eventually irrigate 550,000 ha of arid land in ancient Bactria to the north, the « Land of a 1000 Cities » and« The Land of Oases » whose incomparable fertility was already praised by the 1st-century Greek historian Strabo.

In October 2023, the first 108 km section was impounded.

Agricultural production has been kick-started to consolidate the riverbanks, and 250,000 jobs are being created.

While opium poppy cultivation has been virtually eradicated in the Helmhand, the aim is to double the country’s wheat production and to become a grain net exporter.

Today, whatever one may think of the regime, the Afghans, who for 40 years have been self-destructing in proxy wars in the service of the Soviets and Americans, have decided to take their destiny into their own hands. Putting an end to the systemic corruption that has enriched an international oligarchy, they are determined to build their country and give their children a future, notably by making water available for irrigation, for health and for the inhabitants.

How did the world react?

On November 7, in The Guardian, Daanish Mustafa, a professor of « critical geography », explains that Pakistan must rid itself of the colonial spirit of water.

In his view, the floods that hit Pakistan in 2010 and 2022 demonstrate that « colonial » river and canal development is a recipe for disaster. It’s time, he concludes, to « decolonize » our imaginations on the subject of water by abandoning all our vanitous desires to manage water.

On November 9, the Khaama Press News agency reported:

Two days earlier, on November 7, Cédric Gras, Le Figaro‘s correspondent in Tashkent, published an article entitled:
« En Afghanistan, les Talibans creusent le canal de la discorde » (« In Afghanistan, the Taliban are digging the canal of discord »):

Obviously, the aim is to create scare. But if the accusation is hasty, it touches on a fundamental issue that deserves explanation.

Endoreic basin

Aral Sea Basin.

The Amu Daria, the 2539 km long river that the Greeks called the Oxus, and its brother, the 2212 km long Syr Daria, feed, or rather used to feed, the Aral Sea, which straddles the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The water of both rivers were increasingly redirected by soviet experts to irrigate mainly cotton cultivation causing the Aral Sea to disappear.

I won’t go into detail here on the history of the ecological disaster that everyone has heard about but I am ready to answer your questions on that later;

Central Asia which of course should include Afghanistan.

The « Aral Sea Basin » essentially covers five Central Asian « stan » countries. To the North, these are Kazakhstan, followed by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
In fact, Afghanistan, whose border with the latter three countries is formed by sections of the Amu Darya, is geologically and geographically part of the « Aral Sea Basin ».

This is a so-called « endoreic basin ». (endo = inside; rhein = carried).

18 % of the world’s emerged surface is endoreic.

In Europe, we see falling rain and snowmelt flowing into rivers that discharge it into the sea. Not so in Central Asia. Rainwater, or water from melting snow, flows down mountain ranges. They eventually form rivers that either disappear under the sands, or form « inland seas » having no connection whatever to a larger sea and no outlet to the oceans. 18% of the world’s emerged surface is endoreic.

Among the best-known endoreic basins are the Dead Sea in Israel and Lake Chad in Africa.

Endoreic regions in Central Asia.

In Asia, there are plenty of them. Just think of the Tarim Basin, the world’s largest endoreic river basin in Qinjiang, covering over 400,000 km². Then there’s the vast Caspian Sea, the Balkhach and Alakoll lakes in Kazakhstan, the Yssyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan and, as we’ve just said, the Aral Sea.

The very nature of an endoreic basin strongly reinforces the fear that water is a scarce limited source. That realty can either bolster the conviction that problems cannot but be solved true cooperation and discussion, or push countries to go to war one against the other. Democraphic growth, economic progress and climate/meteorogical chaos can worsen that perception and make water issues appear as a « time-bomb ».

The early Soviet planners started with a strict quota system laid down in 1987 by Protocol 566 of the Scientific and Technical Council of the Soviet Ministry of Water Resources. The system fixed quotas for all countries, both in percentage and in BCM (Billions of Cubic Meters).

That simple quota system looks 100 % functional on paper. However, nations are not abstractions.

First, this system created quite rigid procedures and even would forbid some upstream countries to invest in their own agriculture since they had to deliver the water to their neighbors.

Second, conflict arose about dissymetric seasonal use of the water. The use of the water was completely different between « Upstream countries » such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and « Downstream countries » such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Seasonal use of water is dissymmetric between « Upstream » and « Downstream » countries.

Upstream countries could accept releasing their water resources in autumn and winter since the release of the water provides them up to 90 % of their electricity via hydrodams.

Downstream countries however don’t need the water at that time but in spring and summer when their farmland needs to be irrigated.

However, in Central Asia, their seems to exist some sort of « geological justice » since downstream countries lacking water (Kazakhstan, Uzbekhistan and Turkmenistan) have vast hydrocarbon energy reserves such as coal, oil and gaz.

Therefore, not always stupid, Soviet planners, which realized that a simple quota system was insufficient to prevent conflict, created a compensation mechanism. Downstream nations, in exchange for water, would supply parts of their oil and gas to upstream nations to compensate the loss of potential energy that water represents.

However imperfect that mechanism, for want of a better one, it remained in place after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

It can be said that by appealing to an external factor of a given problem, in this case to bring energy in the equation to solve the water problem, soviet planners conceived in a rudimentary form what became known as the « Water, Energy, Food Nexus ». One cannot deal with theses factors as separate factors. They have to be conceived as part of a single, dynamic Monad.

Today, we should avoid the geopolitical trap. If we consider the water resources to be shared between the states of Central Asia and Afghanistan to be « limited », or even « declining » due to meteorological phenomena such as El Nino, we might hastily and geopolitically conclude that, with the construction of the Qosh Tepa canal, which will tap water from the Amu Daria, the « water time bomb » cannot but explode.


So we need to be creative. We don’t have all the solutions but some ideas about where to find them:

  1. In Central Asia, especially in Turkmenistan but also Uzbekistan, huge quantities of water from the Abu Daria water basin are wasted. In 2021, Chinese researchers, looking at Central Asia’s potential in terms of food production, estimated that with improvements in irrigation, better seeds and other « agricultural technology », 56 % of the water can be saved farming the same crops, meaning that today, about half of the water is simply wasted.
  2. The lack of investment into new water infrastructure and maintenance cannot but lead to the kind of disasters the world has seen in Libya or Pakistan where, predictably, systems collapsed for lack of mere maintenance;
  3. Uncontrolled and controlled flooding are very primitive and inefficient forms of irrigation and should be outphased and replaced by modern irrigation techniques;
  4. Therefore, a water emergency should be declared and a vast international effort should assist all the countries of the Abu Daria basin, including Afghanistan, to modernize and improve the efficiency of their water infrastructure, be it lakes, canals, rivers and irrigation systems.
  5. Such and effort can best organized within the framework of the « One Belt, One Road » initiative and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. BRICS countries such as China, Russia and India could help Afghanistan with data from their satellites and space programs.
  6. By improving the efficiency of water use, notably through targeted irrigation using « drip irrigation » as seen in the case of the Tarim basin in Xinjiang, it is possible to reduce the total amount of water used to obtain an even higher yield of agriculture production, while considerably increasing the availability of the water to be shared among neighbors. The know how and experience of African, South American, Israeli and Chinese agronomists, specialized in food production in arid countries, can play a key role.
  7. In the near future, Pumped Hydro Energy Storage (PHES), which means storing water in high altitude reservoirs for a later use, can massively increase the independance and autonomy of countries such as Afghanistan and others. Having sufficient water at hand at any time means also having the water security required to operate mining activities and handle thermal and nuclear electricity production units. PHES infrastructure would be greatly efficient on both sides of the Abu Daria and jointly operated among friendly nations.

Over the past 1,200 years, nations bordering waterways have concluded 3,600 treaties on the sharing of river usufructs, whether for fishing, river transport or the sharing of water for domestic, agricultural and industrial uses.

Afghanistan’s Qosh Tepa canal project is a laudable and legitimate initiative. But it is true that by breaking the status quo, it obliges a new dialogue among nations allowing each and all of them to rise to a higher level, a willing to live together increasingly the opposite to the dominant paradigm in the Anglosphere and its european followers.

It’s up to all of us to make sure it works out fine.

Merci de partager !

The science of Oases, from the Indus Valley to Persian qanats

While the dog was domesticated as early as 15,000 years BC, we associate the first human activities aimed at managing water with the Neolithic period, which began around 10,000 BC.

It is thought to be the moment at which mankind moved from a « tribal subsistence economy of hunter-gatherers » to agriculture and animal husbandry, giving rise to villages and cities, where pottery, weaving, metallurgy and the arts would start blooming.

Key to this, the domestication of animals. The goat was domesticated around 11,000 BC, the cow around 9,000 BC, the sheep around -8,000 BC, and finally the horse around 2,200 BC in the steppes of Ukraine.

The oldest archaeological sites showing agricultural activities and irrigation techniques were discovered in the Indus Valley and the « Fertile Crescent ».

The site of Mehrgarh, in the Indus Valley, now Pakistan Balochistan, discovered in 1974 by François and Cathérine Jarrige, two French archaeologists, demonstrates important agricultural practices from 7000 BC onward.

Cotton, wheat and barley were grown, and beer was brewed. Cattle, sheep and goats were raised. But Mehrgarh was much more than that.

Vestiges de Mehrgarh (Balotchistan, Pakistan).

Contradicting the linear « developmental » schema, since we’re in the middle of the Neolithic, Mehrgarh is also home to the oldest pottery in South Asia and, above all, to the “Mehrgahr amulet”, the oldest bronze object casted with the « lost-wax » method.

Mehrgarh bronze casted amulette.

The first seals made of terracotta or bone and decorated with geometric motifs were found here.

On the technological side, tiny bow drills were used, possibly for dental treatment, as evidenced by the pierced teeth of some skeletons found on site.

At the same time, or shortly afterwards, around 6000 B.C., Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, witnessed rapid urban development in terms of demographics, institutions, agriculture, techniques and trade.

A veritable « fertile crescent » emerged in the region stretching from Sumer to Egypt, passing through the whole of Mesopotamia and the Levant, i.e. Syria and the Jordan Valley.


Whether in the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia or Egypt, the earliest irrigation techniques are nothing but retaining as much water as possible when Mother Nature has the sweet kindness to offer it to mankind.

Rainwater was collected in cisterns and, as much as possible, when snowmelt or monsoon rains swell the rivers, the objective was to amplify and steer seasonal « flooding » by canals and trenches carrying the water as far away as possible to areas to be cultivated, while at the same time protecting crops.

In Egypt, for example, where the Nile rises by around 8 meters, the water brings not only moisture but also silt to the soil near the river, providing crops with the nutrients they need to grow and thus maintain the soil’s fertility.

While the Egyptians complained about the harsh labor condition of their farmers, for the Greek historian Herodotus, this was the place in the world where work was least arduous. Of Egypt he says:

In Mehrgarh, where agriculture was born from 7000 BC, the work was indeed far more demanding.

However, the drainage system around the village and the rudimentary dams to control water-logging indicate that the inhabitants understood most of the basic principles involved. The cultivation of cotton, wheat and barley, as well as the domestication of animals, show that they were also familiar with canals and irrigation systems.

Constantly refined, this know-how enabled the civilization of the Indus Valley to create great cities that impress us by their modernity, notably Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, a city of 40,000 inhabitants with a public bath in its center, not a palace.

Central bathing facility of Mohenjo Daro.

Pioneers of modern hygiene, these towns were equipped with small containers where residents could deposit their household waste.

Anticipating our « all-to-the-sewer » systems imagined in the early XVIth century by Leonardo da Vinci, for example in his plans for the new french capital of Romarantin, many towns had public water supplies as well as an ingenious sewage system.

In the port city of Lothal (now India), for example, many homes had private brick bathrooms and latrines. Wastewater was evacuated via a communal sewage system leading either to a canal in the port, or to a soaking pit outside the city walls, or to buried urns equipped with a hole for the evacuation of liquids, which were regularly emptied and cleaned.

Excavations at the Mohenjo Daro site reveal the existence of no fewer than 700 brick wells, houses equipped with bathrooms and individual and collective latrines.

Latrins of Mohenjo Daro.

Many of the city’s buildings had two floors or more. Water trickled down from cisterns installed on the roofs was channeled through closed clay pipes or open gutters that emptied into the covered sewers beneath the street.

Showers and sewer system of Mohenjo Daro.
Chadouf system to raise water to a higher level.

This hydraulic and sanitary know-how was passed on to the civilization of Crete, the mother of Greece, before being implemented on a large scale by the Romans.

It was forgotten with the collapse of the Roman Empire, only to return during the Renaissance.

Noria in Syria.

The first human contributions were aimed at maximizing water reservoirs and their gravity-flow capacity. To achieve this, it was necessary to transfer water from a lower level to higher ground and build « water towers ».

To this end, the Mesopotamian « chadouf » was widely used in Egypt, followed by the « Archimedean screw ».

Next came the « saquia » or « Persian wheel », a geared wheel driven by animal power, and finally the « noria », the best-known water-drawing machine, powered by the river itself.

Persian qanats

Before Alexander the Great, Persia’s Achaemenid Empire (6th century BC) developed the technique of underground qanats or underground aqueducts. This « draining gallery” cut into the rock or built by man, is one of the most ingenious inventions for irrigation in arid and semi-arid regions.

Whatever displeases our environmentalist friends, it’s not nature that magically produces « oases » in the desert.

It’s a scientific man who digs a drainage gallery from a water table close enough to the ground surface, or sometimes from an aquifer that flows into the desert.

On the website of ArchéOrient, archaeologist Rémy Boucharlat, Director of Emeritus Research at the French CNRS, an expert on Iran, explains:

Historically, the majority of the populations of Iran and other arid regions of Asia and North Africa depended on the water supplied by qanats; settlement areas thus corresponded to the places where their construction was possible.

The technique offers a significant advantage: as the water moves through an underground conduit, not a drop of water is lost through evaporation.

This technique spread throughout the world under various names: qanat and kareez in Iran, Syria and Egypt, kariz, kehriz in Pakistan and Afghanistan, aflaj in Oman, galeria in Spain, kahn in Balochistan, kanerjing in China, foggara in North Africa, khettara in Morocco, ngruttati in Sicily, bottini in Siena, etc.).

Improved by the Greeks and amplified by the Etruscans and the Romans, the qanats technique was carried by the Spaniards across the Atlantic to the New World, where numerous underground canals of this type still operate in Peru, Chile and western Mexico.

After Alexander the Great, Bactria, covering parts of today’s Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the northern part of Afghanistan, was even known as the « Oasis civilization » or the “Land of a 1000 Golden Cities”.

Iran boasts it had the highest number of qanats in the world, with approximately 50,000 qanats covering a total length of 360,000 km, about 9 times the circumference of the Earth !

Thousands of them are still operational but increasingly destabilized by erratic well digging and demographic overconcentration.

Shared responsability

In 1017, the Baghdad-based hydrologist Mohammed Al-Karaji provided a detailed description of qanat construction and maintenance techniques, as well as legal considerations about the collective management of wells and pipes.

While each qanat is designed and supervised by a mirab (dowser-hydrologist and discoverer), building a qanat is a collective task that takes several months or years for a village or group of villages. The absolute necessity of collective investment in the infrastructure and its maintenance calls for a superior notion of the common good, an indispensable complement to the notion of private property that rains and rivers are not accustomed to respecting.

In North Africa, the management of water distributed by a khettara (the local name for qanâts) is governed by traditional distribution norms known as « water rights ».

Originally, the volume of water granted per user was proportional to the work involved in building the khettara, and translated into an irrigation period during which the beneficiary could use all the khettara’s flow for his or her fields. Even today, when the khettara has not dried up, this rule of water rights still applies, and a share can be bought or sold. The size of each family’s fields to be irrigated must also be taken into account

All of this demonstrates that good cooperation between man and nature can do miracles if man decides so.

Thank you for your attention and questions welcome!

Iran, underground bathroom from Antiquity.

Merci de partager !

Joachim Patinir and the invention of landscape painting

Joachim Patinir, Landscape with Saint Jerome, National Gallery, London.
Joachim Patinir (1485-1524), drawing by Albrecht Dürer, who attended Patinir’s wedding in Antwerp in 1520.

It is generally believed that the « modern » concept of landscape in Flemish painting only emerged with the work of Joachim Patinir (1485-1524), a Dinant-born painter working in Antwerp in the early 16th century.

For Viennese art historian Ludwig von Baldass (1887-1963), writing at the beginning of the 20th century, Patinir‘s work, presented as clearly ahead of its time, would herald landscape as überschauweltlandschaft, translatable as « panoramic landscape of the world », a truly cosmic and totalizing representation of the visible universe.

What characterizes Patinir‘s work, say the proponents of this analysis, is the sheer scale of the landscapes it presents for the viewer to contemplate.

This breadth has a dual character: the space depicted is immense (due to a panoramic viewpoint situated high up, almost « celestial »), while at the same time it encompasses, without concern for geographical verisimilitude, the greatest possible number of different phenomena and representative specimens, typical of what the earth can offer as curiosities, sometimes even imaginary, dreamlike, unreal, fantastic motifs: fields, woods, anthropomorphic mountains, villages and cities, deserts and forests, rainbows and storms, swamps and rivers, rivers and volcanoes.

Bayart Rock on the Meuse, near Dinant, Belgium.

For example, the « Bayart Rock », which borders the Meuse not far from Patinir‘s native town of Dinant.

In addition to this panoramic perspective, Patinir uses aerial perspective – theorized at the time by Leonardo da Vinci – by dividing the space into three color planes: brown-ochre for the first plane, green for the middle plane and blue for the distant plane.

However, the painter preserves the visibility of the totality of details with a meticulousness, minutiae and preciousness worthy of the Flemish masters of the XVth century, who, by tending towards a quantitative infinity (consisting in showing everything), sought to approach a qualitative infinity (allowing us to see everything).

For their part, the authors of the weltlandschaft thesis, after showering with praise, do not hesitate to strongly relativize his contribution, saying:

And it’s here that the trap of this approach, which consists in making us believe that the advent of landscape as an autonomous genre, its so-called « secularization », is simply the result of emancipation from a medieval and religious mental matrix, considered necessarily retrograde, for which landscape was reduced to a pure emanation or incarnation of divine power, is clearly identified.

Patinir, the first, would thus have demonstrated a purely « modern » aesthetic conception, and these « realistic » landscapes would mark the transition from a religious – and therefore obscurantist – cultural paradigm to a modern one, i.e. one devoid of meaning… which he would later be criticized for.

This is how the romantic and fantastic minds of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries viewed the artists of the XVth and XVIth centuries.

Von Baldass was undoubtedly influenced by the writings of Goethe, who, no doubt in a moment of enthusiasm for Greek paganism, analyzed the increasingly diminished role of religious figures in XVIth-century Flemish paintings and deduced that it was no longer the religious subject that was the subject, but the landscape.

Just as Rubens would have used the pretext of painting Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise to be able to paint nudes, Patinir would simply have seized the pretext of a biblical passage to be able to indulge his true passion, landscape…

A little detour via Hieronymus Bosch

A fresh look at Patinir’s work clearly demonstrates the error of this analysis.

To arrive at a more accurate reading, I suggest a detour to Hieronymus Bosch, whose spirit was very much alive among Erasmus‘ circle of friends in Antwerp (Gérard David, Quentin Massys, Jan Wellens Cock, Albrecht Dürer, etc.), of which Patinir was a member.

Bosch, contrary to the clichés still in vogue today, is above all a pious and moralizing spirit. If he shows vice, it’s not so much to praise it as to make us aware of just how much it attracts us. Faithful to the Augustinian traditions of Devotio Moderna, promoted by the Brothers of the Common Life (a spiritual renewal movement to which he was close), Bosch believes that man’s attachment to earthly things leads him to sin. This is the central theme of all his work, the spirit of which can only be penetrated by reading The Imitation of Christ, written, in all probability, by the founding soul of the Devotio Moderna, Geert Groote (1340-1384), or his disciple, Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471), to whom this work is generally attributed.

In this work, the most widely read in human history after the Bible, we read:

Bosch treats this subject with great compassion and humor in his painting The Hay Wagon (Prado Museum, Madrid).

Hieronymus Bosch, The Hay Chariot Altarpiece, central panel, reference to the vanity of earthly riches. Prado Museum, Madrid.

The allegory of straw already exists in the Old Testament. Isaiah 40:6 :

It was echoed in the New Testament by the apostle Peter (1:24):

Johannes Brahms uses this passage in the second movement of his German Requiem.

Bosch‘s triptych depicts a hay wagon, an allegory of the vanity of earthly riches, pulled by strange creatures on their way to hell.

The Duke of Burgundy, the Emperor of Germany and even the Pope himself (this is the time of Julius II…) follow close behind, while a dozen or so characters fight to the death for a blade of straw. It’s a bit like the huge speculative securities bubble that is leading our era into a great depression…

It’s easy to imagine the bankers who sabotaged the G20 summit to perpetuate their system, which is so profitable in the very short term. But this corruption doesn’t just affect the big boys. In the foreground of the picture, an abbot has entire sacks of hay filled, a false dentist and also gypsies cheat people for a bit of straw.

The peddler and the Homo Viator

The closed triptych sums up the same topos in the form of a peddler (not the prodigal son). This peddler, eternal homo viator, is an allegory of Man who fights to stay on the right path and insists on staying on it.

In another version of the same subject painted by Bosch (Museum Boijmans Beuningen, Rotterdam), the peddler advances op een slof en een schoen (on a slipper and a shoe), i.e. he chooses precariousness, leaving the visible world of sin (we see a brothel and drunkards) and abandoning his material possessions.

Painting by Bosch. Here, the peddler is merely a metaphor for the path chosen by the soul as it steadily detaches itself from earthly temptations. With his staff (faith), the believer repels the sin (the dog) that comes to bite his calves.

With his staff (symbol of faith), he fends off the infernal dogs (symbol of temptation), who try to hold him back.

Once again, these are not manifestations of Bosch‘s exuberant imagination, but of a metaphorical language common at the time. We find this representation in the margin of the famous Luttrell Psalter, a XIVth-century English psalter.

Luttrell Psalter, peddler with staff and infernal dog, British Library, London.

This theme of homo viator, the man who detaches himself from earthly goods, is also recurrent in the art and literature of this period, particularly since the Dutch translation of Pèlerinage de la vie et de l’âme humaine (pilgrimage of life and the human soul), written in 1358 by the Norman Cistercian monk Guillaume de Degulleville (1295-after 1358).

A miniature from this work shows a soul on its way, dressed as a peddler.

Miniature from Guillaume Degulleville’s Pèlerinage de la vie et l’âme humaine.

Nevertheless, while in the XIVth century this spiritual requirement may have dictated a sometimes excessive rigorism, the liberating laughter of nascent humanism (Brant, Erasmus, Rabelais, etc.) would bring happier, freer colors to Flemish Brabant culture (Bosch, Matsys, Bruegel), albeit later stifled by the dictates of the Council of Trent.

Man’s foolish attachment to earthly goods became a laughing matter. Published in Basel in 1494, Sébastien Brant’s Ship of Fools, a veritable inventory of all the follies that can lead man to his doom, left its mark on an entire generation, which rediscovered creativity and optimism thanks to the liberating laughter of Erasmus and his disciple, the Christian humanist François Rabelais.

In any case, for Bosch, Patinir and the Devotio Moderna, contemplation was the very opposite of pessimism and scholastic passivity. For them, laughter is the ideal antidote to despair, acedia (weariness) and melancholy.

Contemplation thus took on a new dimension. Each member of the faithful is encouraged to live out his or her Christian commitment, through personal experience and individual imitation of Christ. They must stop blaming themselves on the great figures of the Bible and Sacred History.

Man can no longer rely on the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the apostles and the saints. While following their examples, he must give personal content to the ideal of the Christian life. Driven to action, each individual, fully aware of his or her sinful nature, is constantly led to choose good over evil. These are just a few of the cultural backgrounds that enable us to approach Patinir’s landscapes in a different way.

Charon crossing the Styx

Patinir’s painting Charon Crossing the Styx (Prado Museum, Madrid), which combines ancient and Christian traditions, will serve here as our « Rosetta stone ». Inspired by the sixth book of the Aeneid, in which the Roman writer Virgil describes the catabasis, or descent into hell, or Dante‘s Inferno (3, line 78) taken from Virgil, Patinir places a boat at the center of the work.

Joachim Patinir, Charon crossing the Styx, Prado Museum, Madrid.

The tall figure standing in this boat is Charon, the Ferryman of the Underworld, usually portrayed as a gloomy, sinister old man. His task is to ferry the souls of the deceased across the River Styx.

In payment, Charon takes a coin placed in the mouths of the corpses. The passenger in the boat is thus a human soul.

Although the scene takes place after the person’s physical death, the soul – and this may come as a surprise – is tormented by the choice between Heaven and Hell.

Since the Council of Trent, it has been considered that a bad life irrevocably sends man to Hell from the moment of his death. But Christian faith continues, even today, to distinguish the Last Judgment from what is known as the « particular judgment ».

According to this concept, which is sometimes disputed within denominations, at the moment of death, although our final fate is fixed (Hebrews 9:27), all the consequences of this particular Judgment will not be drawn until the general Judgment, which will take place when Christ returns at the end of time.

So, the « particular judgment » that is supposed to immediately follow our death, concerns our last act of freedom, prepared by all that our life has been. Helping us to contemplate this ultimate moment therefore seems to be the primary aim of Patinir‘s painting, with other metaphors thrown in for good measure.

However, a closer look at the lower part of the painting reveals a contradiction that is absent from Virgil’s poem. While Hell is on the right (Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the gateway to Hell, can be seen), the gateway seems easily accessible, with splendid trees dotting the lawns.

To the left is Paradise. An angel tries to attract the attention of the soul in the boat, but it seems much more attracted by a seemingly welcoming Hell.

What’s more, the dimly-lit path to paradise seems perilous, with rocks, swamps and other dangerous obstacles. Once again, it’s our senses that may lead us to make a literally hellish choice.

Hercules at the crossroads, Ship of Fools, Sébastien Brant.

The subject of the painting is clearly that of the bivium, the binary choice at the crossroads that offers the pilgrim viewer the choice between the path of vice and that of salvation.

This theme was widespread at the time. We find it again in Sébastien Brant‘s Ship of Fools, in the form of Hercules at the crossroads. In this illustration, on the left, at the top of a hill, a naked woman represents vice and idleness. Behind her, death smiles down on us.

On the right, planted at the top of a higher hill, at the end of a rocky path, awaits virtue symbolized by work. Let’s also remember that the Gospel (Matthew 7:13-14) clearly evokes the choice we will face:

Landscape as an object of contemplation

The art historian Reindert Leonard Falkenburg, in his 1985 doctoral thesis, was the first to note that Patinir takes pleasure in transposing this metaphorical language to the whole of his landscape.

Although the image of impassable rocks as a metaphor for the virtue achieved by choosing the difficult path is nothing new, Patinir exploits this idea with unprecedented virtuosity.

We thus discover that the theme of man courageously turning away from the temptation of a world that traps our sensorium, is the underlying theo-philosophical theme of almost all Patinir’s landscapes. In this way, his work finds its raison d’être as an object of contemplation, where man measures himself against the infinite.Let’s return to our Landscape with Saint Jerome by Patinir (National Gallery, London).

Here we discover the « narrow gate » leading to a difficult path that takes us to the first plateau. This is not the highest mountain. The highest, like the Tower of Babylon, is a symbol of pride.

Next, let’s look at Resting on the Road to Egypt (Prado Museum, Madrid). At the side of the road, Mary is seated, and in front of her, on the ground, are the peddler’s staff and his typical basket.

Joachim Patinir, The Rest of the Holy Family, Prado Museum, Madrid.

In conclusion, we could say that, driven by his spiritual and humanist fervor, by painting increasingly impassable rocks – reflecting the immense virtue of those who decide to climb them – Patinir elaborates not « realistic » landscapes, but « spiritual landscapes », dictated by the immense need to tell the spiritual journey of the soul.

Hence, far from being mere aesthetic objects, his spiritual landscapes serve contemplation.

Like a half-ironic mirror image, they enable those who wish to do so to prepare for the choices their soul will face during, and after, life’s pilgrimage.


  • R.L. Falkenburg, Joachim Patinir, Het landschap als beeld van de levenspelgrimage, Nijmegen, 1985;
  • Maurice Pons and André Barret, Patinir ou l’harmonie du monde, Robert Laffont, 1980;
  • Eric de Bruyn, De vergeten beeldentaal van Jheronimus Bosch, Adr. Heinen, s’Hertogenbosch, 2001;
  • Dirk Bax, Hieronymus Bosch, his picture-writing deciphered, A. A. Balkema, Capetown, 1979;
  • Georgette Epinay-Burgard, Gérard Groote, fondateur de la Dévotion Moderne, Brepols, 1998.
  • Karel Vereycken, Devotio Moderna, cradle of Humanism in the North, Artkarel.com, 2011;
  • Karel Vereycken, With Hieronymus Bosch on the track of the Sublime, Schiller Institute, 2007.
  • Karel Vereycken, How Erasmus Folly saved our Civilization, Schiller Institute, 2004.

Merci de partager !

Victor Hugo and the awakening of the colossus

Steeped in a worldview of Christian humanism and love for the other, the french state sman, critic, author and poet Victor Hugo (1802-1885) felt challenged by the people and the misery in which they found themselves, without falling for a purely idealized or romantic vision. And when he sees the people rise, Hugo takes the measure of their colossal power, be it for good or for evil.

In his poem To the People (Les Châtiments, Book VI), he uses the powerful metaphor of the Ocean to characterize this often unpredictable force. In evoking it, Hugo addresses the people:

During the first half of his life, Hugo witnessed several popular uprisings. The years 1830 are particularly agitated. Riots and strikes broke out in the big cities, in Paris, Lyon, Marseille, provoked by the harshness of life that was aggravated by the crisis in agricultural production. Generally speaking, the rigor of working conditions was the result of absurd market mechanisms: faced with the collapse of industrial prices (1817-1851), entrepreneurs decided purely and simply to reduce wages!

Pauperization exploded and the workers rebelled against this dramatic decrease in their income. In Paris, Hugo had before his eyes the spectacle of a laboring mass, coming from the provinces to crowd into the center of the capital, uprooted, living in insalubrity and precariousness, exposed to epidemics (cholera in 1832), quick to riot (February and September 1831, June 1832, April 1834).

However, the workers, who represented only a small minority in a largely agricultural and peasant country, struggled to assert their demands, especially for shorter working days. Not yet structured, their fragmentation prevented them from acquiring a true consciousness of class solidarity. This battered mass, regularly agitated by brutal shocks, frightened the notables and the owners, who saw it as a dangerous class threatening their privileges.

Love stronger than pity

Hugo is very early aware that the misery of the people is the main “social question”. This sensitivity to the fate of the poorest is not that of the hypocritical lady-do-rightly, it is the bottom of his soul. And when, elected deputy, he evokes it in the Assembly, the conservatives of which he thought he was close until 1849, started to yell.

The misery of the working classes, the poet knew and had reported on it: misery of the prison (visit to the Conciergerie, in Choses vues, September 1846), misery of working-class life (visit to the cellars of Lille in February 1851, speech not delivered that will inspire the poem of the Châtiments « Joyful life »). He is convinced that it can be eradicated.

Contradicting the conservatives, the working classes are not, in his eyes, « dangerous classes ». They are even in danger, and the fact that they are in danger threatens the stability of the whole society:

If he abandons his convictions as a young Royalist to become a passionate Republican of progress, Hugo fears chaos and needless bloodshed. Although he did not live through 1793 and the Terror, he is obsessed with the memory of the bloody days of the French Revolution, when the guillotine was in full swing.

Reporting on the insurrection, in 1832, more than the violence as such, he denounced the extremists who, for personal calculations and not to fight against injustice, excite the masses to revolt and announce for the end of the month « four beautiful permanent guillotines on the four main squares of Paris”.

Hugo considers this strategy as a political dead end (« Don’t ask for rights as long as the people ask for heads »), while understanding its legitimacy:

With irony, he points out to the powerful that « the most excellent symbol of the people is the pavement. You walk on it until it falls on your head. » (Things Seen, 1830 to 1885.)

Like the German poet Friedrich Schiller, Hugo believes that the role of the artist and the poet is to elevate the debate. Art, like the polar star shining in the night for sailors lost on the ocean, is essential to guide the people to safety.


Politically, in order to lay the foundations of a peaceful and harmonious future destiny, he affirms that compassion and forgiveness must prevail over hatred and vengeance.

Lucid, the poet declares that « to open a school is to close a prison, » for « when the people are intelligent, only then will the people be sovereign. »

This is the treatment applied to Jean Valjean, the main hero of Les Misérables: the poor thief, an escaped convict, will eventually become the great soul that his host of one evening, Monsignor Myriel, had been able to detect in him while the rest of society proved unable to identify it … Hugo will spend his life to de-demonize « the beggars » (les gueux), that is to say the people.

In 1812, in his song Les gueux, the popular chansonnier Pierre-Jean de Béranger*, whom he admired, intoned:

In one of his greatest speeches (in July 1851, on the reform of the Constitution), Hugo claimed for the people (and for all) the right to material life (assured work, organized assistance, abolition of the death penalty) and the right to intellectual life (compulsory and free education, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of the press).

In short, in embryo, the vision of a Jaurès and a De Gaulle that we will find in « Les Jours heureux » (The Happy Days), the program of the National Council of the Resistance (CNR), and the antithesis of the financial globalization that is inflicted on us today.

A whistleblower

Le colosse, Goya.

In 1527, in a letter to his friend Thomas More, the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam warned the powerful: if the Church of Rome does not adopt the measures of progressive and peaceful reform that he, Erasmus, proposes, they will be guilty of having provoked a century of violence.

In Les années funestes (1852), knowing the power of the colossus, Victor Hugo also warned the oligarchy. A warning that keeps its topicality:


*Christine Bierre: « Pierre-Jean de Béranger : la chanson, une arme républicaine » in Nouvelle Solidarité N°07/2022.

Merci de partager !

Derrière les « chevaux célestes » chinois, la science terrestre

Cheval volant de Gansu (porté par une alouette ou un autre oiseau sur lequel il pose son sabot…).

Nul besoin d’être anthropologue pour comprendre que l’histoire de l’humanité a radicalement changé avec la domestication du cheval, certaines choses considérées comme impossibles auparavant devenant, du jour au lendemain, la normalité.

Peinture rupestre (-36 000 ans), Grotte Chauvet, France.

La question de savoir quand et comment l’animal a été domestiqué reste sujet à controverse. Bien que des chevaux apparaissent dans l’art rupestre du paléolithique dès 36 000 ans avant notre ère (grotte Chauvet, France), il s’agissait alors de chevaux sauvages sans doute chassés pour leur viande.

Pour les zoologistes, la domestication se définit comme la maîtrise de l’élevage, pratique confirmée par des restes de squelettes anciens indiquant des changements dans la taille et la variabilité des populations de chevaux anciens.

Peinture rupestre montrant un guerrier à cheval (-10 000 ans), grotte du Bhimbetka, Inde.

D’autres chercheurs s’intéressent à des éléments plus généraux de la relation homme-cheval, notamment les preuves squelettiques et dentaires de l’activité professionnelle, les armes, l’art et les artefacts spirituels, ainsi que les modes de vie. Il est prouvé que les chevaux furent une source de viande et de lait avant d’être dressés comme animaux de travail.

En Inde, près de Bhopal, les abris-sous-roche du Bhimbetka, qui constituent le plus ancien art rupestre connu du pays (100 000 av. JC)), représentent des scènes de danse et de chasse de l’âge de pierre ainsi que des guerriers à cheval d’une époque plus tardive (10 000 av. JC).

Char tiré par des chevaux, art achéménide, Ve siècle av. JC.

Les preuves les plus évidentes de l’utilisation précoce du cheval comme moyen de transport sont les sépultures présentant des chevaux avec leurs chars. Les plus anciens vrais chars, datant d’environ 2000 av. JC, ont été retrouvés dans des tombeaux de la culture de Sintachta, dans des sites archéologiques situés le long du cours supérieur de la rivière Tobol, au sud-est de Magnitogorsk en Russie. Il s’agit de chars à roues à rayons tirés par deux chevaux.

Kazakhstan et Ukraine

Cheval de Przewalkski.

Jusqu’à récemment, on pensait que le cheval le plus communément utilisé aujourd’hui était un descendant des chevaux domestiqués par la culture de Botaï, vivant dans les steppes de la province d’Akmola au Kazakhstan.

Cependant, des recherches génétiques récentes (2021) indiquent que les chevaux de Botaï ne sont que les ancêtres du cheval de Przewalski, une espèce qui a failli disparaître.

Selon les chercheurs, notre cheval commun, Equus ferus caballus, aurait été domestiqué il y a 4200 ans en Ukraine, dans la région du Don-Volga, c’est-à-dire la steppe pontique-caspienne de l’Eurasie occidentale, vers 2200 av. JC. Au fur et à mesure de leur domestication, ces chevaux ont été régulièrement croisés avec des chevaux sauvages.

Il est intéressant de noter à cet égard que, selon « l’hypothèse kourgane » formulée par Marija Gimbutas en 1956, c’est depuis cette région que la plupart des langues indo-européennes se sont répandues dans toute l’Europe et certaines parties de l’Asie.

Le nom vient du terme russe d’origine turque, « kourgane », qui désigne les tumuli caractéristiques de ces peuples et qui marquent leur expansion en Europe.

La Route du thé, du cheval ou de la soie?

Ferdinand von Richthofen.

La description des échanges commerciaux, culturels et humains tout au long des « Routes de la soie » a fait couler beaucoup d’encre. Or, ce terme est récent. Ce n’est qu’en 1877 que le géographe allemand Ferdinand von Richthofen l’utilise pour la première fois afin de désigner ces axes Est-Ouest structurant les échanges mondiaux.

En réalité, il s’avère que l’une des principales marchandises échangées sur ladite Route de la soie était… les chevaux et autres animaux de labour (mules, chameaux, ânes et onagres).

Si l’on y échangeait effectivement la soie et le thé, ces produits constituaient, comme la porcelaine et l’or, un moyen pour régler d’autres achats, notamment les chevaux que les Chinois cherchaient à acquérir.

Ce que l’on appelait la « Route du thé et du cheval » (route de la soie du sud) partait de la ville de Chengdu, dans la province du Sichuan, en Chine, traversait le Yunnan vers le sud, jusqu’en Inde et dans la péninsule indochinoise, et s’étendait vers l’ouest jusqu’au Tibet.

C’était une route importante pour le commerce du thé en Chine du Sud et en Asie du Sud-Est, et elle a contribué à la diffusion de religions comme le taoïsme et le bouddhisme dans la région. Il est vrai que « Route de la soie » est plus poétique que « route du crottin » !

La Steppe et ses nomades

« Grande muraille » de Chine.

Constamment harcelée par les peuples nomades des steppes du Nord, la Chine entreprit la construction de sa Grande Muraille dès le VIIe siècle av. JC.

La liaison entre les premiers éléments fut réalisée par Qin Shi Huang (220-206 avant JC.), le premier empereur de Chine, et l’ensemble du mur, achevé sous la dynastie des Ming (1368-1644), est devenu l’un des exploits les plus remarquables de l’histoire humaine.

Le terme générique de « nomades eurasiens » englobe les divers groupes ethniques peuplant la steppe eurasienne, se déplaçant à travers les steppes du Kazakhstan, du Kirghizistan, du Tadjikistan, du Turkménistan, d’Ouzbékistan, de Mongolie, de Russie et d’Ukraine.

En domestiquant le cheval vers 2200 av. JC., ces peuples augmentèrent considérablement les possibilités de vie nomade.

Par la suite, leur économie et leur culture se concentrèrent sur l’élevage de chevaux, l’équitation et le pastoralisme nomade, permettant de riches échanges commerciaux avec les peuples sédentaires vivant en bordure de la steppe, que ce soit en Europe, en Asie ou en Asie centrale.

On pense qu’ils opéraient souvent sous forme de confédérations. Par définition, les nomades ne créent pas d’empires. Sans forcément les occuper, en contrôlant les points névralgiques, ils règnent en maître sur d’immenses territoires.

Ce sont eux qui développèrent le char, le chariot, la cavalerie et le tir à l’arc à cheval, introduisant des innovations telles que la bride, le mors, l’étrier et la selle, qui traversèrent rapidement toute l’Eurasie et furent copiées par leurs voisins sédentaires.

Durant l’âge du fer, des cultures scythes (iraniennes) apparurent parmi les nomades eurasiens, caractérisées par un art distinct, dont la joaillerie en or force l’admiration.

Le cheval en Chine

Les objets funéraires chinois fournissent une quantité extraordinaire d’informations sur le mode de vie des Chinois de l’Antiquité. La cavalerie militaire, mise sur pied dès le IIIe siècle avant J.C., s’y développe afin de faire face aux guerriers nomades et archers à cheval qui menacent la Chine le long de sa frontière septentrionale. Leurs grands et puissants chevaux étaient nouveaux pour les Chinois.

Échangés contre de la soie de luxe, comme nous l’avons dit, ils sont la première importation majeure en Chine depuis la Route de la soie. Des vestiges archéologiques montrent qu’en l’espace de quelques années, les merveilleux destriers arabes deviennent extrêmement populaires auprès des militaires et des aristocrates chinois, et les tombes des classes supérieures sont remplies de représentations de ces grands chevaux destinés à être utilisés dans l’au-delà. Ils restent cependant difficiles à trouver sur place…

Les diplomates chinois et le royaume de Dayuan (Ferghana)

Zhang Qian prenant congé de l’empereur Wu en -138, peinture murale des grottes de Mogao datant d’environ le VIIIe siècle.

À la fin du IIe siècle av. JC., Zhang Qian, diplomate et explorateur de la dynastie Han, se rend en Asie centrale et découvre trois civilisations urbaines sophistiquées créées par des colons grecs appelés Ioniens.

Le récit de sa visite en Bactriane, et son étonnement d’y trouver des marchandises chinoises sur les marchés (acquises via l’Inde), ainsi que ses voyages en Parthie et au Ferghana, sont conservés dans les œuvres de Sima Qian, l’historien des premiers Han.

Une touriste prend des photos d’une carte montrant le deuxième voyage de Zhang Qian vers l’Ouest. Photo prise au tombeau de Zhang Qian dans le comté de Chenggu de Hanzhong.

À son retour, son récit incite l’empereur chinois à envoyer des émissaires à travers l’Asie centrale pour négocier et encourager le commerce avec son pays. « Et c’est ainsi que naquit la route de la soie », affirment certains historiens.

Carte de la vallée de Ferghana.

Outre la Parthie et la Bactriane, Zhang Qian visite, dans la fertile vallée de Ferghana (aujourd’hui essentiellement au Tadjikistan), un État que les Chinois baptisèrent le royaume de Dayuan (« Da » signifiant « grand » et « Yuan » étant la translittération du sanskrit Yavana ou du pali Yona, utilisé dans toute l’Antiquité en Asie pour désigner les Ioniens, ou colons grecs).

Les Actes du grand historien et le Livre des Han décrivent Dayuan comme un pays de plusieurs centaines de milliers d’habitants, vivant dans 70 villes fortifiées de taille variable.

Princesse bactriane.

Ils cultivent le riz et le blé et produisent du vin à partir de leurs vignes. Ils avaient des traits caucasiens et des « coutumes identiques à celles de la Bactriane » (l’État le plus hellénistique de la région depuis Alexandre le Grand), dont l’épicentre se trouve alors au nord de l’Afghanistan. (voir notre article)

En outre, le diplomate chinois rapporte un fait d’un grand intérêt stratégique : la présence, dans la vallée de la Ferghana, de chevaux incroyables, rapides et puissants, élevés par ces Ioniens !

Expansion de la dynastie des Hans.

Or, comme nous l’avons déjà dit, la Chine, se sentant menacée en permanence par les peuples nomades des steppes, était en train de construire sa Grande Muraille. Elle avait également conscience de son infériorité militaire par rapport aux nomades des steppes et déplorait son manque cruel de puissants chevaux.

Sans oublier que, dans l’échelle des valeurs chinoises, le cheval possédait une valeur spirituelle et symbolique presque aussi forte que le dragon : il pouvait voler et représentait l’esprit divin et créatif de l’univers lui-même, chose essentielle pour tout empereur désireux d’acquérir aussi bien la sécurité militaire pour son empire que son immortalité personnelle.

Bref, posséder de bons chevaux est alors une question allant au-delà de la sécurité nationale, tout en l’incluant. À tel point qu’en 100 av. JC., lorsque le souverain de la vallée de Ferghana refuse de lui fournir des chevaux de qualité, la dynastie Han déclenche contre Dayuan la « guerre des chevaux célestes ».

Guerre des chevaux célestes

C’est un conflit militaire qui se déroule entre 104 et 102 av. JC. entre la Chine et Dayuan, Etat peuplé d’Ioniens (entre l’Ouzbékistan, le Kirghizstan et le Tadjikistan actuels

Tout d’abord, l’empereur Wu décide d’infliger une défaite décisive aux nomades des steppes, les Xiongnu, qui harcèlent la dynastie Han depuis des décennies.

Pour les faire plier, en 139 av. JC, il envoie le diplomate Zhang Qian avec pour mission d’arpenter l’ouest et d’y forger une alliance militaire avec les nomades chinois Yuezhi contre les Xiongnu.

Zhang Qian, comme nous l’avons dit, se rend en Parthie, en Bactriane et à Dayuan. À son retour, il impressionne l’empereur en lui décrivant les « chevaux célestes » de la vallée de Ferghana, qui pourraient grandement améliorer la qualité des montures de la cavalerie Han lors des combats contre les Xiongnu.

La cour des Han envoie alors jusqu’à dix groupes de diplomates pour acquérir ces « chevaux célestes ».

Cheval céleste.

Une mission commerciale et diplomatique arrive donc à Dayuan avec 1000 pièces d’or et un cheval d’or pour acheter les précieux animaux. Dayuan, qui était à cette époque l’un des États les plus occidentaux à avoir des émissaires à la cour des Han, commerce déjà avec eux depuis un certain temps à son grand avantage. Non seulement sa population accède aux marchandises orientales, mais apprend des soldats Han la fonte des métaux pour fabriquer des pièces et des armes. Cependant, contrairement aux autres envoyés à la cour des Han, ceux de Dayuan ne se conforment pas aux rituels des Han et se montrent arrogants, pensant que leur pays est trop éloigné pour avoir à craindre une invasion.

Dès lors, dans un élan de folie et par pure arrogance, le roi du Dayuan non seulement refuse le marché, mais confisque l’or. Les envoyés des Han maudissent les hommes de Dayuan et brisent le cheval d’or qu’ils avaient amené. Furieux de cet acte de mépris, les nobles de Dayuan ordonnent aux militaires de Yucheng, qui se trouvent à leur frontière orientale, d’attaquer les envoyés, de les tuer et de s’emparer de leurs marchandises.

Humiliée et furieuse, la cour des Han envoie alors une armée dirigée par le général Li Guangli pour soumettre Dayuan, mais leur première incursion s’avère mal organisée et insuffisamment approvisionnée.

Deux ans plus tard, une seconde expédition, plus importante et mieux approvisionnée, parvient à assiéger la capitale des Dayuan, « Alexandria Eschate » (aujourd’hui proche de Khodjent, au Tadjikistan), forçant les Dayuan à se rendre sans condition.

Le général Li Guangli.

Les forces expéditionnaires y installent alors un régime pro-Han et repartent avec 3000 chevaux. Il n’en restera que 1000 à leur arrivée en Chine, en 101 av. JC.

Le Dayuan accepte également d’envoyer chaque année deux chevaux célestes à l’empereur et des semences de luzerne sont ramenées en Chine, fournissant des pâturages de qualité supérieure pour élever de beaux chevaux afin de fournir une cavalerie capable de faire face aux Xiongnu qui menacent le pays.

Les chevaux ont depuis lors captivé l’imagination populaire en Chine, inspirant des sculptures, faisant l’objet d’élevage dans le Gansu et dotant la cavalerie de 430 000 chevaux de ce type sous la dynastie des Tang.

La Chine et la Révolution agricole

Après avoir imposé son rôle dans la stratégie militaire pour les siècles à venir, le cheval devient, avec la maîtrise de l’eau, le facteur clé permettant d’accroître la productivité agricole.

Contrairement aux Romains, qui préféraient utiliser du « bétail humain » (esclaves) plutôt que des animaux (qu’ils élevaient pour les courses), les Chinois ont contribué de façon décisive à la survie de l’humanité avec deux innovations cruciales concernant l’attelage des chevaux.

Rappelons que pendant toute l’Antiquité, que ce soit en Égypte ou en Grèce, charrues et chariots sont tirés à l’aide d’une bande de cuir encerclant le cou de l’animal.

Cet attelage s’apparente au joug utilisé pour les bœufs, la charge étant attachée au sommet du collier, au-dessus du cou. Le cheval se trouvant ainsi constamment étranglé, ce système réduit considérablement sa capacité à travailler, et plus il tire, plus il a du mal à respirer.

En raison de cette contrainte physique, le bœuf restera l’animal préféré pour les travaux lourds tels que le labourage. Cependant, il est lent, difficile à manœuvrer et n’a pas l’endurance du cheval, qui est deux fois supérieure pour une puissance équivalente.

La Chine aurait d’abord inventé la « bricole », large courroie de cuir enserrant le poitrail du cheval, ce qui était un premier pas dans la bonne direction.

La « bricole » sous la dynastie Han.

Au Ve siècle, la Chine invente « le collier d’épaule », conçu comme un ovale rigide qui s’adapte au cou et aux épaules du cheval sans lui couper le souffle.

Il présente les avantages suivants :
— Il soulage la pression exercée sur la gorge du cheval, libérant les voies respiratoires de toute constriction, ce qui améliore considérablement le débit d’énergie de l’animal.
— Les traits peuvent être attachés de chaque côté du collier, ce qui permet au cheval de pousser sur ses pattes postérieures, plus puissantes, au lieu de tirer avec celles de devant, plus faibles.

Vous me direz qu’il s’agit là d’une simple anecdote. Vous avez tort, car ce qui semble n’être qu’un changement mineur aura des conséquences gigantesques.

La Renaissance européenne

Miniature montrant un cheval de trait.

Dans le cadre d’une alliance stratégique et d’une coopération avec le califat humaniste des Abbassides de Bagdad (voir notre article), Charlemagne et ses successeurs ont défriché de vastes terrains pour l’agriculture, amélioré l’usage de l’eau et généralisé le collier d’épaule pour les chevaux de trait.

Grâce à ce nouvel outil beaucoup plus efficace, les agriculteurs européens ont pu tirer pleinement parti de la force du cheval, qui sera alors capable de tirer une autre innovation récente, la lourde charrue. Cela s’est avéré particulièrement appréciable pour les sols durs et argileux, ouvrant de nouvelles terres à l’agriculture.

Le collier, la charrue lourde et le fer à cheval ont contribué à l’essor de la production agricole.

Entre l’an 1000 et l’an 1300, les rendements agricoles ont été multipliés par trois, autant que la population d’Europe et de France.

Ainsi, entre l’an 1000 et l’an 1300, on estime qu’en Europe, les rendements agricoles ont triplé, permettant de nourrir un nombre croissant de citoyens dans les villes urbaines apparues au XVe siècle et de donner le coup d’envoi à la Renaissance européenne. Merci la Chine !

Certains chiffres laissent néanmoins perplexes :

–Il aura fallu des milliers d’années à l’humanité pour domestiquer le cheval, en 2200 av. JC. (bien après la vache).
— Il faudra encore 2700 ans à l’humanité pour trouver, au Ve siècle de notre ère, la façon la plus efficace d’utiliser sa force motrice…

Le passage d’une plateforme d’infrastructure inférieure à une plate-forme d’infrastructure supérieure peut certes prendre un certain temps. Les nouvelles plateformes supérieures d’aujourd’hui s’appellent l’espace et l’énergie de fusion.

N’attendons pas encore un millénaire pour savoir comment les utiliser correctement !

Merci de partager !

Grands travaux : l’exemple inspirant du « Plan Freycinet »

Port de Marseille avec les voies ferrées arrivant sur les quais.
Charles de Freycinet.

L’analyse de Charles de Freycinet sur les buts de la science économique est limpide et se résume en une phrase : « Le progrès économique, c’est la plus grande satisfaction pour le moindre effort. »

Si l’objectif phare est de donner accès au chemin de fer à tous les Français, il s’agit de favoriser le développement économique du pays par le désenclavement des régions reculées.

Les promoteurs du plan veulent également aboutir à un contrôle plus strict de l’État voire au rachat des compagnies de chemins de fer.

L’analyse de Freycinet sur les buts de la science économique n’est pas sans rappeler la pensée du philosophe et scientifique allemand Leibniz :

Pour sa mise en œuvre, le « plan Freycinet » est inscrit dans la loi de Finances et une première loi est votée le 18 mai 1878.

Ensuite, il fait l’objet de trois lois promulguées par Jules Grévy, président de la République, à quelques jours d’intervalle:

1. Nouvelles lignes ferroviaires nationales et secondaires

Poseurs de rail.

La première concerne la construction de 8700 kilomètres de nouvelles voies ferroviaires soit 154 lignes dites d’intérêt général (avec un écartement des voies d’1m43) afin de desservir toutes les sous-préfectures du pays.

Leur construction est assurée, soit par les grandes compagnies privées, le coût étant le plus souvent pris en charge par l’État, soit par l’État lui-même. Freycinet est ainsi à l’origine de la compagnie de l’État (loi du 18 mai 1878).

Dans le même temps il s’agit de désenclaver tous les chefs lieux de cantons par des réseaux secondaires (lignes dites « d’intérêt local » avec un écartement des voies d’1 m) construites principalement à l’initiative des conseils généraux.

Le réseau ferré français, avant et après le plan Freycinet.

La longueur des ces réseaux départementaux passera de 2187 kilomètres en 1880 à 17 653 km en 1913.

2. L’aménagement du réseau fluvial

Dans le domaine de la navigation fluviale le plan Freycinet ambitionne la création d’un réseau national unifié et cohérent de voies navigables, par l’amélioration de 14 600 km de voies existantes et par la mise en service de 1900 km de canaux supplémentaires.

Le plan Freycinet porte les dimensions des écluses à 39 m de long pour 5,20 m de large, afin qu’elles soient franchissables par des péniches de 300 à 350 tonnes.

Le gabarit Freycinet.

En conséquence, les bateaux au gabarit Freycinet ne doivent pas dépasser 38,5 m sur 5,05 m.

Le « gabarit Freycinet » correspond aujourd’hui au gabarit européen de classe I.

En France, 5800 km de voies fluviales ont conservés cette taille et en 2011, 23 % du trafic fluvial y transite.

3. La modernisation des ports

Manet, port de Bordeaux en 1870.

Au niveau portuaire, Freycinet déplore que :

L’originalité du plan Freycinet, au niveau portuaire, recouvre trois aspects :
–le souci de l’interconnexion,
–l’étendue et
–le mode de financement.

La modernisation des ports, affirme-t-il :

Freycinet, qui avait bien conscience que la bataille pour le maritime se gagne sur terre ferme. Un port sans hinterland capable d’accueillir les flux de marchandises est comme un cœur déconnecté d’artères en mesure de faire circuler le sang.

Freycinet mettra donc l’accent sur l’amélioration de l’intermodalité, ce qui signifie l’extension des quais, la multiplication des bassins, notamment à flot, l’approfondissement des chenaux, afin que « l’installation générale soit appropriée à la fois aux deux modes de transport qui viennent s’y rencontrer ».

Alors que l’État financera les superstructures, les infrastructures, l’outillage sera à la charge des chambres de commerce ou des particuliers par voie de concession. 116 ports sur 188 sont ainsi modernisés.

–La longueur utile des quais passe de 140 km en 1879 à 205 km en 1900, une augmentation de 46 % ;
–le nombre de ports présentant plus de 7 mètres de profondeur s’est élevé de 9 en 1878 à 15 en 1900 ;
–le tonnage de jauge de navires entrés et sortis a progressé de 64 % entre 1878 et 1898 ;
–aux mêmes dates, le poids des marchandises importées ou exportées a augmenté de 75 %, passant de 17 à 30 millions de tonnes.

L’abaissement du prix du fret, l’accroissement de la rapidité et de la régularité des transports, le perfectionnement des moyens de manutention sont autant de progrès à enregistrer.

Un plan décennal

Dans son chiffrage initial, largement dépassé au final, le plan prévoyait de consacrer environ 3 milliards de francs aux lignes de chemin de fer, 1 milliard aux canaux et 500 millions aux ports. Le tout était financé par un crédit d’État à 3 %, remboursable en 75 annuités.

Si à l’origine, le « plan Freycinet » aurait du être réalisé en dix ans, la faillite retentissante de la banque l’Union générale en 1882 (cadre du roman L’Argent de Zola) et la crise économique qu’elle engendrera, retarderont sa mise en œuvre.

La crise du crédit public brise l’élan et entraîne à moyen terme le ralentissement considérable du rythme des réalisations. Cet arrêt brutal aura deux conséquences.

D’une part, l’allongement des délais de construction provoque une élévation de leurs coûts, et de l’autre, l’abandon prématuré du système de financement imaginé par la loi du 11 juin 1878.

Ainsi, ce n’est qu’en 1914, c’est-à-dire après 36 ans, que l’ensemble du plan arrivera, à quelques détails près, à son stade de réalisation.

Entre-temps, cette mobilisation des forces productives, par effet d’entrainement, à fait naître le savoir-faire permettant la réalisation de la tour Eiffel ou les écluses du canal de Suez et celui de Panama.

Faute de crédit productif public et de volonté politique réelle, à part quelques miracles accomplis à l’époque De Gaulle/Pompidou, la France n’a jamais connue une initiative de cette ampleur visant à susciter un « choc de productivité » par l’investissement en infrastructures. Quel candidat aura aujourd’hui le courage et la compétence pour défendre un « Nouveau plan Freycinet » ?

Relance française

Le 1er octobre 2020, dans sa chronique dans Le Monde, Pierre-Cyrille Hautcoeur, professeur à PSE, directeur d’études EHESS, confirme la réussite retentissante du Plan Freycinet.

Merci de partager !

Horse-power, the Earthly Science behind China’s “Heavenly Horses”

« Horse Riding on a Flying Bird » (hoof on a swallow or other bird…). This bronze statue of the Gansu Museum is a perfect combination of strength and beauty, both thrilling and stunning. According to Chinese historians, it embodies the majestic, strenuous, bold and enterprising national spirit.

The history of mankind completely changed with the domestication of the horse. Things considered “impossible” before the domestication of the horse became the “new normal”. How and when horses became domesticated has been disputed. Although horses appear in Paleolithic cave art as early as 36,000 BC (Chauvet cave, France), these were wild horses and were probably hunted for meat.

Grotte Chauvet, France.

Zoologists define « domestication » as human control over breeding, which can be detected in ancient skeletal samples by changes in the size and variability of ancient horse populations. Other researchers look at the broader evidence, including skeletal and dental evidence of working activity; weapons, art, and spiritual artifacts; and lifestyle patterns of human cultures. There is evidence that horses were kept as a source of meat and milk before they were trained as working animals.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, India.

In India, close to Bopal, the “Bhimbetka rock shelters”, which are the oldest known rock art of the country, figures dance and hunting scenes from the Stone Age as well as of warriors on horseback from a later time (10 000 BC).

Horses were a late addition to the barnyard. Dogs were domesticated 15,000 years ago; sheep, pigs and cattle, about 8,000 to 11,000 years ago. But clear evidence of horse domestication doesn’t appear in the archaeological record until about 5,500 years ago.

Aechemenid, Vth Century BC.

The clearest evidence of early use of the horse as a means of transport is from chariot burials. The earliest true chariots known are from around 2,000 BC, in burials of the Sintashta-Petrovka culture in modern Russia in a cluster along the upper Tobol river, southeast of Magnitogorsk.

They contain spoke-wheeled chariots drawn by teams of two horses.

Kazakhstan and Ukraine

Przewalkski horse.

Up till recently, it was thought that the most common horse used today was a descendant of the horses domesticated by the Botai culture living in the steppes of the Akmola Province of Kazakhstan, around 3500 BC.

Recent genetic research points to the fact that the Botai horses were the forefathers of the Przewalski horse, a species that nearly disappeared.

Our common horse, the Equus ferus caballus, genetic research says, has been domesticated 4,200 years ago in Ukraine, in an area known as the Volga-Don, in the Pontic-Caspian steppe region of Western Eurasia, around 2,200 BC.

As these horses were domesticated, they were regularly interbred with wild horses.

Interesting in this respect, is the fact that according to the Kurgan” or “steppe hypothesis”, most Indo-European languages spread from the same region throughout Europe and parts of Asia.

It postulates that the people of a Kurgan culture in the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea were the most likely speakers of what some call the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE).

The term is derived from the Turkic word kurgan, meaning tumulus or burial mound.

Tea Road, Horse Road or Silk Road?

Von Richthofen.

As a matter of fact, the main commodities traded on the “Silk Road” (a term only coined in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand Von Richthofen), were… horses, mules, camels, donkeys and onagers.

Silk and tea were of course traded, but appeared mainly as a means… to pay for horses. People “paid” with silk, gold, porcelain and tea, the animals they needed to secure the survival of their society!

What was known as the « Tea-Horse Road » (Southern Silk Road) extended from the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province, China, south through Yunnan into India and the Indochina Peninsula, and extended westwards into Tibet. It was an important route for the tea trade throughout South China and Southeast Asia and contributed to the spread of religions like Taoism and Buddhism across the region.

Eurasian Steppe

Eurasian Steppe and grassland.

China, feeling itself under constant threat from the nomadic steppe people from the North, started building the first parts of its “Great Wall” as early as the VIIth Century BC, with selective stretches joined by Qin Shi Huang (220–206 BC), the first emperor of China and completed under the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to become one of the most impressive feats in history.

The Eurasian nomads were groups of nomadic peoples living throughout the Eurasian Steppe. The generic title encompasses the varied ethnic groups who have at times inhabited the steppes of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Russia, and Ukraine.

By the domestication of the horse around 2,200 BC (i.e. 4,200 years ago), they vastly increased the possibilities of nomadic life and subsequently their economy and culture emphasized horse breeding, horse riding, and nomadic pastoralism, usually engaging in trade with settled peoples around the steppe edges, be it in Europe, Asia or Central Asia.

Nomads, by definition, don’t create empires. It is thought they operated often as confederations. But it was them who developed the chariot, wagon, cavalry, and horseback archery and introduced innovations such as the bridle, bit, stirrup, and saddle and the very rapid rate at which innovations crossed the steppe-lands spread these widely, to be copied by settled peoples bordering the steppes.

During the Iron Age, Scythian (Persian) culture emerged among the Eurasian nomads, which was characterized by a distinct Scythian art.

China and the Horse

Throughout China’s long and storied past, no animal has impacted its history as greatly as the horse. Its significance was such that as early as the Shang dynasty (ca.1600-1100 BC), military might was measured by the number of the war chariots available to a particular kingdom.

The mounted cavalery, which emerged in the IIIrd century BC grew rapidly during the IInd century BC to meet the challenge of horse-riding peoples threatening China along the northern frontier.

Their large, powerful, horses were very new to China. As said before, traded for luxurious silk, they were the first major import to China from the “Silk Road.”

Chinese grave goods provide extraordinary amounts of information about how the ancient Chinese lived. Archaeological evidence shows that within a few years, the marvelous Arabian steeds had become immensely popular with military and aristocracy alike and upper-class tombs began to be filled with images of these great horses for use in the afterlife. But horses were hard to find in China.

Chinese diplomats and the Kingdom of Dayuan (Ferghana)

Zhang Qian taking leave from Emperor Wu in 138 BCE, Mogao Caves mural from circa 8th century AD.

Something had to be done. In the late IInd Century BC, Zhang Qian, a Han dynasty diplomat and explorer, travels to Central Asia and discovers three sophisticated urban civilizations created by Greek settlers he named « Ionians ». The account of his visit to Bactria, including his recollection of his amazement at finding Chinese goods in the markets (acquired via India), as well as his travels to Parthia and Ferghana, are preserved in the works of the early Han historian Sima Qian.

A tourist takes photos of a roadmap showing Zhang Qian’s second trip to the West at the Tomb of Zhang Qian in Chenggu county of Hanzhong, Northwest China’s Shaanxi province, June 21, 2014.

Upon returning to China, his account prompts the Emperor to dispatch Chinese envoys across Central Asia to negotiate and encourage trade with China. Some historians say that this dicision gave « birth of the Silk Road.«  

Besides Parthia and Bactria, where Chinese goods were being traded via Indian imports, Zhang Qian visited, in the fertile Ferghana valley (today essentially in Tajikistan), a State the Chinese called the “Kingdom of Dayuan” (“Da” meaning “great”, and “Yuan” being the transliteration of Sanskrit Yavana or Pali Yona, used throughout antiquity in Asia to designate « Ionians », i.e. Greek settlers).

The Records of the Grand Historian and the Book of Han describe the Dayuan as numbering several hundred thousand people living in 70 walled cities of varying size. They grew rice and wheat, and made wine from grapes. They had Caucasian features and “customs identical to those of Bactria (the most Hellenistic state of the region since Alexander the Great) which is today’s northern Afghanistan.

The Chinese diplomat reported something of great strategic interest: unbelievable, fast and powerful horses raised by these Ionians in the Ferghana Valley!

Now, as said before, China felt under permanent threat by the nomadic people from the steppes and was in the process of building the “Great Wall”. China also was acutely aware that the nomadic steppe people derived their military superiority from something dramatically lacking at home: powerful horses !

Added to that, the fact that in terms of China’s scale of values, horses where nearly of the same mythological nature as dragons: they could fly and represented the divine, creative spirit of the universe itself, something essential for any Chinese emperor eager to acquire both military security for his Empire and for his personal immortality.

In short, having good horses became an issue of national security. So much, that in 100 BC, the Han dynasty started what is known as the “War of the Heavenly Horses” with Dayuan, when its ruler refused to provide high quality horses to China !

The War of the Heavenly Horses

The War of the Heavenly Horses was a military conflict fought in 104 BC and 102 BC between China and a part of the Saka-ruled (Scythian) Greco-Bactrian kingdom known to the Chinese as Dayuan, in the Ferghana Valley (between modern-day Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan).

First, Emperor Wu decided to defeat the nomadic steppe Xiongnu, who had harassed the Han dynasty for decades.

As said earlier, in 139 BC, the emperor sent diplomat Zhang Qian to survey the west and forge a military alliance with the Yuezhi nomads against another group of nomads, the Xiongnu. On the way to Central Asia through the Gobi desert, Zhang was captured twice. On his return, he impressed the emperor with his description of the « Heavenly Horses » of Dayuan, that could greatly improve the quality of Han cavalry mounts when fighting the Xiongnu.

The Han court sent at least five or six, and perhaps as many as ten diplomatic groups annually to Central Asia during this period to get a hold on these “Heavenly Horses”.

A trade mission arrived in Dayuan with 1000 pieces of gold and a golden horse to purchase these precious animals.

Dayuan, who was one of the furthest western states to send envoys to the Han court at that point, had already been trading with the Han for quite some time and benefited greatly from it. Not only were they overflowed by eastern goods, they also learned from Han soldiers how to cast metal into coins and weapons. However unlike the other envoys to the Han court, the ones from Dayuan did not conform to the proper Han rituals and behaved with great arrogance and self-assurance, believing they were too far away to be in any danger of invasion.

Hence, in a stroke of folly and taken by pure arrogance, the Dayuan king not only refused the deal, but confiscated the payment in gold. The Han envoys cursed the men of Dayuan and smashed the golden horse they had brought. Enraged by this act of contempt, the nobles of Dayuan ordered Yucheng, which lay on their eastern borders, to attack and kill the envoys and seize their goods.

Upon receiving word of the trade mission’s demise, humiliated and enraged, the Han court sent an army led by General Li Guangli to subdue Dayuan, but their first incursion was poorly organized and under-supplied.

A second, larger and much better provisioned expedition was sent two years later and successfully laid siege to the Dayuan capital at Alexandria Eschate, and forced Dayuan to surrender unconditionally.

General Li Guangli.

The Han expeditionary forces installed a pro-Han regime in Dayuan and left with 3,000 horses, although only 1,000 remained by the time they reached China in 101 BCE.

The Ferghana also agreed to send two Heavenly horses each year to the Emperor, and lucerne seed was brought back to China providing superior pasture for raising fine horses in China, to provide cavalry which could cope with the Xiongnu who threatened China.

The horses have since captured the popular imagination of China, leading to horse carvings, breeding grounds in Gansu, and up to 430,000 such horses in the cavalry during the Tang dynasty.

China and the agricultural revolution

After imposing its role in military strategy for the next centuries, horsepower, together with water management, became a crucial factor to raise the productivity of the world’s food production.

First, contrary to the Romans, who preferred to use “human cattle” (slaves) rather than animals (which they raised for race contests), the Chinese greatly contributed to the survival of mankind with two crucial innovations respecting a more efficient use of horse power.

As can be seen in murals and paintings, through the ancient world, be it in Egypt or Greece, plows and carts were pulled using animal harnesses that had flat straps across the neck of the horse, with the load attached at the top of the collar, above the neck, in a manner similar to a yoke used for oxen.

In reality, this greatly limited a horse’s ability to exert itself as it was constantly choked at the neck. The harder the horse pulled, the harder it became to breathe.

Due to this physical limitation, oxen remained the preferred animal to do heavy work such as plowing. Yet oxen are hard to maneuver, are slow, and lack the quality of horses, whose power is equivalent but whose endurance is twice that of oxen.

Han dynasty « breast strap ».

China reportedly first invented the “breast strap” which was the first step in the right direction.

Then, in the Vth Century, China also invented what is called the “rigid horse collar”, designed as an oval that fits around the neck and shoulders of the horse.

It has the following advantages:

–First, it relieved the pressure of the horse’s windpipes. It left the airway of the horse free from constriction improving massively the animal’s energy through-put.

–Second, the traces could be attached to the sides of the collar. This allowed the horse to push forward with its more powerful hind-legs rather than pulling with the weaker front legs.

Now you can argue that this is anecdotal. It is NOT, because what appears as only a slight change had absolutely monumental consequences.

European Renaissance

Use of the « rigid horse collar » in Europe.

In a strategic alliance and cooperation with the humanist Baghdad Abbasid caliphate, Charlemagne and his successors introduced the “rigid horse collar” in Europe.

With that new, far more efficient tool, European farmers finally could take full advantage of a horse’s strength. The horse was able to pull another recent innovation, the heavy plow. This became particularly important in areas where the soil was hard and clay-like. This opened up new plots of lands to agriculture. The rigid horse collar, the heavy plow, and horseshoes helped usher in a period of increased agricultural production.

As crop yields increased by threefold, so did Europe’s and France’s population.

As a result, between 1000 CE and 1300 CE, it is estimated that in Europe, crop yields increased by threefold, allowing to feed a rising number of citizens in the urban cities appearing in the XVth century and kick starting the global “Golden” European Renaissance. Thank you, China!

Some numbers are nevertheless disturbing:

–it took humanity thousands of years to finally domesticate the horse (long after the cow), in 3200 BC.

–it took humanity another 3700 years to learn how to find out, in the Vth century AD, the most efficient way to use horse-power…

Shifting from a “lower” infrastructure platform to a “higher” infrastructure platform might take some time. Today’s new “higher” platforms are called “space data” and “fusion power.” Let’s not wait another century to find out how to use them correctly!

Merci de partager !

Afghanistan : « Le pays des 1000 cités d’or » et l’histoire d’Aï Khanoum

Parler de la culture d’un pays étranger est toujours une chose difficile, surtout si l’on n’en connaît pas la langue et si l’on n’a pas pu séjourner et voyager dans le pays pendant de longues périodes. Par conséquent, je ne peux que vous offrir mes impressions de l’extérieur et commenter ce que j’ai découvert dans des livres. Vous allez donc m’aider en me corrigeant et en me signalant ce qui a échappé à mon attention.

L’Afghanistan est un pays fascinant. Sa réputation de « tombeau des Empires » a capté mon imagination. Récemment, votre pays s’est émancipé de l’occupation américaine et de l’OTAN. Une poignée de combattants déterminés a mis en déroute un immense empire déjà en train de s’autodétruire. 34 ans plus tôt, le pays avait chassé l’occupant russe, après avoir résisté à l’Empire britannique au cours des trois guerres anglo-afghanes du XIXe siècle (1839-42, 1878-80 et 1919), alors que Londres, engagé dans le « Grand Jeu » (Great Game), tentait d’empêcher la Russie d’accéder aux mers chaudes.

Pour éviter d’être colonisé à la fois par la Russie et la Grande-Bretagne, l’Afghanistan a même courageusement refusé d’avoir des chemins de fer, ce qui explique qu’il n’existe aujourd’hui que 300 km de voies ferrées, une situation bien sûr inacceptable aujourd’hui.

Cette capacité de résistance et ce sentiment de dignité découlent, j’en suis convaincu, du fait que votre pays a su faire siennes les diverses influences qui s’y sont rencontrées. Voilà ce qui est devenu au fil des siècles le socle d’une forte identité afghane, totalement à l’opposé de l’étiquette tribale que les colonisateurs cherchent à lui coller.

J’aborderai uniquement, aujourd’hui, l’influence grecque, qui s’est avérée majeure à partir du moment où Alexandre le Grand traverse le Hindou Kouch, en 329 av. JC.

Dès lors, des dizaines de milliers de colons grecs, appelés Ioniens, s’installent en Asie centrale.

Sous le règne de ses successeurs concurrents, l’immense empire d’Alexandre le Grand se décompose en plusieurs entités et royaumes.

En 256 av. JC, Diodote Ier Soter fonde en Afghanistan le royaume gréco-bactrien, connu sous le nom de « Bactriane », dont le territoire englobe une grande partie de l’Afghanistan, de l’Ouzbékistan, du Tadjikistan et du Turkménistan actuels, ainsi que certaines parties de l’Iran et du Pakistan. L’influence grecque y perdure au moins jusqu’à l’arrivée de l’Islam au VIIIe siècle.

La Bactriane

La Bactriane.

De nombreuses fouilles archéologiques confirment un développement urbain, économique, social et culturel remarquable.

Strabon (64 av. JC – 24 après JC), comme d’autres historiens grecs, qualifiait déjà la Bactriane de « Terre des mille cités », une terre que tous les écrivains, anciens et modernes, louaient pour la douceur de son climat et sa fertilité, car « la Bactriane produit tout, sauf de l’huile d’olive. »

Pour le naturaliste romain Pline l’Ancien (23 – 79 après JC), en Bactriane,

Sa capitale Bactres (aujourd’hui Balkh, proche de Mazâr-e Charîf au nord de l’Afghanistan), « Mère des cités », figure parmi les villes les plus riches de l’Antiquité.

Une des « princesses de Bactriane » provenant du nord de l’Afghanistan (2500 à 1500 av. JC).

C’est là qu’Alexandre le Grand épouse Roxana (« Petite étoile ») et adopte l’habit perse pour pacifier son Empire. C’est également là que naîtra le père du grand médecin et philosophe Ibn Sina (Avicenne), avant de s’installer à Boukhara (Ouzbékistan).

Au fil du temps, la Bactriane sera le creuset de cultures et de civilisations où se mêlent, sur le plan artistique, architectural et religieux, traditions grecques et cultures locales.

Si le grec y est la langue de l’administration, les langues locales y foisonnent. Rien que les noms des villes démontrent la prédominance de la culture hellénique.

Ainsi, Ghazni s’appelle « Alexandrie en Opiana », Bagram « Alexandrie au Caucase », Kandahar « Alexandrie Arachosia », Hérat « Alexandria Ariana », etc., et la liste ne s’arrête pas là.

Ruines de Gonur Depe.

La ville de Gonur Depe (actuellement au Turkménistan, au nord de Mary, l’ancienne Merv), capitale du Royaume de Margiane, est un autre exemple de ce qu’on s’accorde maintenant à appeler la « Culture de l’Oxus »)

Aï Khanoum, la grecque

Si certaines villes ne font que changer de nom, d’autres sont construites ex nihilo. C’est le cas d’Aï Khanoum (« Dame Lune » en ouzbek), cité érigée au confluent du grand fleuve Amou Daria (l’Oxus des Grecs) et de la rivière Kokcha.

En 1961, le roi d’Afghanistan (Mohammed Zahir Shah), voulant marquer son indépendance vis-à-vis des Soviétiques et des Américains, invite la France à participer aux fouilles.

C’est le Département des archéologues français en Afghanistan (DAFA) qui met au jour les vestiges d’un immense palais dans la ville basse, ainsi qu’un grand gymnase, un théâtre pouvant accueillir 6000 spectateurs, un arsenal et deux sanctuaires.

Plan au sol de la cité d’Aï Khanoum.

Entourée de terres agricoles bien irriguées, la ville elle-même était divisée entre une ville basse et une acropole de 60 mètres de haut.

Bien qu’elle n’est pas située sur une route commerciale majeure, Aï Khanoum commande l’accès aux mines du Hindou Koush. De vastes fortifications, continuellement entretenues et améliorées, entourent la ville.

Un monument au cœur de la ville y présente une stèle inscrite en grec avec une longue liste de maximes incarnant les idéaux de la vie grecque. Celles-ci sont copiées de Delphes et se terminent par :

L’architecture du site indique que les colons grecques y vivent en bonne entente avec les populations locales. Elle est très grecque mais intègre en même temps diverses influences artistiques et éléments culturels que les Ioniens ont pu observer au cours de leur voyage du bassin méditerranéen à l’Asie centrale. Par exemple, ils utilisent les styles néo-babylonien et achéménide pour la construction de leurs cours.

Shortugai et la Civilisation de la vallée de l’Indus

La date précise des premières fondations d’Aï Khanoum reste inconnue.

A une jetée de là, Shortugai, avant-poste commercial et minier de la fameuse civilisation de l’Indus (dite « harappéenne ») qui, au IIIe millénaire avant notre ère, était à l’avant-garde sur le plan de l’irrigation et de la maîtrise de l’eau. (voir notre article)

Des scientifiques de l’Institut indien de technologie de Kharagpur et du Service archéologique d’Inde ont publié le 25 mai 2016, dans la revue Nature, les fruits d’une recherche qui permettrait de dater la civilisation harappéenne d’au moins 8000 ans avant JC et non 5500 ans, comme on le croyait jusqu’à présent. Cette découverte majeure signifierait qu’elle serait encore plus ancienne que les civilisations mésopotamienne et égyptienne.

Shortugai est construite avec des briques standardisées typiques de la vallée de l’Indus. Des sceaux de la civilisation de la vallée de l’Indus ont également été trouvés sur d’autres sites archéologiques d’Afghanistan.

Carte de la civilisation de la vallée de l’Indus. Flèche rouge indiquant son avant-poste à Shortugai, à 20 km au nord d’Aï Khanoum.

Pendant plusieurs siècles, Shortugai a fonctionné comme un site minier exceptionnel pour l’extraction de l’étain (un minerai indispensable pour la fabrication du bronze), de l’or et du fameux lapis-lazuli, cette pierre précieuse bleue qui, avec l’or, habille de sa splendeur la tombe du pharaon égyptien Toutankhamon et d’autres tombes religieuses majeures en Mésopotamie (Irak).

Les données archéologiques démontrent que Shortugai commerçait avec ses voisins d’Aï Khanoum et construisit les premiers systèmes d’irrigation de la région, une spécialité de la civilisation de la vallée de l’Indus.

Bien des sites restent inexplorés en Afghanistan, pays où les guerres, les occupations étrangères et les pillages ont perturbé ou rendu impossible les recherches archéologiques.

Voici quelques-unes des découvertes de la DAFA, dont certaines restent exposées au Musée national de Kaboul.

L’auteur visitant le Musée national d’Afghanistan en nov. 2023, admirant le chapiteau corinthien d’une colonne fouillée à Aï Khanoum.

Relations avec l’Inde

Plaque d’origine indienne trouvé à Aï Khanoum. Coquillage, verre de couleur et feuille d’or, 20,5 cm de diamètre, IIIe – IIe siècles av. JC. À droite : reconstitution de la portion en bas à droite de la plaque. On y voit des soldats montés à cheval, un quadrige avec passagers surmontés d’un parasol, des colonnes, des animaux et des plantes.

Ce qu’on a trouvé à Aï Khanoum, les pièces de monnaie, les objets et les céramiques, notamment d’origine indienne, témoigne qu’il s’agissait d’une importante plaque tournante du commerce avec l’Inde.

En 258 avant notre ère, Ashoka le Grand, souverain de l’empire Maurya (l’État dominant en Inde), fait ériger ce que l’on appelle « l’Edit grec d’Ashoka à Kandahar », une inscription rupestre bilingue, en grec et en araméen. Une autre inscription d’Ashoka était rédigée uniquement en grec.

Le contenu même de ces édits donne également une indication claire du niveau des échanges entre l’Inde et le monde hellénistique. Par exemple, dans son XIIIe édit, Ashoka, faisant preuve d’érudition, énumère avec précision tous les souverains du monde hellénistique de son époque.

Édit d’Ashoka à Kandahar. La partie supérieure est en grec, la partie inférieure en araméen.

Relations avec la Chine

Outre son interaction avec le sous-continent indien, la Bactriane établira des contacts avec une puissance située encore plus à l’est : la Chine.

À la fin du IIe siècle avant JC, Zhang Qian, diplomate et explorateur de la dynastie Han, arrive en Bactriane. Le récit de sa visite, y compris son étonnement d’y trouver des marchandises chinoises sur les marchés (acquises via l’Inde), ainsi que ses voyages dans le reste de l’Asie centrale, sont conservés dans les œuvres de l’historien Sima Qian.

À son retour en Chine, Zhang Qian informe l’empereur de l’existence de civilisations urbaines sophistiquées en Asie centrale : le Dayuan (vallée de la Ferghana), la Bactriane (Afghanistan) et la Partie (nord-est du plateau iranien).

Les découvertes de Zhang Qian incitent l’empereur à envoyer des émissaires chinois en Asie centrale pour y favoriser le commerce avec la Chine. Certains historiens n’hésitent pas à qualifier cette décision de l’Empereur chinois de « naissance de la Route de la soie ».

Déclin et chute

Représentation d’Eucratides Ier, le bâtisseur d’Aï Khanoum, sur une pièce d’or de 20 stères.

Une grande partie des ruines actuelles d’Aï Khanoum datent de l’époque d’Eucratides Ier (172-145 av. JC), qui a considérablement réaménagé la ville et l’a peut-être rebaptisée Eucratideia, d’après son nom.

Il fut assassiné en 145 av. JC. par son fils. Un an plus tard, le royaume s’effondre face à l’invasion des nomades.

Aï Khanoum est pillée une première fois en 145 av. JC par les Sakas, des tribus iraniennes d’origine scythe, suivis quinze ans plus tard par les nomades chinois Yuezhi.

Le « complexe du trésor » d’Aï Khanoum montre des signes de pillage lors de deux assauts, à quinze ans d’intervalle. D’après des témoins oculaires, certaines villes se sont arrangées avec les envahisseurs et organisèrent une coexistence pacifique. Les villes qui ont résisté, comme Aï Khanoum, ont été pillées et incendiées.

L’empire Kouchan

Les nomades chinois Yuezhi se sédentarisent et créent au début du Ier siècle l’Empire kouchan, qui englobe une grande partie de ce qui est aujourd’hui l’Ouzbékistan, l’Afghanistan, le Pakistan et l’Inde du Nord.

Son territoire s’étend de l’Asie centrale et du Gandhara (frontière occidentale actuelle du Pakistan) à Pataliputra, dans la plaine du Gange (Inde d’aujourd’hui). La capitale principale de son empire était située à Purushapura (aujourd’hui Peshawar au Pakistan).

Kanishka le Grand.

C’est sous le règne de Kanishka le Grand (vers 127-150) que l’Empire kouchan deviendra célèbre pour ses réalisations militaires, politiques et spirituelles. Kanishka échange des ambassadeurs avec l’empereur romain Marc Aurèle (161-180) et l’empereur Han de Chine. Il noue des contacts diplomatiques avec la Perse sassanide et le royaume d’Aksoum (Yémen et Arabie saoudite d’aujourd’hui).

Si la dynastie kouchane reprend la tradition gréco-bactrienne, elle se forge peu à peu sa propre identité.

Les artistes kouchans enrichirent la sculpture bouddhique en donnant à Bouddha la forme humaine, innovation qui fut la plus importante de l’époque.

En 127, Kanishka remplace le grec par le bactrien, une langue moyenne iranienne utilisant l’alphabet grec.

Le bouddhisme

Les Kouchans joueront également un rôle majeur dans la transmission du bouddhisme. Le rayonnement de cette religion venue des rives du Gange favorisera celui des Routes de la soie.

Dans le domaine de la religion, les Kouchans, initialement attirés par l’hindouisme, joueront un rôle majeur dans la transmission du bouddhisme mahayana du Gandhara vers la Chine, l’Asie centrale et même le Sri Lanka, favorisant ainsi l’expansion de la route de la soie.

Tous ces facteurs ont inauguré une période de paix relative de 200 ans, connue comme la « Pax Kouchana ».

À partir du milieu du IIIe siècle après JC, l’Empire kouchan, affaibli, commence à se désintégrer. Dans sa partie occidentale, il passe sous le contrôle des Kushanshahs, c’est-à-dire les Indo-Sassanides (perses), progressivement supplantés au nord par les Hephtalites (appelés également les « Huns blancs » ou « Huns iraniens ») venus de la steppe d’Asie centrale.

Le bouddhisme connaît néanmoins une période de grande prospérité, comme l’illustrent les descriptions du moine chinois Xuanzang du VIIe siècle ainsi que la construction des statues géantes de bouddhas dans la vallée de Bamiyan en Afghanistan.

Bouddhas de la vallée de Bamiyan.


Après avoir conquis l’Iran, l’islam pénètre l’Afghanistan par le nord. Il n’y a pas de preuve d’un rejet massif de la nouvelle religion, sauf dans des régions isolées. Cependant, la volonté de rester indépendants des gouverneurs nommés par Damas (Omeyyades) puis par Bagdad (Abassides) se manifeste rapidement. C’est même à partir d’une province couvrant une partie du nord de l’Afghanistan, le Khorasan, que se répand initialement une partie de l’insurrection contre les Omeyyades pour les remplacer par le califat abbasside d’Haroun-al-Rachid, plus humaniste, et la création de Bagdad (voir notre article).

À partir de la fin du Xe siècle, une dynastie d’origine turque, les Ghaznévides, bâtit autour de leur capitale Ghazni (Afghanistan) un vaste sultanat qui s’étend jusqu’en Inde et fonde une communauté musulmane durable.

Architecture gaznavide.

Leur influence culturelle se mesure par la beauté de l’architecture qu’ils nous ont laissée, mais aussi par le patronage qu’ils accordèrent au grand poète épique Ferdowsi (940-1025), à qui l’on doit la grande épopée nationale en langue persane, le Shahnameh : Le livre des rois.

Les Ghaznévides ont été suivis par une nouvelle dynastie, les Ghorides, originaire de la partie centrale de l’Hindou Kouch. C’est à eux que l’on doit l’impressionnant minaret de Jam.

Ce riche patrimoine culturel, qui a jeté les bases de leur identité et qui a donné sa dignité au peuple afghan, a été ignoré, détruit par les guerres successives, pillé et saccagé.

Fortement combattu par les talibans au pouvoir à Kaboul, ISIS, Daech et d’autres groupes terroristes, dont certains encouragés en sous-main par des agences de renseignement occidentales se sont livrés à un pillage à échelle quasi-industrielle du patrimoine culturel afghan. Pour eux, la revente d’objets d’art et d’antiquités est une des principales sources de revenus.


Aujourd’hui, le temps est venu d’un nouveau départ. L’Afghanistan peut changer complètement son image dans le monde, qui a été polluée par des adversaires et des ennemis qui veulent maintenir l’Afghanistan comme une zone de non-développement pour leur propre grand jeu géopolitique.

Ma proposition pour renouveler la contribution de l’Afghanistan à la culture mondiale est simple.

Avec Mes Aynak, qui signifie « petite mine », située à 35 km au sud de Kaboul, l’Afghanistan dispose du deuxième plus grand gisement de cuivre au monde. Alors que la Chine et les autres pays du BRICS ont besoin de ce métal précieux pour leur développement industriel, la mine offrira un revenu substantiel dont l’Afghanistan a un besoin urgent pour reconstruire le pays.

Le 25 mai 2008, Ibrahim Adel, ministre des Mines, et Shen Heting, directeur général de MCC, l’actionnaire majoritaire du consortium MCC-Jiangxi Copper MJAM, ont signé le contrat minier de Mes Aynak.

Ce contrat décrivait les conditions du premier grand projet minier et du plus important investissement étranger en Afghanistan. Cependant, suite à des incidents de sécurité qui ont créé d’importants problèmes d’insécurité, et sous la pression des puissances étrangères, le projet a été bloqué.

Paradoxalement, cela a donné aux archéologues le temps de mettre au jour sur le site minier une zone de 40 ha d’une valeur culturelle exceptionnelle de classe mondiale, principalement un vaste complexe de monastères bouddhistes, comprenant des stupas (temples), des peintures murales, des sculptures et des centaines d’artefacts archéologiques, etc.

Même si le contrat (fichier pdf) a pu être modifié depuis 2008, on ne peut que constater que le contrat initial contient une série d’aspects potentiellement très intéressants, à la fois pour la Chine mais surtout pour l’Afghanistan lui-même.

    De même que la Bolivie ne veut pas exporter du lithium (matière première) mais des batteries (produit fini transformé à haute valeur ajoutée), l’Afghanistan ne veut pas exporter du minerai de cuivre mais du cuivre métal. Pour atteindre cet objectif, le contrat prévoit la construction d’une fonderie sur le site.
    Paragraphe IV, 33 : « Afin de respecter son engagement envers le gouvernement de financer, construire et exploiter une fonderie en Afghanistan, la MCC a demandé au gouvernement de lui donner accès à des gisements de phosphates, de calcaire et de quartz qu’elle pourra utiliser dans le cadre du projet Aynak. »
    Paragraphe VII, 38 : « MCC s’efforce d’acheter des biens et des services en Afghanistan s’ils sont disponibles. »
    Paragraphe VIII, 39, a : « MCC emploie du personnel afghan, dans toute la mesure du possible. »
    Paragraphe IV, 32 : « MCC s’est engagée auprès du gouvernement à construire des puits d’approvisionnement en eau et des systèmes de canalisation … pour répondre aux besoins en eau douce du projet. La MCC s’est également engagée à réutiliser et à recycler l’eau de traitement dans la mesure du possible. »
    Paragraphe IV, 31 : « MCC s’est engagée auprès du ministère des Mines à construire … une centrale au charbon d’une capacité de 400 mégawatts pour fournir de l’énergie électrique au projet et à Kaboul. »
    Paragraphe IV, 30 : « MCC s’est engagée à construire un chemin de fer associé au projet ».
    Paragraphe IV, 24 : « MCC doit fournir des logements de qualité et en quantité suffisante à ses salariés et à leurs familles immédiates, à un prix de location raisonnable. »
    Paragraphe IV, 25 : « MCC fournira des soins médicaux gratuits à tous ses salariés et à leurs familles… et établira, dotera en personnel et entretiendra des dispensaires, des cliniques et des hôpitaux en nombre suffisant … »
    Paragraphe IV, 26 : « MCC doit fournir gratuitement un enseignement primaire et secondaire adéquat aux enfants de tous les salariés et résidents de la zone entourant Aynak. »
    Paragraphe IV, 27 : « MCC construira et financera le fonctionnement de centres d’activités récréatives adéquats tels que des gymnases et des terrains de sport. … En outre, il construira un marché/une zone commerciale. »
    Paragraphe IV, 28 : « MCC respectera et protégera les convictions religieuses du peuple afghan. »

Le monde serait stupéfait en constatant que l’Afghanistan mobilise ses meilleurs architectes et urbanistes pour construire une nouvelle ville à Mes Aynak qu’il baptisera poétiquement, l’« Aï Khanoum du XXIe siècle ». 

A Kaboul, un archéologue de premier plan qui travaille sur le site depuis une décennie, m’a confié avec une joie non-dissimulée que, suite à d’intenses discussions en octobre dernier entre les autorités afghanes et l’entreprise chinoise, une issue heureuse a été trouvée.

A l’heure actuelle, dit-il, les deux parties ont convenu de préserver, non plus une infime partie du site archéologique (la partie centrale avec les temples bouddhistes), mais l’ensemble des vestiges historiques du site en surface. A en croire mon interlocuteur, la décision est prise que l’ensemble du site sera désormais exclusivement exploité par la technique d’exploitation minière souterraine. N’en déplaise à la presse occidentale, le sauvetage de Mes Aynak révèle au monde le vrai visage du nouveau gouvernement afghan.

Il rendra également pensable, d’ici un certain temps, la reconstruction des bouddhas géants de la vallée de Bamiyan, l’un de 55 mètres et l’autre de 38 mètres, détruits en 2001. Plusieurs experts, lors de colloques récents de l’UNESCO, ont précisé que les difficultés techniques ne sont pas insurmontables, les bouddhas étant fabriqué en stuc. Le soi-disant « danger » que les sculptures soient considérées comme « fausses » n’a aucun sens, tant que l’intention d’atteindre un bien supérieur par leur reconstruction est réelle.

La « Proposition technique pour la revitalisation des statues du Bouddha de Bâmiyân » de 2017, élaborée par le département d’architecture de l’université japonaise Mukogawa Women’s University, mérite d’être examinée. Sans doute pourra-t-on faire mieux, mais elle a le mérite d’exister. Des chercheurs chinois se disent également prêts à donner un coup de main.

Rappelons que le monde compte 620 millions de bouddhistes qui considèrent Bamiyan comme une partie de leur culture et pourraient envisager de venir en Afghanistan pour mieux comprendre leur propre histoire.

Bouddha de feu, Musée national, Kaboul.

Si l’Afghanistan indiquait clairement au monde qu’il a décidé de renforcer ses activités économiques et minières tout en protégeant, notamment grâce à l’aide généreuse de la Chine, le patrimoine culturel mondial sur son sol, il apparaîtra aux yeux de tous ce qu’il est désormais aujourd’hui : une force du bien, de la tolérance et de la paix dans le monde, en cohérence avec sa propre identité et son histoire.

L’Afghanistan apparaîtra comme le « Bouddha de feu » (IIe-IIIe siècle) du Musée national de Kaboul, où l’on voit la réponse donnée par Bouddha à un défi lancé par des hérétiques selon lequel il ne pouvait pas faire de miracles.

Connu sous le nom de « miracles jumeaux », on y voit Bouddha confiant avec des flammes sortant de ses épaules et des cours d’eau de ses pieds ! En altérant ces deux flux, dit la légende, Bouddha a même fait apparaître un arc-en-ciel !

En augmentant sa production d’énergie et en gérant d’une façon plus intelligence ses ressources en eau, l’Afghanistan démontrera, j’en suis convaincu, sa splendide force spirituelle !

Merci à tous et j’ouvre le débat à vos questions.

Merci de partager !

Afghanistan: « The Land of 1000 Golden Cities » and the Story of Ai-Khanoum

To talk about the culture of a foreign country is always a difficult thing to do, especially if one doesn’t know the language and if one wasn’t able to stay and travel around the country for a longer period. Therefore, I only can offer some impressions from the outside and things I read in books. So probably you will have to correct those things that escaped my attention.

Seen from the outside, Afghanistan is a fascinating country. Its reputation as the “Graveyard of Empires” captured my imagination. Most recently, Afghanistan resisted American and NATO occupation. A handful of determined combatants defeated a huge Empire already in the process of defeating itself. Before, Afghanistan resisted Russian occupation. And in the XIXth century, it resisted the British Empire during three Anglo-Afghan wars: the first in 1839-42, the second in 1878-1880 and the third one in 1919. Britain was playing the “Great Game”, trying to prevent Russia from getting access to the warm waters of the Arab gulf and the Indian Ocean. To prevent being colonized by both Russia and Britain, Afghanistan even courageously refused to have railroads, explaining why there only exists 300 km of rail today, a situation of course inacceptable today.

This capacity to resist, this quality of self respect and dignity, I think, derives from the fact that Afghanistan, being a roundabout on what was called the Silk-Road, absorbed and integrated into its own culture the best of the various influences that came to meet in this region and this became over centuries the foundation upon which was built the Afghan identity.

Totally opposed to that, foreign colonial powers, of course, always have wanted to erase the history, culture and heritage of the subjects over which they want to rule by “divide and conquer”. Justifying themselves as the unifying central power, they always pretend locals are mere representatives of eternally quarreling tribes.

The Greek influence along this trade spread massively into Central Asia in the IVth Century BC with Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC) crossing the Hindu Kush mountain range in 329 BC.

Alexander and his successors brought with them thousands of Greek settlers sometimes called the « The Ionians ». Greek influence, before reaching regions as distant from Macedonia as India, would last at least till the arrival of Islam in the VIIIth Century.

The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom

Under the rule of his competing successors, Alexander the Great’s huge empire collapsed into various entities and kingdoms.

One of them, and I will limit myself to this one as an example, stands what today’s historians call the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom or Bactria (or Bactriana), where Greek influence can be thoroughly documented by archeological findings that demonstrate an exceptional urban, economic, social and cultural development.

Bactrian princess.

Bactria was founded in 256 BC by the Seleucid (persian) satrap Diodotus I Soter and lasted till its fall in 145 BC. Its territory stretched out from the Parthian Empire at its West side, to the North of the Indus River Valley civilization, much older, at its East. It covered much of present-day Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, and some parts of Iran and Pakistan.

Among the largest and richest cities of antiquity one counts cities as Ai-Khanoum and Bactria‘s capital Bactra (todays Balkh, some kilometers east of Mazar-e-Shariff in Afghanistan), the city where Ibn-Sina’s father, before moving to Buchara, currently Uzbekistan, was born.

Centuries before, it was also in Balkh, that Alexander the Great married Roxana (« Little Star »), the daughter of a Bactrian warlord and adopted local dress in a vast effort to create peace inside his Empire.

Strabo (64 or 63 BC – c. 24 AD), as many other Greek historians, referred to Bactria as « The Land of a 1000 Golden Cities », a land that all writers, both ancient and modern, praised for its gentle climate and fertility:

And for the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24 – AD 79), in Bactria,

Often erected at key strategic positions of trading routes, over time Bactria‘s cities became significant cultural centers where local and Greek traditions interacted and blended in artistic areas, as well as in architecture and religion.

Greeks lived alongside the local population in these places. The Greek language was used in this Central Asian region for administrative, economic, and philosophical matters. However, due to the constant flow of ideas and people of different professions, it was employed alongside local languages.

It is sufficient to look at the Greek names of many afghan cities to realize how predominant the Greek heritage is in this country.

Nearly all cities founded by Alexander the Great were of course called “Alexandria”, the best known being the major port of Egypt where Greek scientists such as Eratosthenes and others worked and lived.

  • Ghazni, for example, was simply named “Alexandria” (in Opiana);
  • Bagram, mainly known as the former US Airbase, was called “Alexandria in the Caucasus” and “Kapisa” in the Middle Ages.
  • Kandahar had a Greek name: “Alexandria Arachosia”;
  • Herat was “Alexandria Ariana”;
  • Merv in today’s Turkmenistan was named “Alexandria” and later “Antiochia in Margiana”.

And the list doesn’t end there.

Also part of Bactria, the city and oasis of Gonur Depe (now in Turkmenistan, north of Mary, the ancient Merv), capital of the Kingdom of Margiane, is another example of what has been called the Bactro-Margian Archeological Complex (BMAC), more recently rebranded as the « Oxus Culture ».

Gonur Depe (in today’s Turkmenistan).

Other parts of today’s Afghanistan also came under the influence of Hellenistic culture under the rule of what are called the “Indo-Greek” Kingdoms, but that is yet another long story which I will not tell today.

Ai-Khanoum, the Greek

Some cities in Bactria just got new names, but others were entirely built new or given a new beginning. Such seems to have been the case of an ancient city whose name remains unknown but who became known over centuries as Ai-Khanoum (meaning “Lady Moon” in Uzbek).

The city was beautifully located at the confluence of the Amou Daria (the Greek “Oxus”) and the Kokcha rivers.

In 1961, after visiting the site on a hunting trip, the King of Afghanistan, (Mohammed Zahir Shah), showed huge interest.

Invited by Afghanistan, which wanted to mark its independance from both the Soviets and the US, it was a French archaeological delegation, led by Paul Bernard of the Département des archéologues français en Afghanistan (DAFA), that unearthed the remains of a huge palace in the lower town, along with a large gymnasium, a theater capable of holding 6000 spectators, an arsenal, and two sanctuaries.

The precise date of Ai-Khanoum‘s initial foundations remains unknown. Interesting enough, Ai-Khanoum was erected some 20 kilometers south of Shortugai, an outpost and trading colony of the very innovative Indus Valley Civilization (also known as “Harappan”) during the late third millennium BC. (see my article here)

Shortugai was built with the typical Indus Valley standardized bricks. Indus Valley Civilization seals have also been found on other sites.

For several centuries Shortugai operated as an exceptional mining site for the extraction of tin, a key component of bronze, gold and the world famous magical blue gems of lapis lazuli used for the tomb of the Egyptian pharaon Toutankhamun and other major religious tombs in Mesopotamia (Iraq).

Shortugai traded with its southern neighbors of Ai-Khanoum and constructed the first irrigation systems in the area, a specialty of the Indus Valley Civilization.

In Ai-Khanoum, several inscriptions were found, along with coins, artifacts, and ceramics including from Indian origin showing the extensive trade relations of the city ! One monument in the heart of the city displayed a stela inscribed in Greek with a long list of maxims embodying the ideals of Greek life. Those were copied from Delphi and ended with:

Unfortunately, the onset of the Soviet-Afghan War in the late 1970s halted scholarly progress and during the following conflicts in Afghanistan, the site was extensively looted.

The excavations in Ai-Khanoum nevertheless show archaeological evidence of the Greek presence and their peaceful coexistence with the local populations in this region.

Its architecture remains very Greek, but has also integrated various artistic influences and cultural elements which they saw during their travel from the Mediterranean area to Central Asia. For example, they used the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid styles – for the construction of their courtyards.

Here are some of the findings of the DAFA, most of them in possession and eventually on display at the National Museum in Kabul.

Surrounded by well-irrigated farmland, the city itself was divided between a lower town and a 60-meter-high (200 ft) acropolis. Although not situated on a major trade route, Ai-Khanoum controlled access to both mining in the Hindu Kush and strategically important choke points. Extensive fortifications, which were continually maintained and improved, surrounded the city.

Trading with India

Indian ceramics found in Ai-Khanoum.

Ai-Khanoum also became an important trade hub with India. It is a testament to the level of Greek interaction with India and the influence of urban centres such as Ai-Khanoum in the region that even as early as 258 BCE, Ashoka the Great, ruler of the Maurya Empire (the dominant state in India), created the so-called « Kandahar Greek Edict of Ashoka », a bilingual rock inscription written in Greek and Aramaic. Another of Ashoka’s inscriptions near Kandahar was written solely in Greek. The actual content of these edicts also gives a clear indication of the level of exchange between India and the Hellenistic world. In his 13th Edict, Ashoka accurately names all of the rulers in the Hellenistic world at the time of the inscription.

Relations with China

Zhang Qian departure from China to Central Asia.

In addition to its interaction with the Indian subcontinent, the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom as a whole would eventually come to develop increasing contacts with a power even further to the East: China.

In the late Second Century BC, Zhang Qian, a Han dynasty diplomat and explorer, arrived in Bactria. His account of his visit to Bactria, including his recollection of his amazement at finding Chinese goods in the markets (acquired via India), as well as his travels in the rest of Central Asia, is preserved in the works of the early Han historian Sima Qian.

Upon returning to China, Zhang Qian informed the Emperor of the sophisticated urban civilisations in Ferghana, Bactria and Parthia. Zhang Qian’s discoveries prompted the Emperor to dispatch Chinese envoys across Central Asia to negotiate and encourage trade with China. Some historians are convinced that « this was the birth of the Silk Road. »

Many of the present ruins of Ai-Khanoum date from the time of Eucratides I (reigned 172–145 BC), who substantially redeveloped the city and who may have renamed it Eucratideia, after himself.

Eucratides I was killed in 145 BC by his son and soon after his death, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom collapsed.

This invasion of Ai-Khanoum was probably carried out by the Iranian Saka tribes of Scythian origin driven south by the nomadic Chinese Yuezhi peoples, who in turn formed a second wave of invaders, in around 130 BC. The treasury complex of the city shows signs of having been plundered in two assaults, fifteen years apart.

According to eye-witness reports, some cities made arrangements with the invaders and organized peaceful co-existence. Urban cities that resisted, such as Ai-Khanoum, were plundered and burned to the ground.

Kushan Empire

Very soon, showing a very interesting process of sedentarization, after the Saka tribes, the Yuezhi themselves took over Bactria and created in the early Ist century the “Kushan Empire” encompassing much of what is now Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Northern India and which lasted from around the year 30 AD till its subjugation in 375 AD by the (persian) Kushanshahs, the name used to designate the Kushano-Sasanian Kingdom that established its rule over Bactria over the declining Kushans.

The Kushan empire, which lasted till the end of 300 AD, was a center-point of the Silk Roads. Northern Pakistan and parts of India became part of the kingdom, which extended from Central Asia and Gandhara (Today’s western border of Pakistan) to Pataliputra on the Gangetic plain (today’s India). The main capital of his empire was located at Puruṣapura (today’s Peshawar in Pakistan).

Kanishka the Great was an emperor of the Kushan dynasty, under whose reign (c. 127–150 CE) the empire reached its zenith. He is famous for his military, political, and spiritual achievements. Under his rule, the Kushan Empire exchanged ambassadors with the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) and the Han Emperor of China. He had had diplomatic contacts with Sassanian Persia and the Kingdom of Aksum (today’s Yemen and Saudi Arabia).

So while initially the Kushan dynasty followed Greek cultural ideas and iconography after the Greco-Bactrian tradition, they gradually developed their own.

For example, while initially they kept the Greek language for administrative purposes but in 127 AD, Kanisha replaced Greek with Bactrian, an Iranian language written in Greek letters, as the official language of administration in the empire.

In the domain of religion, the Kushans, which initially were attracted by Hinduism, would play a major role in the transmission of Mahayana Buddhism from Gandhara across the Karakoram range to China, Central Asia and even Sri Lanka, favoring the overall expansion of the Silk Road.

All of these factors ushered in a period of relative peace for 200 years, sometimes described as “Pax Kushana”.

From the middle of the 3rd century AD, the weakened Kushan kingdom began to disintegrate. In its western part, it came under the control of the (persian) Sassanids, gradually supplanted in the north by the Hephtalites (Called the « White » or « Iranian Huns ») from the Central Asian steppe.

Buddhism nevertheless enjoyed a period of great prosperity, as illustrated by the descriptions of the VIIth century Chinese monk Xuanzang and the construction of the giant buddha statues of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan.


After conquering Iran, Islam penetrated Afghanistan from the north. There is no evidence of mass rejection of the new religion, except in isolated areas. However, the desire to remain independent from the governors appointed by Damascus and then Baghdad soon became apparent. It was even from a province covering part of northern Afghanistan, Khorasan, that part of an insurrection spread against the Umayyad to replace them with the more humanist Abbasid Caliphate of Harun-al-Rachid and the creation of Baghdad (see my article here)

From the end of the Xth century, a dynasty of Turkish origin, the Ghaznevids, built a vast sultanate around their capital Ghazni, extending as far as India and establishing a long-lasting Muslim community.

Their cultural influence can be measured by the beauty of the architecture they left us, but also by the patronage they gave to the great poet Ferdowsi (940-1025), to whom we owe the great Persian-language national epic Shahnameh: The Book of Kings.

The Ghaznevids were followed by a new dynasty, the Ghorids, from the central Hindu Kush. It was to them that we owe Jam’s “Minaret”.

Much of this rich cultural heritage, which laid the foundations of their identity and gave dignity to the Afghan people, has been ignored, destroyed in successive wars, looted and plundered.

ISIS, Daech and other terrorist groups, some of them backed by certain western intelligence agencies, currently being eliminated by the Afghan government, have engaged in industrial plunder using their loot as a source of income.


Today, the time is ripe for a new beginning. Afghanistan can completely change its image in the world, which currently has been polluted by adversaries and enemies that want to keep Afghanistan a zone of non-development for their own new geopolitical Great Game.

My proposal to renew Afghanistan’s contribution to world culture is simple.

Mes Aynak, meaning “Little Mine”, 35 km south of Kabul, is in reality the world’s second largest copper reserve. While China and other BRICS countries need copper for industrial development, the mine could generate a substantial income which Afghanistan urgently requires to rebuild the country.

On May 25, 2008, Ibrahim Adel, Minister of Mines, and Shen Heting, general manager of MCC, the MCC-Jiangxi Copper MJAM consortium’s majority stakeholder, signed the Mes Aynak mining contract. The contract described the conditions for the first major mining project andbiggest foreign investment in Afghanistan.

However, after security incidents created major insecurity problems, and pressured by foreign powers, the project was stalled.

Paradoxically, this gave archeologists the time to unearth on the mining site an area of 40 ha of exceptional world class cultural value, mainly a vast complex of buddhist monasteries, including stupas (temples), murals, sculptures and hundreds of archeological artifacts, and more.

Even if the contract (pdf file) might have been modified since 2008, one cannot but note that the initial contract contains a series of potentially very interesting aspects, both for China but mainly for Afghanistan itself.

    Just as Bolivia doesn’t want to export lithium (as a raw material) but batteries (a finished transformed product with high added value), Afghanistan doesn’t want to export copper ore but copper metal. To achieve that aim, the contract plans to build a smelter on the site Part IV, 33: « In order to fulfill its commitment to the Government to fund, construct and operate a smelter in Afghanistan, MCC has requested that the Government provide access to deposits of phosphats, limestone and quartz for MCC’s use in the Aynak Project. »
    Part VII, 38: « MCC shall use its best efforts to purchase goods and services in Afghanistan if they are available. »
    Part VIII, 39, a : « MCC shall employ Afghan personnel, to the maximum extent practicable. »
  4. WATER
    Part IV, 32: « MCC has made a commitment to the Government to construct water supply wells and pipeline systems … to supply the project’s fresh water requirements. MCC has also committed to reuse and re-circulate process water to the extent possible. »
    Part IV, 31: « MCC has made a commitment to the Ministry of Mines to construct … one 400 megawatt capacity coal fired plant to supply electrical power to the project and to Kabul. »
    Part IV, 30: « MCC has committed to construct a railway associated with the project ».
    Part IV, 24: « MCC shall provide housing facilities of sufficient quality and quantity for its employees and their immediate families at a reasonable rental rate. »
    Part IV, 25: « MCC shall furnish free medical care and attention to all its employees and families of employees … and shall establish, staff and maintain sufficient dispensary, clinic and hospital facilities … »
    Part IV, 26: « MCC shall provide, free of charge, adequate primary and secondary school education for the children of all employees and residents in the area surrounding Aynak. »
    Part IV, 27: « MCC shall construct and fund the operation of adequate recreational activity centers such as gymnasiums and sport fields. … In addition, it shall construct a market/shopping area. »
    Part IV, 28: MCC shall « respect and protect the religious belief of the Afghan people. »

The world would be stunned if Afghanistan would mobilize its best architects and city builders and make the new city under construction in Mes Aynak « The Aï Khanoum of the XXIst Century ». Let’s think about it.

According to a senior field archeologist who worked on the site for a decade, following intense discussions last October between the Afghan authorities and the Chinese company, big progress has been made. As of now, he says, both are fully committed to preserve the entire historical remains on the surface and not only a small part. While the contract planned to do « open-pit » mining in the western part and only wanted to preserve the central part with the Buddhist stupas (temples), from now on, says this highly credible source, the entire site will be mined by (more expensive) underground mining exploitation techniques that will leave the surface historical remains untouched.

If the world discovers the remains of the Mes Aynak buddhist monasteries are saved, Afghanistan’s image in the world will change. In a second period, it might become much easier to consider the reconstruction of the Bamiyan giant buddha statues, one of 55 meters and the other of 38 meters, destroyed in 2001.

It has been scientifically demonstrated by several experts speaking at conferences of UNESCO that this is not a technical problem and relatively easy to accomplish. The so-called “danger” that the sculptures would be considered as “fake” makes no sense, as long as the intention to reach a higher good by their reconstruction is real.

The 2017 “Technical Proposal for Revitalizing the Bamiyan Buddha Statues”, by the department of architecture of the Japanese Mukogawa Women’s University should be studied. It needs to be improved but it has the merit to exist. One should not forget that 620 million Buddhists in the world consider Bamiyan as a part of their own culture and might consider coming to Afghanistan to visit the site.

If Afghanistan would make it clear to the world it has decided to bolster its economic and mining activities but in the same time will protect at all cost and, in this case, with generous Chinese help, the world’s cultural heritage on its soil, it would underline its willingness to act as a force of good, tolerance and peace in the world, in coherence with its own identity and history.

An Afghan economic and cultural « miracle » would impress the world as much as Buddha in the story of the Greek influenced Buddha statue found north of Kabul in 1965.

Called the « Fire Buddha » (IInd-IIIrd Century) it represents Buddha’s response to a challenge from heretics that he could not perform miracles.

Known as « The Twin miracles », flames emanated from his shoulders and water poured from his feet, demonstrating his pre-eminence. By alternating both currents (fire and water), a wonderful rainbow appeared and convinced the heretics this man definitely was kind of special.

Today, in a simular miracle, by boosting its energy production and smart water management, Afghanistan will demonstrate its spiritual strength !

Thank You,

Merci de partager !

Rembrandt and the Light of Agapè

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Don’t count on me here to tell his story in a few lines! (*1) In any case, since the romantics, all, and nearly to much has been said and written about the rediscovered Dutch master of light inelegantly thrown into darkness by the barbarians of neo-classicism.

By Karel Vereycken, June 2001.

The uneasy task that imparts me here is like that of Apelles of Cos, the Greek painter who, when challenged, painted a line evermore thinner than the abysmal line painted by his rival. In order to draw that line, tracing the horizons of the political and philosophical battles who raged that epoch will unveil new and surprising angles throwing unusual light on the genius of our painter-philosopher.

First, we will show that Rembrandt (1606-1669) was « the painter of the Thirty years War » (1618-1648), a terrible continental conflict unfolding during a major part of his life, challenging his philosophical, religious and political commitment in favor of peace and unity of mankind.

Secondly, we will inquire into the origin of that commitment and worldview. Did Rembrandt met the person and ideas of the Czech humanist Jan Amos Komensky (« Comenius ») (1592-1670), one of the organizers of the revolt of Bohemia? This militant for peace, predecessor of Leibniz in the domain of pansophia (universal wisdom), traveled regularly to the Netherlands where he settled definitively in 1656. A strong communion of ideas seems to unite the painter with the great Moravian pedagogue.

Also, isn’t it astonishing that the treaties of Westphalia, who put an end to the atrocious war, are precisely based on the notions of repentance and pardon so dear to Comenius and sublimely evoked in Rembrandt’s art?

Finally, we will dramatize the subject matter by sketching the stark contrast opposing Rembrandt’s oeuvre with that of one of the major war propagandist: (Sir) Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

Rembrandt, who finished rejecting any quest for earthly glory could not but paint his work away from that of the fashion-styled Flemish courtier painter. Moreover, Rubens was in high gear mobilizing all his virtuoso energy in support of the oligarchy whose Counter Reformation crusades and Jesuitical fanaticism were engulfing the continent with gallows, fire and innocent blood.

What Rembrandt advises us for his painting also applies to his life: if you stick your head to close to the canvass, the toxic odors will sharply irritate your nose and eyes. But taking some distance will permit you to discover sublime and unforgettable beauty.

What Art?

Since the triumph of Immanuel Kant‘s modernist thesis, the Critique of the Faculty of Judgment, it has not been « politically correct » to assert that art has a political dimension. And with good reason! If art can influence the course of history and shape it through its power, it is because it is a vector of ideas! An impossibility, according to the Kantian thesis, because art is a gratuitous act, free of everything, including meaning. The ultimate freedom! You either like it or you don’t, it’s all a matter of taste.

Following in the footsteps of the German poet Friedrich Schiller, we’re here to convince you otherwise, and abolish the tyranny of taste. For us, art is an eminently political act, although the work of art has nothing in common with a mere political manifesto, and the artist can in no way be reduced to an ordinary « activist ».

His domain, that of the poet, the musician or the visual artist, is to be a guide for mankind. To enable people to identify within themselves what makes them human, i.e. to strengthen that part of their soul, of their divine creativity, which places them entirely at the zenith of their responsibility for the whole of creation.

To achieve this, and we’ll develop this here, what counts in art is the type of conception of love it communicates. By making this « universal » sensitive, sublime art makes the most elevated conception of love accessible.

Such art, which forces us think, employs enigmas, ambiguities, metaphores and ironies to give us access to the idea beyond the visible. For art that limits itself to theatricality and the beauty of form fatally sinks into erotic, romantic love, depriving man of his humanity and therefore of his revolutionary power.

Rubens will be the ambassador of the great un-powers of his time: the glory of the empire and the magnificent financial strength of those days « new economy », the « tulip bubble ». In short, the oligarchy.

Rembrandt, in turn, will be the ambassador of the have-nots: the weak, the sick, the humiliated, the refugees; he will live in the image of the living Christ as the ambassador of humanity. It might seem strange to you to call such a man the « the painter of the thirty years war. »

Paradoxically, his historical period underscores the fact that very often mankind only wakes up and mobilizes its best resources for genius when confronted with the terrible menace of extinction. Today, when the Cheney’s, the Rumsfeld’s and the Kissinger’s want to plunge the world into a « post-Westphalian epoch », in reality a new dark age of « perpetual war », Rembrandt will be one of our powerful weapons of mass education.

Historical context and the origins of the war

Before entering Rembrandt, it is indispensable to know what was at stake those days. The academic name « Thirty Years War » indicates only the last period of a far longer period of « religious » conflict which was taking place around the globe during the sixteenth century, mainly centered in central Europe, on the territory of today’s Germany.

While 1618 refers to the revolt of Bohemia, the 1648 peace of Westphalia defines a reality far beyond the apparent religious pretext: the utter ruin of the utopian imperial dream of Habsburg and the birth of modern Europe composed of nation-states (*2)

On the reasons for « religious » warfare, let us look at the first half of the sixteenth century. At the eighteen years long Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Roman Catholic Church discarded stubbornly all the wise advise given earlier to avoid all conflict by one of its most ardent, but most critical supporters: Erasmus of Rotterdam.

As Erasmus forewarned, by choosing as main adversary the radical anti-semite demagogue Martin Luther, the church degraded itself to sterile and intolerant dogmatism, opening each day new highways for « the Reformation ».

The religious power-sharing of the « Peace of Augsburg » of 1555, between Rome and the protestant princes, temporarily calmed down the situation, but the ambiguous terms of that treaty incorporated all the germs of the new conflicts to come. Note that « freedom of religion » meant above all « freedom of possession ». The « peace » solely applied to Catholics and Lutherans, authorizing both to possess churches and territories, while ostracizing all the others, very often abusively labeled « Calvinists ».

Playing diabolically on internal divisions, some evil Jesuits of those days set up Calvinists and Lutherans to combat each other bitterly, by claiming, for example in Germany, that Calvinism was illegal since not explicitly mentioned in the treaty. Furthermore, the citizen obtained no real freedom of religion; he was simply authorized to leave the country or adopt the confessions of his respective lord or prince, which in turn could freely choose.

As a result of a general climate of suspicion, the protestant princes created in 1608 the « Evangelical Union » under the direction of the palatine elector Frederic V. Their eyes and hopes were turned on King Henri IV‘s France, where the Edit of Nantes and other treaties had ended a far long era of religious wars. After Henry IV‘s assassination in 1610, the Evangelical Union forged an alliance with Sweden and England.

The answer of the Catholic side, was the formation in 1609 of a « Holy League » allied with Habsburg’s Spain by Maximilian of Bavaria. Beyond all the religious and political labels, a real war party is created on both sides and the heavy clouds carrying the coming tempest threw their menacing shadows on a sharply divided Europe.

1618: The Revolt of Bohemia

Prague defenstration.

Hence, after the never-ending revolt of the Netherlands, the very idea of an insurrection of Bohemia drove the Habsburgs (and the slave trading Fugger and Welser banking empires controlling them) into total hysteria, since they felt the heath on their plans. If Bohemia would become « a new, but larger Holland », then many other nations, such as Poland, could join the Reformation camp and destabilize the imperial geopolitical power balance forever.

As from 1576, the crown of Bohemia was in the hands of the Catholic Rudolphe II, Holy Roman Emperor. Despite a far-fetched passion for esotericism, Rudolphe II will be the protector of astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler in Prague.

In 1609, the Protestants of Bohemia obtain from him a « Letter of Majesty » offering them certain rights in terms of religion. After his death in 1612, his brother Matthias, Holy Roman Emperor, became his successor and left the direction of the country to cardinal Melchior Klesl, a radical Counter Reformation militant refusing any application of the « letter of majesty ».

This set the conditions for the famous « defenestration of Prague », when two representatives of the imperial power were thrown out of the window and fall on a manure heap, at the end of hot diplomatic negotiations. That highly symbolical act was in reality the first signal for a general uprising, and following the early death of Matthias, the rebels made Frederic V their sovereign instead of accepting Habsburg’s choice.

Charles Zerotina, a protestant nobleman and Comenius, (see box below), a Moravian reverend and respected community leader, masterminded that revolt. Frederic V, for example was crowned in 1619 by Jan Cyrill, who was Zerotina’s confessor, and whose daughter will become Comenius wife.

The insurgents were defeated at the battle of White Mountain, close to Prague, in 1620 by a Catholic coalition, composed of Spanish troops pulled out of Flanders together with Maximilian’s Bavarians. On the scene: French philosopher René Descartes, who paid his own trip and who was part of the war coalition and joined in entering defeated Prague in search for Kepler’s astronomical instruments… (*3)

An arrest warrant immediately targeted Comenius, who escaped with Zerotina from bloody repression. Protestantism was forbidden and the Czech language replaced by German.

Most resistance leaders were arrested and 27 beheaded in public. Their heads were put up on pins and shown on the roof of Prague’s Saint-Charles bridge.

One of them was the famous Jan Jessenius, head of the University of Prague who performed one of Europe’s early public anatomical dissections in 1600 and was a close friend of Tycho Brahe. To warn those who used their speech to encourage « heresy », his tongue was pulled out before he was beheaded, quartered and impaled.

Thirty thousand people went into exile while Frederic V and his court took refuge in Den Haag in the Netherlands. There, but years before, Comenius had a personal encouter with the future « Winterkönig » and his wife Elisabeth Stuart, on their way back from their wedding in England for which Shakespeare had arranged a representation of « The Tempest ».

A World War

Misery and calamities of war, Jacques Callot.

1618 marked the outbreak of an all-out war across Europe, provoked by the imperial drive of Habsburg to reunify all of the continent behind one unique emperor and one single religion.

As of 1625, aided by French and English financial facilities, Christian IV of Denmark and Gustave Adolphus of Sweden intervened on the northern flank against Habsburg descending from the north as far as up till Munich.

Then, France opened another flank on the western front in 1635. Catholic cardinal Richelieu, who defeated the Huguenots at LaRochelle in 1628 (since he « fought their political rights but not their religious ones », will heavily aid the Protestant camp. His fears were that,

« if the protestant party is completely in shambles, the offensive of the house of Austria will come down on France ».

The famous etchings of the Lorraine engraver Jacques Callot, « Misery and calamities of war » of 1633, give an idea how this savage war swept Europe with its cortège of misery, famine, epidemics and desolation.

The estimated population loss on the territory of present day Germany indicates a downturn from 15 to less than 10 million. Hundreds of cities were turned back into simple villages and thousands of communities simply disappeared from the map.

War affected all the colonies of those powers involved in the conflict. Dutch and English pirates would sink any Spanish or Portuguese ships encountered at the other edge of the Earth’s curve. For Spain, loyal pillar of Habsburg, 250 million ducats were spent for the war effort (between 1568 and 1654), despite the state bankruptcy of 1575. That amount represents more than the double of the revenue from the loot of the new world (gold, spices, slaves, etc.) which scarcely amounted only to 121 million ducats…

Rembrandt and Comenius

That the young Rembrandt was totally heckled by the situation of general war which was shaking up Europe is easily visible in the early self-portrait of Nuremberg.

Here he portrays himself divided between two choices. One shoulder reveals the gorget, a piece of armor that invokes the patriotic call for serving the nation calling on every young Dutchman of his generation in age of serving the military, especially after the surprise attack of the Spanish troops on Amersfoort of august 1629.

The other shoulder is nonchalantly caressed by a « liefdelok », the French « cadenette » or lovelock exhibited by amorous adolescents. What to choose? Love the nation, or the beloved?

More and more irritated by the ambitions of Constantijn Huygens, the powerful secretary of the stadholder which got him well-paid orders for the government and made him move from Leiden to Amsterdam, Rembrandt’s thinking and activity gets ever more concentrated and powerful.

Ten years later, the dying away of his wife Saskia in 1642, year of the « Night watch », plunges the painter into a deep personnal existential crisis. Gone, the self-portraits where he paints himself as an Italian courtier, with a glove in one hand carrying a heavy golden chain around his neck fronting for his social status and competing with the court. Suddenly he seems to realize that the totality of the world’s gold will never buy back the lost lives of those once loved.

When interrogated on the matter, Rembrandt would bluntly state he didn’t need to go to Italy, as the tradition used to be, since everything Italy ever produced came to him anyway as it was available in one form or another on the Amsterdam art market. But traveler he was, as drawings of the gates of London indicate, done in the early forties, maybe the year Comenius crossed the channel?

In 1644, the neo-Platonist rabbi and teacher of Spinoza, Menasseh Ben Israel, for which Rembrandt illustrated books, received a letter from Comenius agent John Dury, chaplain of Mary Princess of Orange, starting a discussion on the reintegration of the Jews in England, and Menasseh finally went for negotiations to meet Cromwell in 1655.

The Nightly Conspiracy

« The nightly conspiracy of Claudius Civilus at the Schakerbos ».

Although some timid hypothesis’ exists concerning Comenius‘ influence on Rembrandt, a rigorous historian’s research could certainly bring more light on this matter.

Although Rembrandt’s worldview evolved in an environment of the Mennonite community, peace-loving Anabaptists miles away from any political commitment, Rembrandt’s passion for the « cause of Bohemia » seems particularly striking in « The nightly conspiracy of Claudius Civilus at the Schakerbos ».

The large painting figured as one in a series planned to decorate the new Amsterdam city hall to celebrate the revolt of the Batavians against the Romans. Starting from historical elements of Tacitus, the story had been cooked up to warm up Dutch patriotism since the reference to Spanish tyranny was clear to all. For reasons unknown today, Rembrandt’s painting was taken down after a couple of months. To mock the cowardice of the ruling elites, Rembrandt seems to have transposed the historical scene into his present timeframe.

One Swedish historian thinks that the leader of the conspiracy here is not Claudius Civilis (the Batavian general who lost an eye in battle), but another general who equally lost an eye in battle and which was non-other than the Hussite general Jan Zizka! (*4).

Remember that Comenius and the revolt of Bohemia strongly identified with John Huss. Looking closely makes you discover that Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis is indeed dressed up in central European costume. From left to right one sees first a Dutch patrician. Is this a portrait of the then rising republican Jan De Wit?

Next, one sees a monk, without weapons, who poses his hand on Civilus’ arm in a conspiratorial gesture. Is this Comenius resistance movement, the Unity of the Brethren?

According to the historians, the two chalices, one wide, the other narrow, could signify the « Eucharist under the two species », namely that bread and wine be shared with all, which happened to be one of the demands of the Jan Hus tradition.

One also can identify a Jew or rabbi taking place in the conspiracy. Looks pretty weird for a simple Batavian conspiracy! That the establishment was unhappy to see their hero painted as an ugly Cyclops seems probable.

But to be challenged in their flight forward into pompous fantasy in stead of taking up the urgent tasks of their time was another one.

King of Swedish Steel, Louis De Geer

Louis de Geer.

Comenius arrives in Amsterdam on invitation of the de Geer family in 1656, the year of Rembrandt’s bankruptcy (*5).

Louis de Geer, alias « the Steel King » and his son Laurent were the life-long protectors of Comenius for whom they paid the funeral and even build a chapel in the city of Naarden, some miles outside Amsterdam.

Originally from Luik (Liège) in today’s Belgium, that uncompromising Calvinist family settled in Amsterdam. It was the de Geer family who led the foundations of Sweden’s industrial flowering of iron, steel and copper . To do this, de Geer brought three hundred families of Walloon steelworkers to Sweden, and for whom he build hospitals, schools, housing projects and commercial facilities.

De Geer also financed the scottish preacher John Dury and the « intelligencer » Samuel Hartlib, two active friends of Comenius in England. At war with the Royal Society and Francis Bacon, they wanted to render scientific knowledge available to all of the population.

John Milton’s treatise On Education was dedicated to the same Samuel Hartlib. Louis de Geer and Sweden’s prime Minister Johan Skytte, realized Comenius education projects were the best of all possible investment to foster the physical economy. His educational reforms created a labor force of such an exceptional quality and astonishing productivity, that they warmly invited him to Sweden and asked him to reform the nation’s educational system.

That relationship of Comenius with the de Geer family leads us to Rembrandt, since Louis de Geer’s sister, Marghareta, and her husband Jacob Trip, one of the major shareholders of the Swedish copper mines, had their portrait done by Rembrandt, offering him a well paid order during very difficult years.

Margaretha De Geer, painted by Rembrandt.

The City of Amsterdam allotted Comenius a yearly pension, encouraged him to publish his complete works on pedagogy and offered him the keys of the city library. Comenius brought over his family and assistants and installed a library and a printing shop behind the Westerkerk where Rembrandt will be buried.

Comenius, when going every day from his house to his printing shop crossed the street where Rembrandt lived his last days. Since early this century, Czech curators got convinced that Rembrandt’s Portrait of an old man at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, is in reality a portrait of Comenius (*6).

True or not, one has to realize that Rembrandt demanded to each of his models to sit each day for four hours over a period of three months to paint their portrait, a thing maybe not so evident for the aging Comenius.

But what is known with certainty is the fact that one of Rembrandt’s pupils, Juriaen Ovens, painted Comenius portrait during that period.

The Peace of Westphalia and the « Via Lucis »

Signing of the Peace of Westphalia in Münster 1648.

Although Bohemia did not gain its long-desired independence at the peace of Westphalia, one cannot underestimate Comenius influence on the negotiations leading to the establishment of the peace-treaty. His work, Cesta Pokoje (Road to peace) of 1630, written in Czech is described as,

« an ethical-religious writing in which love, faith and mutual comprehension are established as the single ethical foundations of a possible peace ».

From 1641 to 1642, right before the start of the first peace negotiations, Comenius wrote the Via Lucis (The path of light), which could have been used as a guiding memorandum for the negotiators.

At the question if this Via Lucis was a millenarist mystical vision, as has been often pretended, we can consider the following.

Asked what could be hoped for and when a major change could take place, Comenius answered that the hope would come with the arrival of a time where the Gospel of the Kingdom would be preached all over the world and universal peace established.

That change could arise as the result of the emergence of a light to which will turn not only the Christian, but all the people of the world.

That light will come, « from the combination of the lanterns of human conscience, of a rational consideration of the works of God or of nature, and from the law or divine will ».

For him, « human enterprise can, through prayer and considerations of pious men imagine the possible ways to unite these rays of light, to irradiate them on the entirety of the human species and to spill similar thoughts in the minds of others » (*7).

Rembrandt’s etching that Goethe would (wrongly) use as the frontispiece for his Faust in 1790, since the light here is the divine light and not that of the devil.

One identifies exactly that concept in an etching of Rembrandt that Goethe awkwardly used by having it copied as frontispiece for his Faust in 1790 (*8).

The subject here is not at all a man going along to get along with the devil, but light (mirror of Christ) enlightening the life and the mind of the mortals. Way before Voltaire and opposed to the Venetian illuminati, Comenius and Rembrandt made own the metaphor of light.

To get an even more precise idea of Comenius demands for peace, one can read another memorandum called Angelus Pacis (The peace-angel),

« send to the English and Dutch peace Ambassadors at Breda, a writing designated to be sent afterwards to all the Christians of Europe and then to all the nations of the world in order to stop them, that they cease fighting each other ».

Comenius first remarks laconically that England and Holland are morally so degraded that they even don’t need some spiritual difference as a pretext, but fight each other for purely material possessions! As a way out, he proposes a new friendship:

« But how do you conceive that new friendship (or rather reestablishment of your friendship)? Will it be not by the general pardon that you will allow each other? The wise men have always seen the oblivion of received injuries as the surest road leading to peace. Touching too rudely the wounds, is to revivify the pains and to furnish the wounds an occasion for irritation.

« When this is true, it would be to be wished that the river Aa, whose tranquil waters irrigate Breda, would turn for this hour into the river Lethe of which the poets tell us that whoever drinks their water forgets everything of the past.

« The one who is guilty of trouble, God will find him, even when men, for love of peace, spare him. That the just one starts accusing himself; that means that the one whose conscience accuses him of having broken the friendship and witnessed enmity, should, according to justice, be the first one and the most ardent to reestablish friendship. If the offended party neglects that duty of justice, it will be the honor of the offended party to assume that honorable role, according to the word of the philosopher. » (*9)


Jan Amos Komensky (« Comenius ») (1592-1670) was above all a militant teacher, practicing « the universal art of teaching everything to everybody » (pan-sophia) and reckless source of inspiring enthusiasm.

One year after his death in 1670, Leibniz wrote of him: « time will come, Comenius, that honors will be offered to your works, to your hopes and even to the objects of your desires ».

In some domains, indeed, Comenius was Leibniz‘s precursor. First, he fought the fossilization of thought resulting from the dominant Aristotelianism: « Little time after that unification between Christ and Aristotle, the church fell into a pitiable state and became filled with the uproar of theological dispute ».

Strong defender of the free will that he didn’t see entirely in contradiction with an Augustinianconcept of predestination, he felt closer to John Huss than to Calvin, while generally labeled a « Calvinist » by historians.

In 1608, Comenius enters the Latin School of Prérov (Moravia), a school reorganized at the demand of Charles Zerotina on the model of the Calvinist school of Sankt-Gall in Switzerland. Zerotina was one of the key figures of the Bohemian nobility, promoter of the Church of Unity of Brethren, organizer of popular education and key leader of the international anti-Habsburg resistance. For example, in 1589 he lends a considerable amount of money to the French King Henri IV, which he meets in Rouen, France, in 1593 in support of ending the religious wars with the the Spanish.

Henri IV’s conversion to Catholicism (« Paris is worth a mass ») ruined Zerotina’s hope to reproach the Unity of Brethren with the French Huguenots. Befriended with Theodore de Bèze, which he met regularly when studying in Basel and Geneva, Zerotina sent Comenius to study at the Herborn University in Nassau. That University was founded in 1584 by Louis of Nassau, brother of William the Silent, the leader of the revolt of the Netherlands against Habsburg’s Spain. Louis of Nassau, a key international coordinator of the revolt was in permanent contact with the humanist Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny in France and with Walsingham, the chancellor of England’s Queen Elisabeth Ist.

Together with Zerotina, Comenius unleashed the revolt of Bohemia of 1618. After spending some time with the guerrilla forces for which he drew a map of Moravia, Comenius went into exile, as bishop of his church, the « Unity Brethren of Bohemia ».

Till his death, he was the soul of the Bohemian resistance, the gray eminence of the Diaspora and the guardian that prevented the Czech language from disappearing, since it was replaced by German in Bohemia. Since wars are only possible if large parts of the population remain uneducated, for Comenius education became the leading edge to fight for Peace.

Opposed to the Jesuit educators who consolidated their own power by education the elites only, Comenius, starting from his conviction that every individual is made in the living image of God, elaborated with great passion a very high level curriculum, which he wanted accessible to all, as he develops this in his « The Great Didactic » (1638).

Following the advice of Erasmus and Vivès, Comenius abolishes corporal punishment and decides to bring boys and girls in the same class. With him, a school needs to be available in every village, free of cost and open to everybody.

Breaking the division between intellectual and manual work, the schools were part-time technical workshops, anticipating France’s Ecole Polytechnique and the Arts et Metiers (technical school to perfect working people), completely oriented towards the joy of discovery. Leibniz idea of academies originated in Comenius’ schools and societies of friends.

For him, as for Leibniz, the body of physics couldn’t walk without the legs of metaphysics. Integrating that transcendence, he strongly rejected the very idea that nature was reducible to a mere aggregate defined by formal laws, and he adamantly lambasted Bacon, Galileo and Descartes for doing so. In stead, nature has to be looked to as a dynamic process defined by the becoming. That becoming is not repetitive, but permanent progression and potentialization: nature has a quality of development, tending towards self-accomplishment and harmony.

He was severely attacked by Descartes’ « Judgment of the Pansophical works » and mocked by Voltaire, who made him appear as Candide‘s naive philosophy teacher « Pangloss ».

Founder of modern pedagogy, he realized children are beings of affection, before becoming beings of reason. Up till those days, ignorant children were often seen as possessed by the devil, a devil which had to be beaten out of them. The French cardinal Pierre de Bérulle, founder of the Oratorians, reflected that mindset when he wrote that « infancy is the most vile and abject state of man’s nature after that of death ».

To make knowledge accessible to all, Comenius revolutionized the dogmas of that educational approach. In well-ordered classrooms, beautifully decorated with maps, classes would last only one hour covering all the domains one fiends in an engraving of Comenius: theology, manual works, music, astronomy, geometry, botany, printing, construction, painting and sculpture.

Comenius taught Latin, but was strongly convinced that every pupil had to master first his mother tongue. That was a total revolution, since up till then, Latin was taught in Latin, and to bad for those who didn’t understand already !

He also will also re-introduce illustrated textbooks (« The sensible world in images »)(1653), which had been stupidly banned from schools to « not invite the senses to disturb the intellect ». For Comenius, images have the same role as a telescope, displacing the field of perception beyond immediate limits.

His ideas, and especially the rapid successes of schools adopting his pedagogy attracted all of Europe and beyond. In 1642, Comenius was hired by Johan Skytte, the influential chancellor of the University of Uppsala, to reorganize the Swedish education system according to his principles. Skytte, an erudite Platonist inspired by Erasmus, will be Gustaphe Adolph’s preceptor and his son Bengt Skytte will be an influential teacher of Leibniz.

Before that job, Comenius discarded a similar offer originating from Richelieu of France and the offer that came from John Winthrop Junior from the United States who offered Comenius to preside Harvard University, newly founded in the Massachussetts Bay Colony of America.

Rembrandt and Forgiveness

To express in art that precise moment where love gives birth to pardon and repentance will be precisely one of Rembrandt’s favorite subjects. The fact that he choose the name Titus for his son, after the roman emperor who supposedly had showed great clemency toward the early Christians, demonstrates that point. But Titus was also the name of a bishop of Creta who was a close collaborator of Apostle Paul.

Rembrandt was fascinated by the figure of Saint-Paul, who used to be after all a roman officer who, through his conversion, showed the possible transformation of each individual for the better, capable of becoming a militant for the good.

Self-portrait as Paul the Apostle.

Rembrandt’s self-portrait of the Rijksmuseum, with the famous « ghost-image » of a badly lit dagger nearly planted his breast supposedly represent him as Saint-Paul, traditionally represented defending Christian faith with the scripture in one hand and the sword in the other.

The bible in the armored hand do appear in that painting, but the sword here seems more as a dagger, suggesting an eventual reference to the name given by Erasmus to his Christian’s manual, the « Enchiridion » after the Greek word egkheiridion (dagger).

The Prodigal Son

In one of Rembrandt’s late works, the « Return of the prodigal son », despite the fact that the work was completed by a pupil, we see how profoundly he dealt with precisely that subject. The expressiveness of the figures is amplified by the nearly life-size representation on the wide canvas (262 x 205 cm).

The father’s eyes, plunged in interior vision, look yonder the small passage by which the son hasarrived, as doubting of the happiness that overwhelms him, since his son « who was dead », « came back to life ».

The son, who installs his convicts head on the father’s abdomen, engages in the act of total repentance. The naked foot who leaves behind the rotten shoe, communicates in a metaphorical way that sinners deed of repentance, offering what he has inside. The father embraces his son by putting his pardoning hands on his shoulders, while the jealous brothers stand by wondering and enraged why so much love is given to the son « who had spoiled the fathers good with prostitutes ».

Three observations indicate Comenius person and thought might have inspired this work.

First, according to all available portraits, the face of the father shows heavy resemblance with the treats of Comenius himself, a well known militant for peace based on repentance and pardon which Rembrandt probably met frequently during that period.

Second, and after a second look, the son doesn’t look European at all, but actually Negroid, which would add to the painting some critical thoughts on the widely practiced slavery of the European powers of those days.

To conclude, one could interpret the parable of the prodigal son in a much larger sense: is this not man itself, son of God, who returns to his father after having wandered on the roads of sin? Comenius, after a moment of nearly total desperation uses that same image in his book The labyrinth of the world and the paradise of the hearth (1623).

Similar to the image employed by the Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch, in his « ambulant salesman », man gets lost in the multiplicity of the world that leads him to self-destruction, but after a crisis decides to regain divine unity.

In order to add still another dimension to the discussion on the quality of love involved in art, it is useful to contrast our master with the works of the most talented belonging to the tradition of his detractors: Peter-Paul Rubens.

Rembrandt, Rubens and other Philistines

But before investigating Rubens, it is appropriate to consider the following. Despite the fact that Rembrandt came out of the immense intellectual ferment of the late sixteenth century University of Leiden, one of the cradle’s of humanism, one cannot escape the fact that his lashing career would have infatuated many.

Remember, Constantijn Huygens « discovered Rembrandt » in 1629, while still a young millers son running a small boutique with Jan Lievens, asking them to come to Amsterdam and work for the government. (*10).

Rembrandt’s « patron » nevertheless would write without blushing in his diary Mijn Jeugd (my youth) that Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish baroque painter was « one of the seven marvels of the world ».

Rubens was, before everything else, the talented standard bearer of the « enemy » Counterreformation and its Jesuits army, whose admiration made Rembrandt totally uncomfortable. How could this virtuoso painter be seen as the brightest star on the firmament of painting? According to some, Huygens was looking for « a Dutch Rubens », capable of making shine the « elites » of the nation.

Samson blinded by the Philistines, Rembrandt.

Rembrandt at one point got so irritated with Huygens’ shortsightedness that he
offered him a large painting called Samson blinded by the Philistines. The work, a pastiche of the violent style, painted « à la Rubens », shows roman soldiers gouging out Samson’s eye with a dagger. Did Rembrandt suggest that his Republic (the strong giant) and its representatives were blinded by their own philistinism?

When a little Page becomes a great Leporello

Rembrandt perfectly translates the feeling of revulsion any honest Dutch patriot would have felt in front of Rubens. Had the Dutch elites already forgotten that Peter Paul’s father, Jan Rubens, once a Calvinist city councilor of Antwerp close to the leadership of the revolt of the Netherlands, had severely damaged the integrity of the father of the fatherland by engaging in an extra-conjugal relationship with Anna of Saxen, the unstable spouse of William the Silent?

Humiliated, but with courage and determination, Rubens mother fought as a lioness to free her husband from an uncertain jail. Her son Peter Paul, could not but become the calculated instrument of vengeance against the protestants and an indispensable tool to do away the blame hanging over the family. Hence, at the age of twelve, Peter Paul was sent to the special college of Romualdus Verdonck, a private school specifically designed to train the shock troops of the Counterreformation.

From there on, Rubens becomes a pageboy at the little court of Marguerite de Ligne, countess de Lalaing at Oudenaarde, whose descendants still form the Royal blood of today’s Belgium. As a kid, Rubens copied the biblical images of the woodprints of Holbein and the Swiss engraver Tobias Stimmer. After two waves of iconoclasm (1566 and 1581), the Counterreformation was very eager to recruit image-makers of all kinds, but under strict regulations specified by the final session of the Council of Trent in 1563. (*12).

After a short training by Abraham van Noort, Rubens career was boosted by his entering of the workshop of Otto van Veen. Born in Leiden in 1556 and trained by the Jesuits, « Venius » was the pupil of the master-courtier Federico Zuccari in Rome. Zuccari was the court painter of Habsburg’s Philippe II of Spain and the founder of the « Accademia di San Luca ». Traveling from court to court, Venius succeeded in getting the favors of Alexander Farnèse, the malign Spanish governor in charge of occupying Flanders.

Farnèse, who actually organized the successful assassination of the father of the Netherlands, the erasmian humanist William the Silent in 1584, nominated Venius as his court painter and as engineer of the Royal armies.

Furthermore, Venius will be the man who opened Rubens mind on Antiquity and together they will read and comment classical authors in Latin. Especially, he will show Rubens that an artist, if he wants to attain glory during his lifetime, must appeal a little bit to his talent and a very much to the powerful.

In Italia

In may 1600, Rubens rides his horse to Venice. In June, during Carnival he encounters the Duke of Mantua, Vincent of Gonzague, who is the cousin of archduke Albert who is ruling then Flanders with Isabella since 1598.

The duke of Mantua, the oligarchic type Mozart portrays in his « Don Giovanni » and Verdi explicitly in « Rigoletto », was very fond at the idea to add a « fiamminghi » to his stable.

The court of Mantua, in a competition of magnificence with other courts, notably those of Milan, Florence or Ferrare, employed once the painter Mantegna, the architect Leon Battista Alberti and the codifier of courtly manners Baldassare Castiglione. At the times of Rubens, the court paid the living of poet Torquato Tasso and the composer Monteverdi which wrote in Mantua his « Orpheus » and « Ariane » in 1601.

Galileo was also one of the guests for a short period in 1606. But especially, the Duke had in his possession one of the largest collections of works of art of that period, and his agents in Italy and all over the world were in charge of identifying new works worth becoming part of the collection.

Circle of friends in Mantua, Rubens.

An inventory of 1629 lists three Titian’s, two Raphael’s, one Veronese, one Tintoretto, eleven Giulio Romano’s, three Mantegna’s, two Corregia’s and one Andrea del Sarto amidst others. Similar to Giulio Romano who became the mere instrument of the « scourge of the princes » Pietro Aretino, our Flemish painter became just another Leporello, an obligingly « valet » enslaved by the Duke.

When we look to his self-portrait with his Circle of friends in Mantua, we see a fearful man, who « became somebody » because surrounded by « people who made it » and recognized by the powerful.

In Espagna

Immediately the Duke gave Rubens a truly Herculean task: transport a quite sophisticated present to Philippe III and his prime minister the Duke of Lerma from Mantua to Madrid. On top of a little chariot specially designed for hunting and several boxes of perfume, the core of the present consisted of not less then forty copies of the best paintings of the Duke’s private collection, notably some Raphael‘s and Titians. On top, Rubens’ mission was « to paint the fanciest women of Spain » during his trip. While his patron in Mantua whines for his return, Rubens will deploy his seductive capabilities at the Spanish court which looked far more promising to his career.

Back in Italy, his immediate going to Rome seems an opportune move, since in these days Barocci was held for to old, Guido Reni for to young. Also, Annibale Carracci appeared out of order since suffering from melancholic apoplexies while Caravagio, accused of murder, was hiding on the properties of his patrons, the Colonna’s.

But essentially, Rubens goes to the holy city because he’s enthusiastically promoted there by the Genovese cardinal Giacoma Serra, very impressed by the « splendid portraits » of women Rubens painted for the Spinola-Doria dynasty in Genoa.

Nevertheless, hearing about the imminent death of his mother, Rubens rushes to Antwerp, and after much a hesitation settles his workshop there, far at a distance from the centers of power, but close to the fabulous privileges he obtains from the Spanish regents over the Netherlands, Albrecht and Isabella.

In Antwerpia

Rubens house in Antwerp (reconstruction of 1910)

These advantages were such that conspiracy-theorist see them as sufficient proof that there was a blueprint to kill the soul of the Erasmian spirit in Christian painting in the region.

First, Rubens will receive 500 guilders per year without any obligation concerning his artistic output except the double portrait of the rulers, any supplementary order necessitating separate payment.

Next, Rubens obtains a status permitting him to bypass the regulations and obligations of the Saint-Luc painters guild, particularly the rule that limits the number of pupils and the amount of their salary. And since a lot is never enough, Rubens obtains a tax-exemption status in Antwerp! As a real patrician he orders the building of his palace.

Broken down long time ago, and for whatever reasons, one has to observe that it was during the times of Flemish collaboration with Hitler’s Germany (from 1938 to 1946) that his Genovese modeled resort, temporarily recreated in 1910 for the Universal Exposition in Brussels, will be entirely rebuild after the engravings of Jacobus Harrewijn of 1692, decorated as the original and the interior filled with fitting old furniture (*14).

It is true that his enthusiasm for opulent blondes and violent action was interpreted by Nazi historians as the expression of profound sympathy for the Nordic races, while his visual energy was seen as the antithesis of « degenerated » art. The Rubens cult in Antwerp might tell us something interesting about the recurrent rise of rightwing extremism in that city.

Propaganda Genius

Rubens feat was to « merchandize » the ruling taste of the oligarchy of his time. Similar to the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl under Hitler, Rubens became the genial producer of their propaganda. Precocious child and brilliant draughtsman, he had spent hours and hours working after Italian collections and bas-reliefs in the ruins of Rome.

Since the « Warrior-pope » Julius II and Leo X took over the Vatican, art had to submit to the dictatorship of the degenerated taste of imperial Rome. Eight years of work, from 1600 to 1608, in Genoa, Mantua, Florence, Rome, without forgetting Madrid, with free access to nearly all the great collections of antiquities and paintings of the old families, enabled Rubens to constitute a « data-base », whose fructification will generate the bulk of his fortune.

Specialists do point easily to the unending stream of visual quotes identified in his works. A group of Michelangelo in « The Baptism of Christ » (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp); a pose of Raphael’s Aristotle in the School of Athens in his « St-Gregory with St-Domitilla, St-Maurus and Papianus » (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) or one of his Madonna’s in « The fall of man » (Rubenshuis, Antwerp), without forgetting a head of the Laocone in the « Elevation of the Cross » (Cathedral, Antwerp) or the « contraposto » of a Venus coming straight away from a roman statuary in « The union of Earth and Water » (Hermitage, Saint-Petersburg). (*11).

The Tulip, Seneca plus Ultra

The four philosophers, Rubens.

The desire to be accepted by the ruling oligarchs becomes even clearer when we discover his admiration for Seneca.

Through his education and under the influence of his brother Philippe, Peter Paul Rubens will become a fanatical follower of the Roman neo-stoic Seneca (4 BC – 65 AC). In his painting The four philosophers, Rubens paints himself standing, once again « on the map » with those who got a chair at the table.

With a view on the palatine hill in the background, site of the Apollo cult considered the authentic Rome, we see his brother Philippe, a renowned jurist, sitting across the leading stoic ideologue of those days, Justus Lipsius and his pupil Wowerius, all situated beneath a niche filled with a bust of Seneca honored by a vase with four tulips, two of them closed, and the other two opened.

Originally from Persia, the tulip bulb was brought from Turkey to Europe by an Antwerp diplomat in 1560. Its culture degenerated rapidly from a hobby for gentleman-botanist into the immense collective folly known as the Tulip Mania and « tulip-bubble » or « Windhandel » (wind-trade).

That gigantic speculative bubble bursted in Haarlem on February 2, 1637, while some days earlier, a tulip with the name of « vice-roy » went for 2500 guilders, paid in real goods being two units of wheat and four of rye, four fat calves, eight pigs, a dozen of sheep, two barrels of wine, four tons of butter, a thousand pounds of cheese, a bed and a silver kettle drum (*14).

« Rubens in his garden with Helena Fourment »

As can be seen in his painting Rubens in his garden with Helena Fourment, Rubens was not indifferent to that highly profitable business. Behind the master and his spouse, appears discretely behind a tree in Rubens garden a rich field of tulips!

But in the « Four philosophers », the tulip is nothing else than a metaphor of the « Brevity of life », an essay of Seneca.

The latter, tutor of Nero, preached a Roman form of sharp cynicism known under the label of fatum (fatality): to rise to (Roman) grandeur, man must cultivate absolute resignation. By an active retreat of oneself on oneself and by a obstinate denegation of a threatening and absurd world, man discovers his over-powerful self. That power even increases, if the self decides that death means nothing.

At the opposite of Socrates, who accepted to die for giving birth to the truth, Seneca makes his suicide his main existential deed. Waiting for his hour, his job is to steer his boredom by managing alternating pleasures and pains in a world where good and bad have no more sense.

As all cases of radical Aristotelianism, that philosophy, or « art of life » steers us in the hell of dualism, separating « reason », cleaned from any emotion, from the unbridled horses driving our senses. These two ways of being unfree makes us a double fool. Rubens fronts for that philosophy in his work Drunk Silenus.

Drunk Silenus, Rubens.

The excess of alcohol evacuates all reason and brings man back to his bestial state, a state which Rubens considers natural. Instead of being a polemic, the painting reveals all the complacency of the painter-courtier with the concept of man being enslaved by blind passion. Instead of fighting it, as Friedrich Schiller outlines the case repeatedly and most explicitly in his « On the Esthetical Education of Mankind », Rubens cultivates that dualism and takes pleasure in it. And sincerely tries to recruit the viewer to that obscene and degrading worldview.

Peace IS war

Peace and War, Rubens.

As an example of « allegories », let us look for a moment at Rubens canvas Peace and War.

Above all, that painting is nothing but a glittering « business-card » as one understands knowing the history of the painting. At one point, Rubens, who had become a diplomat thanks to his international relations, organized successfully the conclusion of a peace-treaty between Spain and England (which collapsed fairly soon).

Repeating that for him « peace » was based on the unilateral capitulation of the Netherlands (reunification of the Catholic south with the North ordered to abandon Protestantism), he succeeded entering the Spanish diplomatic servicesomething pretty unusual for a Flemish subject, in particular during the revolt of the Netherlands.

Following this diplomatic success, the painter is threefold knighted: by the Court of Madrid to which he presents a demand to obtain Spanish nationality; by the Court of Brussels and also by the King of England!

Before leaving that country, he offers his painting « Peace and War » to King Charles. The canvas goes as follows: Mars is repelled by wisdom, represented as Minerva, the goddess protecting Rome. Peace is symbolized by a woman directing the flow of milk spouting out of her breast towards the mouth of a little Pluto. In the mean time a satyr with goat hooves displays the corn of abundance…

On the far left, a blue sky enters on stage while on the right the clouds glide away as carton accessories of a theatre. Rubens main argument here for peace is not a desire for justice, but the increase of pleasures and gratifications resulting from the material objects which men could accumulate under peace arrangements! Ironically, seen the cupidity of the ruling Dutch elites, which Rembrandt would lambaste uncompromisingly, it seems that Rubens might have succeeded in convincing these elites to sell the Republic for a handful of tulips. If only his art would have been something else then self-glorification! Here, his style is purely didactical, copied from the Italian mannerism Leonardo despised so much.

Instead of using metaphors capable to make people think and discover ideas, the art of Rubens is to illustrate symbolized allegories. The beauty of an invisible idea has never, and can not be brought to light by this insane iconographical approach. His « style » will be so impersonal that dozens of assistants, real slave laborers, will be generously used for the expansion of his enterprise.

King Christian IV’s physician, Otto Sperling, who visits Rubens in 1621 reported:

« While still painting he was hearing Tacitus read aloud to him and at the same time was dictating a letter. When we kept silent so as not to disturb him with our talk, he himself began to talk to us while still continuing to work, to listen to the reading and to dictate his letter, answering our questions and then displaying his astonishing power. »

« Then he charged a servant to lead us through his magnificent palace and to show us his antiquities and Greek and Roman statues which he possessed in considerable number. We then saw a broad studio without windows, but which captured the light of the day through an aperture in the ceiling. There, were united a considerable amount of young painters occupied each with a different work of which M. Rubens had produced the design by his pencil, heightened with colors at certain points. These models had to be executed completely in paint by the young people till finally, M. Rubens administered with his own hand the final touch.

« All these works came along as painted by Rubens himself, and the man, not satisfied to merely accumulate an immense fortune by operating in this manner, has been overwhelmed with honors and presents by kings and princes ». (*15).

We know, for example, that between 1609 and 1620, not less than sixty three altars were fabricated by « Rubens, Inc. ». In 1635, in a letter to his friend Pereisc, when the thirty years war is ravaging Europe, Rubens states cynically « let us leave the charge of public affairs to those who’s job it is ».

The painter asks and obtains a total discharge of his public responsibilities the same year while retiring to enjoy a private life with his new young partner.

Painter of Agapè, versus painter of Eros

Being a human, Rembrandt correctly had thousand reasons to be allergic to Rubens. The latter was not simply « on the wrong side » politically, but produced an art inspiring nothing but lowness: portraits designated to flatter the pride of the mighty by making shine and glitter some shabby gentry; history scenes being permanent apologies of Roman fascism where, under the varnish of pseudo-Catholicism, the alliance of the violent forces of nature and iron-cold reason dominated. Behind the « art of living » of Seneca, there stood the brutal methods of manipulation of the perfect courtier described by Baldassare Castiglione in his « Courtier ». For courtly ethics, everything stands with balance (sprezzatura) and appearance, and behind the mask of nice epithets operates the savage passions of seduction, possession, rape and power-games.

On the opposite, Rembrandt is the pioneer of interiority, of the creative sovereignty of each individual. To show the beauty of that interiority, why not underline paradoxically exterior ugliness?

In the « Old man and young boy » of Domenico Ghirlandajo, an imperfect appearance unveils a splendid beauty. The old man has a terribly looking nose, but the visual exchange between him and the boy shows a quality of love which transcends both of them. At the opposite of Seneca, they don’t contemplate the « brevity of life », but the longevity or « immortality of the soul ».

Martin Luther King, in a sermon tries equally to define these different species of love. After defining Eros (carnal love), and Philia (brotherly love), he says:

« And then the Greek language comes out with another word. It’s the word agape. Agape is more than Eros; it’s more than an aesthetic or romantic love; it is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. And so when one rises to love on this level, he loves every man, not because he likes him, not because his ways appeal to him, but he loves every man because God loves him, and he rises to the level of loving the person who does an evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. » (*17)

Then, King shows how that love intervenes into the political domain:

« If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person.

The strongperson is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate, that it doesn’t cut it off. It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love. »

You probably understood our point here. Martin Luther King, in his battle for justice, was living in the same « temporal eternity » as Rembrandt and Comenius opposing the thirty years war. Isn’t that a most astonishing truth: that the most powerful political weapon at man’s disposal is nothing but transforming universal love, over more available to everyone on simple demand? But to become a political weapon, that universal love cannot remain a vague sentiment or fancy romantic concept. Strengthened by reason, Agapè can only reach height with the wings of philosophy.

Rembrandt and Comenius knew that « secret », which will remain a secret for the oligarchs, if they remain what they are. »

The Little Fur

Another comparison between two paintings will make the difference even more clearer between Eros and Agapè: Het pelsken (the little fur) of Rubens (left) and Hendrickje bathing in a river of Rembrandt (right).

That comparison has a particular significance since the two paintings show the young wives of both painters. At the age of fifty-three Rubens remarried the sixteen year old Helena Fourment, while Rembrandt settled at the age of forty-three with the twenty-two year old Hendrickje Stoffels.

The naked Helena Fourment, with staring eyes, and while effecting an hopeless gesture of pseudo-chastity, pulls a black fur coat over her shoulders. The stark color contrast between the pale body skin and the deep dark fur, a typical baroque dramatic touch of Rubens, unavoidably evokes basic instincts. No wonder that this canvas was baptized the « little fur » by those who composed the catalogues.

However, paradoxically, Hendrickje is lifting her skirt to walk in the water, but entirely free from any erotic innuendo! Her hesitating, tender steps in the refreshing water seem dominated by her confident smile. Here, the viewer is not some « Peeping Tom » intruding into somebody’s private life, but another human being invited to share a moment of beauty and happiness.

Suzanne and the Elderly

Another excellent example is the way the two painters paint the story of Suzanne and the elderly. Comenius, was so impassioned by this story that in 1643 he called his daughter Zuzanna in 1646 his son Daniel. This Biblical parable (Daniel 13) deals with a strong notion of justice, quite similar to the one already developed in Greece by Sophocles Antigone. In both cases, in the name of a higher law, a young woman defies the laws of the city.

In her private garden, far from intruding viewers, the beautiful Suzanne gets watched on by two judges which will try to blackmail her: or you submit to our sexual requests, or we will accuse you of adultery with a young man which just escaped from here! Suzanne starts shouting and refuses to submit to their demands. The next day, Suzanne gets accused publicly by the judges (the strongest) in front of her family, but Daniel, a young man convinced of her innocence, takes her defense and unmasks the false proofs forged by the judges. At the end, the judges receive the sentence initially slated for Suzanne.

Suzanna and the Elder, Rubens.

In the Rubens painting, a voluptuous Suzanne lifts her desperate eyes imploring divine help from heaven. The image incarnates the dominant but
insane ideology of both Counterreformation Catholicism and radical Protestantism: the denial of the free will, and thus of the incapacity to obtain divine grace through one’s acting for the good. For the Calvinist/protestant ideologues, the soul was predestinated for good or evil. Reacting by a simple inversion to the crazy indulgences, it was « logical » that no earthly action could « buy » divine grace. So whatever one did, whatever our commitment for doing the good on earth, nothing could derail God’s original design. The Counterreformation Catholics thought pretty much the same, except that one could claim God’s indulgence in the context of the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, especially by paying the indulgences: « No salvation outside the church ».

Suzanne and the elderly, Rembrandt.

In a spectacular way, Rembrandt’s Suzanne and the elderly reinstates the real evangelical Christian humanist standpoint: a chaste Suzanne looks straight in the eyes of the viewer which is witnessing the terrible injustice happening right under his nos. So, will you be the new Daniel? Will you find the courage to intervene against the laws of the State to defend a « Divine » justice? Hence, agapè is that infinite love for justice and truth, that leads you to courageous action and makes you a sublime personality capable of changing history, in the same way Antigone, Jeanne d’Arc, or Suzanne did before.

Plato versus Aristotle

The fact that Rembrandt was a philosopher is regularly put into question, even denied. The inventory of his goods, established when his enemies forced him into bankruptcy in 1654, doesn’t mention any book outside a huge bible, supposedly establishing a legitimate suspicion of him being near to illiteracy. While romanticized biographies portray him as an accursed poet, a narcissistic genius or the simple-minded mystical visionary son of a miller, a comment in 1641 from the artist Philips Angel underscores, not his painting, but Rembrandt’s « elevated and profound reflection ».

Aristotle contemplating Homer’s bust, Rembrandt.

It is Aristotle contemplating Homer’s bust, which demonstrates once and for ever how stupid the Romantics can be. Ordered by an Italian nobleman, the painting shows Aristotle as a Venetian aristocrat, as a perfect courtier: with a wide white shirt, a large black hat and especially carrying a heavy golden chain.

In short, clothed as Castiglione, Aretino, Titian and Rubens… Rembrandt shows here his intimate knowledge of the species nature of Plato’s enemies of the Republic, that oligarchy to whom Aristotelianism became a quasi-religion.

With great irony, the canvas completely mocks knowledge derived from the « blind » submittal to sense perception. Here Rembrandt seems to join Erasmus of Rotterdam saying « experience is the school of fools! ».

Equipped with empty eyes, incapable of perception, Aristotle is groping with an uncertain hand Homer’s head of which he was supposedly a knowledgeable commentator. Homer, the Greek poet who turned blind, stares worriedly to Aristotle with the open eyes of mind.

That inversion of the respective roles of Aristotle and Homer is dramatized by situating the source enlightening the scene as a tangent behind the bust of the poet.

Light reflections illuminating Aristotle’s hat underneath make appear the ironical « ghost image » of donkey ears, the conventional attribute widely used since the Renaissance to designate the stubbornness of scholastic Aristotelianism.

To this Aristotelian blindness, Rembrandt, whose own father became blind, opposes the other clear-sightedness of Simeon, as seen in his last painting, found on Rembrandt’s easel after his death.

All during his life, Simeon had wished to see the Christ with his own eyes. But, growing old, that hope quitted him with along with his sight. As he did every day, Simeon went one day to the temple. There, Maria asked him to keep her child in his arms. Suddenly, an infinite joy
overwhelmed Simeon, who, without seeing Christ with his mortal eyes, saw him much more clearly with his mind than all the healthy seers. Rembrandt wanted us to reflect on that conviction: don’t believe what you see, but act coherently with God’s design and you might see him. On Simeon’s hands, a series of dashes of paint suggest some kind of crystal ball, an image which only « appears » when our minds dares to see it, underlining Simeon’s prophetic nature.

Jesus Christ healing the sick

Christ healing the sick, etching, Rembrandt.

Rembrandt’s anti-Aristotelian philosophy is also explicitly manifest in an engraving known as Christ healing the sick, an exceptionally large etching on which he worked passionately over a six year period. In order to « sculpt » the ambiguous image of the Christ, son of both God and mankind, Rembrandt executed six oil portraits featuring young rabbi’s of Amsterdam. But it was Leonardo’s fresco, the Last Supper, which Rembrandt extensively studied as shown by drawings done after reproductions, that seems to have been his starting point.

Scientific analysis of his still existing copperplate indicate that the Christ’s hands were originally drawn as an exact imitation of Leonardo’s « Last Supper » fresco.

Completely different from the kind of « spotlight theatrics » that go from Caravagio to Hitchcock, the work reminds the description of the myth of the cavern in Plato’s Republic. But here stands the Christ blessing the sick.

Transfigured, and akin to the prisoners in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, the sick people walk from right to left towards Christ. Encountering the light transforms them into philosophers!

One generally identifies easily, amidst others, Homer and Aristotle (who’s turning his head away from Christ), but also Erasmus and Saint-Peter, which according to some possesses here the traits of Socrates.

The etching brings together in a single instant eternal several sequences of Chapter XIX of Saint Mathew:

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

In a powerful gesture, Christ brushes aside even the best of all wise wisdom to make his love the priority, where Peter desperately tries to prevent the children from being presented to Jesus.

Sitting close to him we observe the image of an undecided young wealthy man plunged in profound doubts, since he desired eternal life but hesitated to sell his possessions and give it all to the poor.

When he left, Jesus commented that it was certainly easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the his kingdom.

Above simple earthly space situated in clock-ticking time, the action takes place in « the time of all times », an instantaneous eternity where human minds are measured with universality, some kind of « last judgment » of divine and philosophical consciousness.

The healing of the sick souls and bodies is the central breaking point which articulates the two universes, the one of sin and suffering, with the one of the good and happiness. Christ’s love, metaphorized as light, heals the « sick » and makes philosopher-kings out of them. They appear nearly as apostles and figure exactly on the same level as the apostles of Leonardo‘s milan fresco The last Supper. Brought out of darkness into the light, they become themselves sources of light capable of illuminating many others.

That « light of Agapè » is the single philosophical basis of Rembrandt’s revolution in the techniques of oil-painting: in stead of starting drawing and paint on a white gesso underground or lightly colored under-paint (the so-called priming, eventually adding imprimatura), all the later works are painted on a dark, even black under-paint!

The « modern » thick impasto, possible through the use of Venetian turpentine and the integration of bee wax, are revived by Rembrandt from the ancient « encaustic » techniques described by Pliny the Elder. They were employed by the School of Sycione three hundred years before Christ and gave us Alexander the Great‘s court painter Apelles, and the Fayoum mommy paintings in Alexandria, Egypt (*17).

Building the color-scale inversely permitted Rembrandt to reduce his late palette to only six colors and made him into a « sculptor of light ». His indirect pupil, Johannes Vermeer, systemized Rembrandt’s revolutionary discovery (*18).

Deprived of much earthly glory during their lives, Rembrandt and Comenius were immediately scrapped from official history by the oligarchic monsters that survived them. But their lives represent important victories for humanity. Their political, philosophical, esthetical and pedagogical battles against the oligarchy and its « valets » as Rubens, makes them eternal.

They are and will remain inexhaustible sources of inspiration for today’s and tomorrows combat.


  1. Karel Vereycken, « Rembrandt, bâtisseur de nation« , Nouvelle Solidarité, June 1985.
  2. The treatises of Westphalia (Munster and Osnabruck) of 1648, and the ensuing separate peace accords between France and the Netherlands with Spain, finally shred into pieces every political, philosophical and juridical argument serving as basis of the notion of empire, and by doing so put an end to Habsburg’s imperial fantasy, the « Thirty years war ». As some had outlined before, notably French King Henry IV’s great advisor Sully in his concept of « Grand Design », making the sovereign nation-state the highest authority for international law was, and remains today, the only safe road to guaranty durable peace. Empires, by definition, mean nothing but perpetual wars. If you want perpetual war, create an empire! Hence, through this revolution, small countries obtained the same rights as those held by large ones and the notions of big= strong, and small=weak, went out of the window. The Hobbesian idea that « might makes right » was abolished and replaced by mutual cooperation as the sole basis of international relations between sovereign nation-states. Hence, tiny Republics, as Switzerland or the Netherlands,the latter at war with Spain for nearly eighty years, finally obtained peace and international recognition. Second, and that’s undoubtedly the most revolutionary part of the agreements, mutual pardon became the core of the peace accords. For example paragraph II stipulated explicitly « that there shall be on the one side and the other a perpetual Oblivion, Amnesty or Pardon of all that has been committed since the beginning of these Troubles, in what place, or what manner soever the Hostilitys have been practis’d, in such a manner, that no body, under any pretext whatsoever, shall practice any Acts of Hostility, entertain any Enmity, or cause any Trouble to each other; » (translation: Foreign Office, London). Moreover, several paragraphs (XIII, XXXV, XXXVII, etc.) stipulate (with some exceptions) that there will be a general debt forgiveness concerning financial obligations susceptible of maintaining a dynamic of perpetual vengeance. In reality, the Peace of Westphalia was the birth of new political order, based on the creation of a new international economic and monetary system necessary to build peace on the ruins of the bankrupt imperial order.
  3. Footnote, p. 77 in Comenius by Olivier Cauly, Editions du Félin, Paris, 1995.
  4. Brochure dealing with that painting published by the Nationalmuseum of Stockholm.
  5. To put to an end to the politically motivated financial harassment which was organized by the family of his deceased wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, Rembrandt submits on July 14, 1656 to the Dutch High Court a cessio bonorum (Cessation of goods to the profit of the creditors), accepting the sale of his goods. In 1660, Rembrandt abandons the official management of his art trading society to his wife Hendrickje Stoffels and his son Titus.
  6. p. 105, Henriette L.T.de Beaufort, in Rembrandt, HDT Willinck & Zoon, Harlem, 1957.
  7. p. 358, Samuel Hartlib and Universal Reformation, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  8. p. 12-13, Bob van den Bogaert, in « Goethe & Rembrandt », Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam 1999.
  9. p. 25, Marcelle Denis in Comenius, pédagogies & pédagogues, Presse Universitaire de France, 1994.
  10. Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), was an exceptional precocious erudite. Politician, scientist, moralist, music composer, he played the violin at the age of six, wrote poems in Dutch, Latin, French, Spanish, English and Greek. His satire, « ‘t Kostelick Mal » (expensive folly), opposed to the « Profijtelijk Vermaak » (profitable amusement) makes great fun of courtly manners and the then rampant beaumondism. His son, Christiaan Huygens was a brilliant scientist and collaborator of Leibniz at the Paris Academy of sciences.
  11. One has to outline shortly here that contrary to the rule of the Greek canon of proportions (height of man = seven heads and a half), the Romans, as Leonardo seems to observe sourly in his drawing reworking Vitrivius, increase the body size up to eight and sometimes many more heads. It was the Greek canon established after the « Doryphore » of Polycletius, which settled the matter much earlier after many Egyptian inquiries on these matters. Leonardo, who wasn’t a fool, realized Vitruvius proportions (8 heads) are wrong, as can be seen by the two belly-buttons appearing in the famous man bounded by square and circle. Hence, the proportional « reduction » of the head was an easy trick to create the illusion of a stronger, more powerful musculature. That image of a biological man displaying « small head, big muscles » supposedly stood as the ultimate expression of Roman heroism. Foreknowledge of this arrangement permits the viewer to identify accurately what philosophy the painter is adhering to: Greek humanist or Roman oligarch? That Rubens chose Rome rather than Athens, leaves no doubt, as proven by his love for Seneca.
  12. « The holy Council states that it isn’t permitted to anybody, in any place or church, to install or let be installed an unusual image, unless it has been approved so by the bishop »; « finally any indecency shall be avoided, of that sort that the images will not be painted or possess ornaments of provoking beauty… » P. 1575-77, t. II-2, in G. Alberigo, « The ecumenical Councils », quoted by Alain Taton (p. 132) in « The Council of Trent », editions du CERF, Paris, 2000.
  13. p. 172, Simon Schama, in his magnificent Rembrandt’s eyes, Knopf, New York, 1999.
  14. For a more elaborate description of the tulip-bubble, Simon Schama, p. 471, « L’embarras de richesses, La culture hollandaise au Siècle d’Or », Gallimard, Paris, 1991.
  15. p. 117, Otto Sperling, Christian IV’s doctor, quoted by Marie-Anne Lescouret in her biography Pierre-Paul Rubens, J.C. Lattès, Paris, 1990.
  16. « Love your enemies », sermon of Martin Luther King, November 17, 1957, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. Quoted in Martin Luther King, Minuit, quelqu’un frappe à la porte, p.63, Bayard, Paris 1990.
  17. p. 87-88, Karel Vereycken, in The gaze from beyond, Fidelio, Vol. VIII, n°2, summer 1999.
  18. Johannes Vermeer of Delft was a close friend of Karel Fabritius, the most outstanding pupil of Rembrandt, who died at the age of thirty-four when the powderkeg of Delft exploded. Vermeer became the executor of his last will, a role generally reserved for the closest friend or relative. Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope and Leibniz correspondent, will become in turn the executor of Vermeer’s last will. That filiation does nothing more than prove the constant cross-fertilization of the artistic and scientific milieu. The Dutch « intimist » school, of which Vermeer is the most accomplished representative, is the most explicit expression of a « metaphysical » transcendence, transposed for political reasons, from the domain of religion, into the beauty of daily life scenes.


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  • Callot, Jacques, etchings, Dover, New York, 1974.
  • Castiglione, Baldassare, Le Livre du Courtisan, GF-Flammarion, 1991.
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  • Clark, Kenneth, An introduction to Rembrandt, Readers Union, Devon, 1978.
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  • Denis, Marcelle, Comenius, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1994.
  • Descargues, Pierre, Rembrandt, JC Lattès, 1990.
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  • Haak, B., Rembrandt, zijn leven, zijn werk, zijn tijd, De Centaur, Amsterdam.
  • Hobbes, Thomas, Le Citoyen ou les fondements de la politique, Garnier Flammarion, Paris, 1982.
  • Jerlerup, Törbjorn, Sweden und der Westphalische Friede, Neue Solidarität, mai 2000.
  • King, Martin Luther, Minuit, quelqu’un frappe à la porte, Bayard, Paris, 2000.
  • Komensky, Jan Amos, Le labyrinthe du monde et le paradis du cœur, Desclée, Paris, 1991.
  • Lescourret, Marie Anne, Pierre-Paul Rubens, JC Lattès, Paris, 1990.
  • Marienfeld Barbara, Johann Amos Comenius : Die Kunst, alle Menschen alles zu lehren. Neue Solidarität.
  • Rembrandt and his pupils, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, 1993.
  • Sénèque, Entretiens, Editions Bouquins, Paris, 1993.
  • Schama Simon, Rembrandt’s Eyes, Knopf, New York 1999.
  • Schama, Simon, L’embarras de richesses, La culture hollandaise au Siècle d’Or, Gallimard, 1991.
  • Schiller, Friedrich, traduction de Regnier, Vol. 6, Histoire de la Guerre de Trente ans, Paris, 1860.
  • Sutton, Peter C., Le Siècle de Rubens, Mercatorfonds, Albin Michel, Paris, 1994.
  • Tallon, Alain, Le Concile de Trente, CERF, Paris, 2000.
  • Tümpel, Christian, Rembrandt, Fonds Mercator-Albin Michel, 1986.
  • Van Lil, Kira, La peinture du XVIIème siècle aux Pays-Bas, en Allemagne et en Angleterre, dans l’art du Baroque, Editions Köneman, 1998, Cologne.

Merci de partager !

How Jacques Cœur put an end to the Hundred Years’ War

The life of Jacques Cœur (1400-1456), a simple shoemaker’s son who became the King’s treasurer and whose motto was « A vaillans cuers, riens impossible » (To a valiant heart, nothing is impossible),
has much to inspire us today.

Without waiting for the end of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), Jacques Cœur, an intelligent and energetic man of whom no portrait or treatise exists, decided to rebuild a ruined, occupied and tattered France.

Not only a merchant, but also a banker, land developer, shipowner, industrialist and master of mines in Forez, Jacques Coeur was a contemporary of Joan of Arc (1412-1431), who lived in 1429 in Coeur’s native city of Bourges.

First and foremost, he entered into collaboration with some of the humanist popes of the Renaissance, patrons of the scientific genius Nicolaus Cusanus and the painter Piero della Francesca. With Europe threatened with implosion and chaos, their priority was to put an end to interminable warfare and unify Christendom.

Secondly, following in the footsteps of Saint-Louis (King Louis IX), Cœur was one of the first to fully assume France’s role as a naval power. Finally, thanks to an intelligent foreign exchange policy and by taking advantage of the maritime and overland Silk Roads of his time, he encouraged international trade. In Bruges, Lyon and Geneva, he traded silk and spices for cloth and herring, while investing in sericulture, shipbuilding, mining and steelmaking.

Paving the way for the reign of Louis XI, and long before Jean Bodin, Barthélémy de Laffemas, Sully and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, his mercantilism heralded the political economy concepts later perfected by the German-American economist Friedrich List or the first American Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

We will concentrate here on his vision of man and economy, leaving aside important subjects such as the trial against him, his relationship with Agnès Sorel and Louis XI, to which many books have been dedicated.

Jacques Cœur’s palace in Bourges, a residence where he rarely stayed.

Jacques Cœur (1400-1454) was born in Bourges, where his father, Pierre Cœur, was a merchant pelletier. Of modest income, originating from Saint-Pourçain, he married the widow of a butcher, which greatly improved his status, as the butchers’ guild was particularly powerful.

The Hundred Years’ War

The early XVth century was not a particularly happy time. The « Hundred Years’ War » pitted the Armagnacs against the Burgundians allied with England. As with the great systemic bankruptcy of the papal bankers in 1347, farmland was plundered or left fallow.

While urbanization had thrived thanks to a productive rural world, the latter was deserted by farmers, who joined the hungry hordes populating towns lacking water, hygiene and the means to support themselves. Epidemics and plagues became the order of the day; cutthroats, skinners, twirlers and other brigands spread terror and made real economic life impossible.

Jacques Cœur was fifteen years old when one of the French army’s most bitter defeats took place in France. The battle of Agincourt (1415) (Pas-de-Calais), where French chivalry was routed by outnumbered English soldiers, marked the end of the age of chivalry and the beginning of the supremacy of ranged weapons (bows, crossbows, early firearms, etc.) over melee (hand-to-hand combat). A large part of the aristocracy was decimated, and an essential part of the territory fell to the English. (see map)

King Charles VII

Portrait of King Charles VII by Jean Fouquet.

In 1418, the Dauphin, the future Charles VII (1403-1461), as he is known thanks to a painting by the painter Jean Fouquet, escaped capture when Paris was taken by the Burgundians. He took refuge in Bourges, where he proclaimed himself regent of the kingdom of France, given the unavailability of his insane father (King Charles VI), who had remained in Paris and fallen to the power of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy.

The dauphin probably instigated the latter’s assassination on the Montereau bridge on September 10, 1419. By his ennemies, he was derisively nicknamed « the little King of Bourges ». The presence of the Court gave the city a boost as a center of trade and commerce.

Considered one of the most industrious and ingenious of men, Jacques Coeur married in 1420 Macée de Léodepart, daughter of a former valet to the Duke of Berry, who had become provost of Bourges.

As his mother-in-law was the daughter of a master of the mints, Jacques Coeur’s marriage in 1427 left him, along with two partners, in charge of one of the city’s twelve exchange offices. His position gave rise to much jealousy. After being accused of not respecting the quantity of precious metal contained in the coins he produced, he was arrested and sentenced in 1428, but soon benefited from a royal pardon.

Yolande d’Aragon

Yolande d’Aragon in front of the Virgin and Child.

Although the Treaty of Troyes (1420) disinherited the dauphin from the kingdom of France in favor of a younger member of the House of Plantagenets, Charles VII nonetheless proclaimed himself King of France on his father’s death on October 21, 1422.

The de facto leader of the Armagnac party, retreating south of the Loire, saw his legitimacy and military situation considerably improved thanks to the intervention of Joan of Arc (1412-1431), operating under the benevolent protection of an exceptional world-historic person: the dauphin’s mother-in-law Yolande of Aragon (1384-1442), Duchess of Anjou, Queen of Sicily and Naples (Note 1).

Backed and guided by Yolande, Jeanne helped lift the siege of Orléans and had Charles VII crowned King of France in Reims in July 1429. In the mean time Yolande d’Aragon established contacts with the Burgundians in preparation for peace, and picked Jacques Coeur to be part of the Royal Court (Note 2).

The contemporary chronicler Jean Juvenal des Ursins (1433–44), Bishop of Beauvais described Yolande as « the prettiest woman in the kingdom. » Bourdigné, chronicler of the house of Anjou, says of her: « She who was said to be the wisest and most beautiful princess in Christendom. » Later, King Louis XI of France recalled that his grandmother had « a man’s heart in a woman’s body. »

A twentieth-century French author, Jehanne d’Orliac wrote one of the few works specifically on Yolande, and noted that the duchess remains unappreciated for her genius and influence in the reign of Charles VII. « She is mentioned in passing because she is the pivot of all important events for forty-two years in France », while « Joan [of Arc] was in the public eye only eleven months. »

Journey to the Levant

In 1430, Jacques Cœur, already renowned as a man « full of industry and high gear, subtle in understanding and high in comprehension; and all things, no matter how high, knowing how to lead by his work » (Note N° 3), with Barthélémy and Pierre Godard, two Bourges notables, set up,

« a company for all types of merchandise, especially for the King our lord, my lord the Dauphin and other lords, and for all other things for which they could provide proof ».

In 1431, Joan of Arc was handed over to the English by the Burgundians and burned alive at the stake in Rouen. One year later, in 1432, Jacques Cœur went to the Levant. A diplomat and humanist, Cœur went as an observer of customs as well as economic and political life.

His ship coasted from port to port, skirting the Italian coast as closely as possible, before rounding Sicily and arriving in Alexandria, Egypt. At the time, Alexandria was an imposing city of 70,000 inhabitants, bustling with thousands of Syrian, Cypriot, Genoese, Florentine and Venetian ships.

Port of Alexandria in the XVIth century.

In Cairo, he discovered treasures arriving from China, Africa and India via the Red Sea. Around the Sultan’s Palace, Armenian, Georgian, Greek, Ethiopian and Nubian merchants offered precious stones, perfumes, silks and carpets. The banks of the Nile were planted with sugar cane and the warehouses full of sugar and spices.

Selling Silver at the Price of Gold

« Gros de roi », a silver coin made in Lyon, issued in 1447.

To understand Jacques Coeur’s financial strategy, a few words about bimetallism. At the time, unlike in China, paper money was not widely used. In the West, everything was paid for in metal coins, and above all in gold.

According to Herodotus, Croesus issued silver and pure gold coins in the 6th century BC. Under the Roman Empire, this practice continued. However, while gold was scarce in the West, silver-lead mines were flourishing.

Added to this, in the Middle Ages, Europe saw a considerable increase in the quantities of silver coinage in circulation, thanks to new mines discovered in Bohemia. The problem was that in France, national production was not sufficient to satisfy the needs of the domestic market. As a result, France was obliged to use its gold to buy what was lacking abroad, thus driving gold out of the country.

According to historians, during his trip to Egypt, Coeur observed that the women there dressed in the finest linens and wore shoes adorned with pearls or gold jewels. What’s more, they loved what was fashionable elsewhere, especially in Europe. Coeur was also aware of the existence of poorly exploited silver and copper mines in the Lyonnais region and elsewhere in France.

Historian George Bordonove, in his book Jacques Coeur, trésorier de Charles VII (Jacques Coeur, treasurer of Charles VII), reckons that Coeur was quick to note that the Egyptians « strangely preferred silver to gold, bartering silver for equal weight ». whereas in Europe, the exchange rate was 15 volumes of silver for one volume of gold !

In other words, he realized that the region « abounded in gold », and that the price of silver was very advantageous. The opportunity to enrich his country by obtaining a « golden » price for the silver and copper extracted from the French mines must have seemed obvious to him

What’s more, in China, only payments in silver were accepted. In other words, the Arab-Muslim world had gold, but lacked silver for its trade with the Far East, hence its huge interest in acquiring it from Europe…

Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus

Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

Cœur then travels via Beirut to Damascus in Syria, at the time by far the biggest center of trade between East and West.

The city is renowned for its silk damasks, light gauze veils, jams and rose essences. Oriental fabrics were very popular for luxury garments.

Europe was supplied with silk and gold muslin from Mosul, damasks with woven motifs from Persia or Damascus, silks decorated with baldacchino figures, sheets with red or black backgrounds adorned with blue and gold birds from Antioch, and so on.

The « Silk Road » also brought Persian carpets and ceramics from Asia. The journey continues to another of the Silk Roads’ great maritime warehouses: Cyprus, an island whose copper had offered exceptional prosperity to the Minoan, Mycenaean and Phoenician civilizations.

The best of the West was bartered here for indigo, silk and spices.

Genoa and Venice

Genoese trade expansion.

During his voyage, Coeur also discovered the maritime empires of Venice and Genoa, each enjoying the protection of a Vatican dependent on these financial powers.

The former, to justify their lucrative trade with the Muslims, claimed that « before being Christian », they were Venetians…

Like the British Empire, the Venetians promoted total free trade to subjugate their victims, while applying fierce dirigisme at home and prohibitive taxes to others. Any artist or person divulging Venetian know-how suffered terrible consequences.

Venice, outpost of the Byzantine Empire and supplier to the Court of Constantinople, a city of several million inhabitants, developed fabric dyeing, manufactured silks, velvets, glassware and leather goods, not to mention weapons. Its arsenal employs 16,000 workers.

Port of Genoa.

Its rival, Genoa, with its highly skilled sailors and cutting-edge financial techniques, had colonized the Bosphorus and the Black Sea, from where treasures from Persia and Muscovy flowed. They also shamelessly engaged in the slave trade, a practice they would pass on to the Spanish and especially the Portuguese, who held a monopoly on trade with Africa.

Avoiding direct confrontation with such powers, Cœur kept a low profile. The difficulty was threefold: following the war, France was short of everything! It had no cash, no production, no weapons, no ships, no infrastructure!

So much so, in fact, that Europe’s main trade route had shifted eastwards. Instead of taking the route of the Rhône and Saône rivers, merchants passed through Geneva, and up the Rhine to Antwerp and Bruges. Another difficulty was soon added: a royal decree prohibited the export of precious metals! But what immense profits the Kingdom could draw from the operation.

The Oecumenial Councils

Council of Constance (1414-18).

On his return from the Levant, France’s history accelerated. While preparing the economic reforms he wanted, Jacques Cœur also became involved in the major issues of the day. Through his brother Nicolas Cœur, the future bishop of Luçon, he played an important role in the process initiated by the humanists to unify the Western Church in the face of the Turkish threat.

Since 1378, there had been two popes, one in Rome and the other in Avignon. Several councils attempted to overcome the divisions. Nicolas Cœur attended them. First there was the Council of Constance (1414 to 1448), followed by the Council of Basel (1431), which, after a number of interruptions, was transferred to Florence (1439), establishing a doctrinal « union » between the Eastern and Western churches with a decree read out in Greek and Latin on July 6, 1439, in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, i.e. under the dome of Florence’s dome, built by Brunelleschi.

The central panel of the Ghent polyptych (1432), painted by the diplomatic painter Jan Van Eyck on the theme of the Lam Gods (the Lamb of God or Mystic Lamb), symbolizes the sacrifice of the Son of God for the redemption of mankind, and is capable of reuniting a church torn apart by internal differences. Hence the presence, on the right, of the three popes, here united before the Lamb. Van Eyck also painted portraits of Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, one of the instigators of the Council of Florence, and Chancellor Rolin, one of the architects of the Peace of Arras in 1435.

The Peace treaty of Arras

Proclamation of the Peace of Arras in Reims.

To achieve this, the humanists concentrated on France. First, they were to awaken Charles VII. After the victories won by Joan of Arc, wasn’t it time to win back the territories lost to the English?

However, Charles VII knew that peace with the English depended on reconciliation with the Burgundians. He therefore entered into negotiations with Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.

The latter no longer expected anything from the English, and wished to devote himself to the development of his provinces. For him, peace with France was a necessity. He therefore agreed to treat with Charles VII, paving the way for the Arras Conference in 1435.

This was the first European peace conference. In addition to the Kingdom of France, whose delegation was led by the Duke of Bourbon, Marshal de La Fayette and Constable Arthur de Richemont, and Burgundy, led by the Duke of Burgundy himself and Chancellor Rolin, it brought together Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg, Mediator Amédée VIII of Savoy, an English delegation, and representatives of the kings of Poland, Castile and Aragon.

Although the English left the talks before the end, thanks to the skill of the scholar Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, at that cardinal of Cyprus (and futur Pope Pius II) and spokesman for the Council of Basel, the signing of the Treaty of Arras in 1435 led to a peace agreement between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, the first step towards ending the Hundred Years’ War.

In the meantime, the Council of Basel, which had opened in 1431, dragged on but came to nothing, and on September 18, 1437, Pope Eugene IV, advised by cardinal philosopher Nicolaus Cusanus and arguing the need to hold a council of union with the Orthodox, transferred the Council from Basel to Ferrara and then Florence. Only the schismatic prelates remained in Basel. Furious, they « suspended » Eugene IV and named the Duke of Savoy, Amédée VIII, Felix V, as the new pope. This « anti-pope » won little political support. Germany remained neutral, and in France, Charles VII confined himself to implementing many of the reforms decreed in Basel by the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges on July 13, 1438.

King’s Treasurer and Great State Servant

One of the corridors of the Palais Jacques Cœur in Bourges. The roof, in the shape of a ship’s hull, bears witness to his great passion for maritime affairs.

In 1438, Cœur became Argentier de l’Hôtel du roi. L’Argenterie was not concerned with the kingdom’s finances. Rather, it was a sort of commissary responsible for meeting all the needs of the sovereign, his servants and the Court, for their daily lives, clothing, armament, armor, furs, fabrics, horses and so on.

Cœur was to supply the Court with everything that could neither be found nor manufactured at home, but which he could bring in from Alexandria, Damascus and Beirut, at the time major nodal points of the Silk Road by land and sea, where he set up his commercial agents, his « facteurs » (manufacturers).

Following this, in 1439, after having been appointed Master of the Mint of Bourges, Jacques Cœur became Master of the Mint in Paris, and finally, in 1439, the King’s moneyer. His role was to ensure the sovereign’s day-to-day expenses, which involved making advances to the Treasury and controlling the Court’s supply channels.

Then, in 1441, the King appointed him commissioner of the Languedoc States to levy taxes. Cœur often imposed taxes without ever undermining the productive reconstruction process. And in times of extreme difficulty, he would even lend money, at low, long-term rates, to those who had to pay it.

Ennobled, Coeur became the King’s strategic advisor in 1442. He acquired a plot of land in the center of Bourges to build his « grant’maison », currently the Palais Jacques Coeur. This magnificent edifice, with fireplaces in every room and an oven supplying the rest and bath room with hot water, has survived the centuries, although Coeur rarely had the occasion to live there.

Coeur is a true grand state servitor, with broad powers to collect taxes and negotiate political and economic agreements on behalf of the king. Having reached the top, Coeur is now in the ideal position to expand his long-cherished project.

Rule over Finance

On September 25, 1443, the Grande Ordonnance de Saumur, promulgated at Jacques Coeur’s instigation, put the state’s finances on a sounder footing.

As Claude Poulain recounts in his biography of Jacques Coeur:

« In 1444, after affirming the fundamental principle that the King alone had the right to levy taxes, but that his own finances should not be confused with those of the kingdom, a set of measures was enacted that affected the French at every level. »

These included: « Commoners owning noble fiefs were obliged to pay indemnities; nobles who had received seigneuries previously belonging to the royal domain would henceforth be obliged to share in the State’s expenses, on pain, once again, of seizure; finally, the kingdom’s financial services were organized, headed by a budget committee made up of high-ranking civil servants, ‘Messieurs des Finances’. »

In clear, the nobility was henceforth obliged to pay taxes for the Common Good of the Nation !

The King’s Council of 1444, headed by Dunois, was composed almost exclusively, not of noblement but of commoners (Jacques Coeur, Jean Bureau, Étienne Chevalier, Guillaume Cousinot, Jouvenel des Ursins, Guillaume d’Estouteville, Tancarville, Blainville, Beauvau and Marshal Machet). France recovered and enjoyed prosperity.

If France’s finances recovered, besides « taxing the rich », it was above all thanks to strategic investments in infrastructure, industry and trade. The revival of business activity enabled taxes to be brought in. In 1444, he set up the new Languedoc Parliament in conjunction with the Archbishop of Toulouse and, on behalf of the King, presided over the Estates General.

Master Plan

In reality, Jacques Cœur’s various operations, sometimes mistakenly considered to be motivated exclusively by his own personal greed, formed part of an overall plan that today we would describe as « connectivity » and at the service of the « physical economy ».

The aim was to equip the country and its territory, notably through a vast network of commercial agents operating both in France and abroad from the major trading cities of Europe (Geneva, Bruges, London, Antwerp, etc.), the Levant (Beirut and Damascus) and North Africa (Alexandria, Tunis, etc.), in order to promote win-win trade. ), to promote win-win trade, while reinvesting part of the profits in improving national productivity: mining, metallurgy, arms, shipbuilding, training, ports, roads, rivers, sericulture, textile spinning and dyeing, paper, etc.


Mining sites around Lyon.

Of special interest were the silver mines of Pampailly, in Brussieu, south of l’Arbresle and Tarare, 25 kilometers west of Lyon, acquired and exploited as early as 1388 by Hugues Jossard, a Lyonnais jurist. They were very old, but their normal operation had been severely disrupted during the war. In addition, there were the Saint-Pierre-la-Palud and Joux mines, as well as the Chessy mine, whose copper was also used for weapons production.

Jacques Cœur made them operational. Near the mines, « martinets » – charcoal-fired blast furnaces – transformed the ore into ingots. Cœur brought in engineers and skilled workers from Germany, at the time a region far ahead of us in this field. However, without a pumping system, mining was no picnic.

Under Jacques Cœur’s management, the workers benefited from wages and comforts that were absolutely unique at the time. Each bunk had its own feather bed or wool mattress, a pillow, two pairs of linen sheets and blankets, a luxury that was more than unusual at the time. The dormitories were heated.

High quality food was provided to the laborers: bread containing four-fifths wheat and one-fifth rye, plenty of meat, eggs, cheese and fish, and desserts included exotic fruits such as figs and walnuts. A social service was organized: free hospitalization, care provided by a surgeon from Lyon who kept accident victims « en cure ». Every Sunday, a local priest came to celebrate a special mass for the miners. On the other hand, workers were subject to draconian discipline, governed by fifty-three articles of regulation that left nothing to chance.

The Ports of Montpellier and Marseille

On his return from the Levant in 1432, Jacques Coeur chose to make Montpellier the nerve center of his port and naval operations.

In principle, Christians were forbidden to trade with Infidels. However, thanks to a bull issued by Pope Urban V (1362-1370), Montpellier had obtained the right to send « absolved ships » to the East every year. Jacques Cœur obtained from the Pope that this right be extended to all his ships. Pope Eugene IV, by derogation of August 26, 1445, granted him this benefit, a permission renewed in 1448 by Pope Nicholas V.

At the time, only Montpellier, in the middle of the east-west axis linking Catalonia to the Alps (the Roman Domitian Way) and whose outports were Lattes and Aigues-Mortes, had a hinterland with a network of roads that were more or less passable, an exceptional situation for the time.

In 1963, it was discovered that at the site of the village of Lattes (population 17,000), 4 km south of today’s Montpellier and on the River Lez, there had been an Etruscan port city called Lattara, considered by some to be the first port in Western Europe. The city was built in the last third of the VIth century BC. A city wall and stone and brick houses were built. Original objects and graffiti in Etruscan – the only ones known in France – have suggested that Etrurian brokers played a role in the creation and rapid urbanization of the settlement.

Model of the Etruscan port of Lattara, founded in the 6th century BC and, according to some, the first port in Western Europe. (Today known as Lattes, 4 km south of Montpellier).

Trading with the Greeks and Romans, Lattara was a very active Gallic port until the 3rd century AD. Then maritime access changed, and the town fell into a state of numbness.

In the 13th century, under the impetus of the Guilhem family, lords of Montpellier, the port of Lattes was revitalized, only to regain its splendor when Jacques Cœur set up his warehouses there in the 15th century.

As for the port of Aigues-Mortes, built from top to bottom by Saint-Louis in the XIIIth century for the crusades, it was also one of the first in France. To connect the two, Saint-Louis dug the canal known as « Canal de la Radelle » (today’s Canal de Lunel), which ran from Aigues-Mortes across the Lake of Mauguio to the port of Lattes. Cœur restored this river-port complex to working order, notably by building Port Ariane in Lattes.

The Roman trade axis, Via Domitia.

Over the following centuries, these disparate elements of canals and water infrastructure will become an efficient network built around the Canal du Rhône à Sète, a natural extension of the « bi-oceanic » Canal du Midi (between the Meditteranean and the Atlantic) begun by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (see map).

Coeur had the local authorities involved in his project, shaking Montpellier out of its age-old lethargy. At the time, the town had no market or covered sales buildings. Also lacking were moneychangers, shipowners and other cloth merchants.

Montpellier: remnants of Jacques Cœur’s residence, now the Hôtel des Trésoriers de la Bourse.
Hôtel de Varenne in Montpellier.

In Montpellier, an entire district of merchants and warehouses was erected him, the Great Merchants Lodge, modeled on those in Perpignan, Barcelona and Valencia.

Numerous houses in Béziers, Vias and Pézenas also belonged to him, as did residences in Montpellier, including the Hôtel des Trésoriers de France, which, it is said, was topped by a tower so high that Jacques Cœur could watch his ships arrive at the nearby Port of Lattes.

And yet, as an old merchant and industrial city, Montpellier had long been home to Italians, Catalans, Muslims and Jews, who enjoyed a tolerance and understanding that was rare at the time. It’s easy to see why François Rabelais felt so at home here in the XVIth century.

Port of Marseille

Port of Marseille.

The hinterland was rich and industrious. It produced wine and olive oil, in other words, exportable goods. Its workshops produced leather, knives, weapons, enamels and, above all, drapery.

From 1448 onwards, faced with the limitations of the system and the constant silting-up of the port infrastructure, Coeur moved one of his agents, the navigator and diplomat Jean de Villages, his nephew by marriage, to the neighboring port of Marseille, at that time outside the Kingdom, to the home of King René d’Anjou, where port operations were easier, a deep harbor protected from the Mistral by hills and a port equipped with waterfront shops and storehouses. The boost that Jacques Coeur gave to Montpellier’s port Lattes, Jean de Villages, on Coeur’s behalf, immediately gave to Marseille.


Good ports mean ocean-going ships! Hence at that time, the best France could do was build a few river barges and fishing boats.

To equip himself with a fleet of ocean-going vessels, Cœur ordered a « galéasse » (an advanced model of the ancient three-masted « galley », designed primarily for boarding) from the Genoa arsenals.

The Genoese, who saw only immediate profit in the project, soon discovered that Coeur had had the shapes and dimensions of their ship copied by local carpenters in Aigues Mortes!

Furious, they landed at the shipyard and took it back, arguing that Languedoc merchants had no right to fit out ships and trade without the prior approval of the Doge of Venice!

Stained glass window of a ship (a caraque) in the Palais de Jacques Cœur in Bourges.

After complicated negotiations, but with the support of Charles VII, Coeur got his ship back. Cœur let the storm pass for a few years. Later, seven great ships would leave the Aigues-Mortes shipyard, including « La Madeleine » under the command of Jean de Villages, a great sailor and his loyal lieutenant.

Judging by the stained-glass window and bas-relief in the Palais de Coeur in Bourges, these were more like caraques, North Sea vessels with large square sails and much greater tonnage than galleasses. But that’s not all!

Having understood perfectly well that the quality of a ship depends on the quality of the wood with which it is built, Cœur, with the authorization of the Duke of Savoy, had his wood shipped from Seyssel. The logs were floated down the Rhône, then sent to Aigues-Mortes via the canal linking the town to the river.

The crews

One last problem remained to be solved: that of crews. Jacques Cœur’s solution was revolutionary: on January 22, 1443, he obtained permission from Charles VII to forcibly embark, in return for fair wages, the « idle vagabonds and caimans » who prowled the ports.

To understand just how beneficial such an institution was at the time, we need to remember that France was being laid to waste by bands of plunderers – the routiers, the écorcheurs, the retondeurs – thrown into the country by the Hundred Years’ War. As always, Coeur behaves not only according to his own personal interests, but according to the general interests of France.

Connecting France to the Silk Road

Cairo Citadel

Now with financial clout, ports and ships at his disposal, Cœur organized win-win commercial exchanges and, in his own way, involved France in the land and Maritime Silk Road of the time. First and foremost, he organized « détente, understanding and cooperation » with the countries of the Levant.

After diplomatic incidents with the Venetians had led the Sultan of Egypt to confiscate their goods and close his country to their trade, Jacques Coeur, a gentleman but also in charge of a Kingdom that remained dependent on Genoa and Venice for their supplies of arms and strategic raw materials, had his agents on site mediating a happy end to the incident.

Seeing other potential conflicts that could disrupt his strategy, and possibly inspired by Admiral Zheng He‘s great Chinese diplomatic missions to Africa from 1405 onwards, he convinced the king to send an ambassador to Cairo in the person of Jean de Villages, his loyal lieutenant.

The latter handed over to the Sultan the various letters he had brought with him. Flattered, the Sultan handed him a reply to King Charles VII:

« Your ambassador, man of honor, gentleman, whom you name Jean de Villages, came to mine Porte Sainte, and presented me your letters with the present you mandated, and I received it, and what you wrote me that you want from me, I did.

« Thus I have made a peace with all the merchants for all my countries and ports of the navy, as your ambassador knew to ask of me… And I command all the lords of my lands, and especially the lord of Alexandria, that he make good company with all the merchants of your land, and on all the others having liberty in my country, and that they be given honor and pleasure; and when the consul of your country has come, he will be in favor of the other consuls well high…

« I send you, by the said ambassador, a present, namely fine balsam from our holy vine, a beautiful leopard and three bowls (cups) of Chinese porcelain, two large dishes of decorated porcelain, two porcelain bouquets, a hand-washer, a decorated porcelain pantry, a bowl of fine green ginger, a bowl of almond stones, a bowl of green pepper, almonds and fifty pounds of our fine bamouquet (fine balsam), a quintal of fine sugar. Dieu te mène à bon sauvement, Charles, Roy de France. »

Syria was a pioneer in sericulture, so much so that any silk fabric, monochromatic in color with a satin weave, is called « damask », bringing out a contrast of brilliance between the background and the pattern formed by the weave.

To the Orient, Coeur exported furs, leathers and, above all, cloth of all kinds, notably Flanders cloth and Lyon canvas. His « factors » also offered Egyptian women dresses, coats, headdresses, ornaments and jewels from our workshops. Then came basketry from Montpellier, oil, wax, honey and flowers from Spain for the manufacture of perfumes.

From the Near East, he received animal-figured silks from Damascus (Syria), fabrics from Bukhara (Uzbekistan) and Baghdad (Iraq); velvet; wines from the islands; cane sugar; precious metals; alum; amber; coral; indigo; coral; indigo from Baghdad; madder from Egypt; shellac; perfumes made from the essence of the flowers he exported; spices – pepper, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, jams, nutmegs, etc. – and more.

From the Far East, by the Red Sea or by caravans from the Euphrates and Turkestan, came to him: gold from Sudan, cinnamon from Madagascar, ivory from Africa, silks from India, carpets from Persia, perfumes from Arabia – later evoked by Shakespeare in Macbeth – precious stones from India and Central Asia, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, pearls from Ceylon, porcelain and musk from China, ostrich feathers from the black Sudan.


As we saw in the case of mining, Coeur had no hesitation in attracting foreigners with valuable know-how to France to launch projects, implement innovative processes and, above all, train personnel. In Bourges, he teamed up with the Balsarin brothers and Gasparin de Très, gunsmiths originally from Milan. After convincing them to leave Italy, he set up workshops in Bourges, enabling them to train a skilled workforce. To this day, the Bourges region remains a major center of arms production.

In the early days of printing in Europe, Coeur bought a paper mill in Rochetaillée, on the Saône near Lyon.

Le livre des propriétés des choses, Teinturiers au travail, manuscript copied and painted in Bruges, completed in 1482. London, British Library © The British Library Board/Leemage.

In Montpellier, he took an interest in the dyeing factories, once renowned for their cultivation of madder, a plant that had become acclimatized in the Languedoc region.

It’s easy to understand why Cœur had his agents buy indigo, kermes seeds and other coloring substances. The aim was to revive the manufacture of cloth, particularly scarlet cloth, which had previously been highly sought-after.

With this in mind, he built a fountain, the Font Putanelle, near the city walls, to serve the population and the dyers.

In Montpellier, he also teamed up with Florentine charterers based in the city, for maritime expeditions.

Through their intermediary, Coeur personally traveled to Florence in 1444, registering both his associate Guillaume de Varye and his own son Ravand as members of the « Arte della Seta » (silk production corporation), the prestigious Florentine guild whose members were the only ones authorized to produce silk in Florence.

Coeur engaged in joint ventures, as he often did in France, this time with Niccolo Bonnacorso and the Marini brothers (Zanubi and Guglielmo). The factory, in which he owned half the shares, manufactured, organized and controlled the production, spinning, weaving and dyeing of silk fabrics.

It is understood that Coeur was also co-owner of a gold cloth factory in Florence, and associated in certain businesses with the Medici, Bardi and Bucelli bankers and merchants. He was also associated with the Genevese and Bruges families.

Going International

Jacques Coeur organized a vast distribution network to sell his goods in France and throughout Europe. At a time when passable roads were extremely rare, this was no easy task. Most roads were little more than widened paths or poorly functioning tracks dating back to the Gauls.

Cœur, who had his own stables for land transport, renovated and expanded the network, abolished internal tolls on roads and rivers, and re-established the collection (abandoned during the Hundred Years’ War) of taxes (taille, fouage, gabelle) to replenish public finances.

Jacques Cœur’s network was essentially run from Bourges. From there, on the French level, we could speak of three major axes: the north-south being Bruges-Montpellier, the east-west being Lyon-Tours. Added to this was the old Roman road linking Spain (Barcelona) to the Alps (Briançon) via Languedoc.

From Bourges, for example, the Silverware, which served the Court, was transferred to Tours. This was only natural, since from 1444 onwards, Charles VII settled in a small castle near Tours, Plessis-les-Tours. So it was at the Argenterie de Tours that the exotic products the Court was so fond of were stocked. This did not prevent the goods from being shipped on to Bruges, Rouen or other towns in the kingdom.

Counters also existed in Orléans, Loches, Le Mans, Nevers, Issoudun and Saint-Pourçain, birthplace of the Coeur family, as well as in Fangeaux, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Limoges, Thouars, Saumur, Angers and Paris.

Orléans and Bourges stocked salt from Guérande, the Vendée marshes and the Roche region. In Lyon, salt from the Camargue and Languedoc saltworks. River transport (on the Loire, Rhône, Saône and Seine rivers) doubled the number of road carts.

The great crane of Bruges. Miniature from the early 16th century.

Jacques Coeur revived and promoted trade fairs. Lyon, with its rapid growth, geographic location and proximity to silver-lead and copper mines, was a particularly active trading post. Goods were shipped to Geneva, Germany and Flanders.

Montpellier received products from the Levant. However, trading posts were set up all along the coast, from Collioure (then in Catalonia) to Marseille (at the home of King René d’Anjou), and inland as far as Toulouse, and along the Rhône, in particular at Avignon and Beaucaire.

A trading post was set up in La Rochelle for the salt trade, certainly with a view to expanding maritime traffic. Jacques Cœur also had « factors » in Saint-Malo, Cherbourg and Harfleur. After the liberation of Normandy, these three centers grew in importance, and were joined by Exmes. In the north-east, Reims and Troyes are worth mentioning. They manufactured cloth and canvas. Abroad, Geneva was a first-rate trading post, as the city’s fairs and markets had already acquired an international character.

Coeur also had a branch in Bruges, bringing back spices and silks from the Levant, and shipping cloth and herring from there.

Member cities of the Hanseatic League.

The fortunes of Bruges, like many other towns in Flanders, came from the cloth industry. The city flourished, and the power of its cloth merchants was considerable. In the 15th century, Bruges was one of the lungs of the Hanseatic League, which brought together the port cities of northern Europe.

Bruges in the XVth century. On the left, the Genoese factorie; on the right, opposite, the Florentine factorie.
Hof Blandelin in Bruges. Built in 1435, the building housed the branch of the Medici Bank in 1466.

It was in Bruges that business relations were handled, and loan and marine insurance contracts drawn up. After cloth, it was the luxury industries that ensured its prosperity, with tapestries. By land, it took less than three weeks to get from Bruges to Montpellier via Paris.

Between 1444 and 1449, during the Truce of Tours between France and the English, Jacques Coeur tried to build peace by forging trade links with England.

Coeur sent his representative Guillaume de Mazoran. His other trusted associate, Guillaume de Varye, began trading in sheets from London in February 1449. He also bought leather, cloth and wool in Scotland. Some went to La Rochelle, others to Bruges.

Internationally, Coeur continued to expand, with branches in Barcelona, Naples, Genoa (where a pro-French party was formed) and Florence.

At the time of his arrest in 1451, Jacques Coeur had at least 300 « factors » (associates, commercial agents, financial representatives and authorized agents), each responsible for his own trading post in his own region, but also running « factories » on the spot, promoting meetings and exchanges of know-how between all those involved in economic life. Several thousand people associated and cooperated with him in business.

The Military Reform that saved the Nation

Charles VII’s ordinance of April 8, 1448 created the Franc-Archers (free archers), a popular army that could be mobilized in the event of war.

Cœur used the profits from this lucrative business to serve his country. When in 1449, at the end of the truce, the English troops were left to their own devices, surviving by pillaging the areas they occupied, Agnès Sorel, the king’s mistress, Pierre de Brézé, the military leader, and Jacques Cœur, encouraged the king to launch a military offensive to finally liberate the whole country.

Coeur declared bluntly:

« Sire, under your shadow, I acknowledge that I have great proufis and honors, and mesme, in the land of the Infidels, for, for your honor, the souldan has given me safe-conduct to my galleys and factors… Sire, what I have, is yours. »

We’re no longer in 1435, when the king didn’t have a kopeck to face strategic challenges. Jacques Coeur, unlike other great lords, according to a contemporary account,

« spontaneously offered to lend the king a mass of gold, and provided him with a sum amounting, it is said, to around 100,000 gold ecus to use for this great and necessary purpose ».

Under the advice of Jacques Coeur and others, Charles VII was to carry out a decisive military reform.

On November 2, 1439, at the Estates General that had been meeting in Orleans since October of that year, Charles VII ordered a reform of the army following the Estates General’s complaint about the skinners and their actions.

As Charles V (the Wise) had tried to do before him, he set up a system of standing armies that would engage these flayers full-time against the English. The nobility got in the king’s way. In fact, they often used companies of skinners for their own interests, and refused to allow the king alone to be responsible for recruiting the army.

In February 1440, the king discovered that the nobles were plotting against him. Contemporaries named this revolt the Praguerie, in reference to the civil wars in Prague’s Hussite Bohemia.

Yolande d’Aragon passed away in November 1442, but Jacques Coeur would continue pressuring the King to go ahead with the required reforms.

Following the Truce of Tours in 1444, an ordinance was issued on May 26 announcing no general demobilization should occur; instead, the best of the larger units were reconstituted as “companies of the King’s ordinance » (Compagnies d’Ordonnance),” which were standing units of cavalry well selected and well equipped; they served as local guardians of peace at local expense. This consisted of some 10,000 men organized into 15 Ordonnance companies, entrusted to proven captains. These companies were subdivided into detachments of ten to thirty lances, which were assigned to garrisons to protect the towns’ inhabitants and patrol the countryside. In a territory similarly patrolled by the forerunners of our modern gendarmerie, robbery and plunder quickly ceased.

Crossbowman loading his weapon.

Although still a product of the nobility, this new military formation was the first standing army at the disposal of the King of France. Previously, when the king wished to wage war, he called upon his vassals according to the feudal custom of the ban. But his vassals were only obliged to serve him for forty days. If he wished to continue the war, the king had to recruit companies of mercenaries, a plague against which Machiavelli would later warn his readers. When the war ended, the mercenaries were dismissed. They then set about plundering the country. This is what happened at the start of the Hundred Years’ War, after the victories of Charles V and Du Guesclin.

Then, with the Ordinance of April 8, 1448, the Francs-Archers corps was created. The model for the royal « francs archiers » was probably taken from the militia of archers that the Dukes of Brittany had been raising, by parish, since 1425.

The Ordinance stipulated that each parish or group of fifty or eighty households had to arm, at its own expense, a man equipped with bow or crossbow, sword, dagger, jaque and salad, who had to train every Sunday in archery. In peacetime, he stays at home and receives no pay, but in wartime, he is mobilized and receives 4 francs a month. The Francs-Archers thus formed a military reserve unit with a truly national character.

As writes the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

« With the creation of the “free archers” (1448), a militia of foot soldiers, the new standing army was complete. Making use of a newly effective artillery, its companies firmly in the king’s control, supported by the people in money and spirit, France rid itself of brigands and Englishmen alike. »

At the same time, artillery grandmaster Gaspard Bureau and his brother Jean (Note N° 4) developed artillery, with bronze cannons capable of firing cast-iron cannonballs, lighter hand cannons, the ancestors of the rifle, and very long cannons or couleuvrines that could be dragged on wagons and taken to the battlefield.

As a result, when the time came to go on the offensive, the army went into battle. From all over the country, the Francs-Archers, made up of commoners trained in every region of France rather than nobles, began to converge on the north.

The war was on, and this time, « the gale changed sides ». The merciless French army, armed to the highest standards, pushed its opponents to the limit. This was particularly true at the Battle of Formigny near Bayeux, on April 15, 1450. It was a kind of Azincourt in reverse, with English losses amounting to 80% of the forces engaged, with 4,000 killed and 1,500 taken prisoner. At last, towns and strongholds returned to the Kingdom!

Helping a Humanist Pope

As mentioned above, the Council of Basel had ended in discord. On the one hand, with the support of Charles VII and Jacques Coeur, Eugene IV was elected Pope in Rome in 1431. On the other, in Basel, an assembly of prelates meeting in council sought to impose themselves as the sole legitimate authority to lead Christendom. In 1439, the Council declared Eugene IV deposed and appointed « his » own pope: the Duke of Savoy, Amédée VIII, who had abdicated and retired to a monastery. He became pope under the name of Felix V.

His election was based solely on the support of theologians and doctors of the universities, but without the support of a large number of prelates and cardinals.

In 1447, King Charles VII commissioned Jacques Coeur to intervene for Eugene IV’s return and Felix V’s renunciation. With a delegation, he went to Lausanne to meet Felix V. While the talks were going well, Eugene IV died. As Felix V saw no further obstacles to his pontificate, the Pontifical Council in Rome quickly proceeded to elect a new pope, the humanist scholar Nicholas V (Tommaso Parentucelli).

To make France’s case to him, Charles VII sent Jacques Coeur at the head of a large delegation. Before entering the Eternal City, the French formed a procession.

The parade was sumptuous: more than 300 horsemen, dressed in bright, shimmering colors, bearing weapons and glittering jewels, mounted on richly caparisoned horses, dazzled and impressed the whole of Rome, except for the English, who saw themselves doubled by the French to serve the Pope’s mission.

From the very first meeting, Nicholas V was charmed by Jacques Coeur. Slightly ill, Coeur was treated by the pope’s physician. Thanks to information obtained from the Pontiff, notably on the limits of concessions to be made, Coeur’s delegation subsequently obtained the withdrawal of Felix V, with whom Coeur remained on good terms.

The humanist Pope Nicholas V, fresco by Fra Angelico, one of the painters he protected. Fresco in the Nicoline Chapel in the Vatican.

Nicholas V, it should be remembered, was a happy exception. Nicknamed the « humanist pope », he knew Leonardo Bruni (Note N° 5), Niccolò Niccoli (Note N° 6) and Ambrogio Traversari (Note N° 7) in Florence, in the entourage of Cosimo de’ Medici.

With the latter and Eugenio IV, whose right-hand man he was, Nicholas V was one of the architects of the famous Council of Florence, which sealed a « doctrinal union » between the Western and Eastern Churches. (Note N° 8)

Elected pope, Nicholas V considerably increased the size of the Vatican Library. By the time of his death, the library contained over 16,000 volumes, more than any other princely library.

He welcomed the erudite humanist Lorenzo Valla to his court as apostolic notary. Under his patronage, the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius and Archimedes were reintroduced to Western Europe. One of his protégés, Enoch d’Ascoli, discovered a complete manuscript of Tacitus’ Opera minora in a German monastery.

In addition to these, he called to his court a whole series of scholars and humanists: the scholar and former chancellor of Florence Poggio Bracciolini, the Hellenist Gianozzo Manetti, the architect Leon Battista Alberti, the diplomat Pier Candido Decembrio, the Hellenist Giovanni Aurispa, the cardinal-philosopher Nicolas de Cues, founder of modern science, and Giovanni Aurispa, the first to translate Plato’s complete works from Greek into Latin.

Nicholas V also made gestures to his powerful neighbors: at the request of King Charles VII, Joan of Arc was rehabilitated.

Later, when he sought refuge in Rome, Jacques Coeur was received by Nicholas V as if he was a member of his family.

The Coup d’Etat against Jacques Coeur

Jacques Coeur’s adventurous life ended as if in a cloak-and-dagger novel. On July 31, 1451, Charles VII ordered his arrest and seized his possessions, from which he drew one hundred thousand ecus to wage war.

The result was one of the most scandalous trials in French history. The only reason for the trial was political. The hatred of the courtiers, especially the nobles, had built up. By making each of them a debtor, Coeur, believing he had made allies of them, made terrible enemies. By launching a number of national products, he undermined the financial empires of Genoa, Venice and Florence, which eternally sought to enrich themselves by exporting their products, notably silk, to France.

One of the most relentless, Otto Castellani, a Florentine merchant, treasurer of finances in Toulouse but based in Montpellier, and one of the accusers whom Charles VII appointed as commissioner to prosecute Jacques Coeur, practiced black magic and pierced a wax figure of the silversmith with needles!

Lastly, Charles VII undoubtedly feared collusion between Jacques Coeur and his own son, the Dauphin Louis, future Louis XI, who was stirring up intrigue after intrigue against him.

In 1447, following an altercation with Agnès Sorel, the Dauphin had been expelled from the Court by his father and would never see him again. Jacques Cœur lent money to the Dauphin, with whom he kept in touch through Charles Astars, who looked after the accounts of his mines.

« Trade with infidels », « Lèse majesté », « export of metals », and many other pretexts, the reasons put forward for Jacques Coeur’s trial and conviction are of little interest. They are no more than judicial window-dressing. The proceedings began with a denunciation that was almost immediately found to be slanderous.

Tomb of Agnès Sorel, Collégiale Saint-Ours, Loches.

A certain Jeanne de Mortagne accused Jacques Coeur of having poisoned Agnès Sorel, the king’s mistress and favorite, who died on February 9, 1450. This accusation was implausible and devoid of any serious foundation; for, having placed all her trust in Jacques Coeur, she had just appointed him as one of her three executors.

Coeur is imprisoned for a dozen equally questionable reasons. When he refused to admit what he was accused of, he was threatened with « the question » (torture). Confronted by the executioners, the accused, trembling with fear, claims that he « relies » on the words of the commissioners charged with breaking him.

A miniature representing Christ (in front of the Palais Jacques Cœur in Bourges) on his way to the Mount of Calvary…

His condemnation came on the same day as the fall of Constantinople, May 29, 1453. Only the intervention of Pope Nicholas V saved his life. With the help of his friends, he escaped from his prison in Poitiers, and took the route of the convents, including Beaucaire, to Marseille for Rome.

Pope Nicholas V welcomed him as a friend. The pontiff died and was succeeded by his successor. Jacques Cœur chartered a fleet in the name of his illustrious host, and set off to fight the infidels. Jacques Coeur, we are told, died on November 25, 1456 on the island of Chios, a Genoese possession, during a naval battle with the Turks.

The great King Louis XI, unloved son of Charles VII, as evidenced by his ordinances in favor of the productive economy, would continue the recovery of France begun by Jacques Coeur. Many of Coeur’s collaborators soon entered his service, including his son Geoffroy, who, as cupbearer, became Louis XI’s most trusted confidant.

Charles VII, by letters patent dated August 5, 1457, restored to Ravant and Geoffroy Coeur a small portion of their father’s property. It was only under Louis XI that Geoffroy obtained the rehabilitation of his father’s memory and more complete letters of restitution.


  1. During the five years between Joan of Arc’s first appearances and her departure for Chinon, several people attached to the Court stayed in Lorraine, including René d’Anjou, the youngest son of Yolande d’Aragon. While Charles VII remained undecided, his mother-in-law welcomed La Pucelle with maternal solicitude, opening doors for her and lobbying the king until he deigned to receive her. During the Poitiers trial, when Jeanne’s virginity had to be verified, she presided over the council of matrons in charge of the examination. She also provided financial support, helped her gather her equipment, provided safe stopping points on the road to Orléans, and gathered food and relief supplies for the besieged. To this end, she did not hesitate to open her purse wide, even going so far as to sell her jewelry and golden tableware. Yolande’s support was rewarded on April 30, 1429 with the liberation of Orléans, followed on July 17 by the King’s coronation in Reims. Although many of her contemporaries praised her simplicity, her closeness to her subjects and the warmth of her court, Yolande d’Aragon was a stateswoman. And whatever sympathy she may have felt for her protégée, she would not hesitate to abandon her to her sad fate when her warlike impulses no longer accorded with her own political objectives : to negociate a peaceful alliance with the Duchy of Burgundy. The Duchess knew how to be implacable, and like her comrades-in-arms, the Church and the King himself, she abandoned La Pucelle to the English, to Cauchon, to her trial and to the stake. For more: Gérard de Senneville, Yolande d’Aragon : La reine qui a gagné la guerre de Cent Ans, Editions Perrin)
  2. Georges Bordonove, Jacques Coeur, trésorier de Charles VII, p. 90, Editions Pygmalion, 1977).
  3. Description given by the great chronicler of the Dukes of Burgundy, Georges Chastellain (1405-1475), in Remontrances à la reine d’Angleterre.
  4. Jean Bureau was Charles VII’s grand master of artillery. On the occasion of his coronation in 1461, Louis XI knighted him and made him a member of the King’s Council. Louis XI stayed at Jean Bureau’s Porcherons house in northwest Paris after his solemn entry into the capital. Jean Bureau’s daughter Isabelle married Geoffroy Coeur, son of Jacques.
  5. Leonardo Bruni succeeded Coluccio Salutati as Chancellor of Florence, having joined his circle of scholars, which included Poggio Bracciolini and the erudite Niccolò Niccoli, to discuss the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio. Bruni was one of the first to study Greek literature, and contributed greatly to the study of Latin and ancient Greek, offering translations of Aristotle, Plutarch, Demosthenes, Plato and Aeschylus.
  6. Niccolò Niccoli built up one of the most famous libraries in Florence, and one of the most prestigious of the Italian Renaissance. He was assisted by Ambrogio Traversari in his work on Greek texts (a language he did not master). He bequeathed this library to the Florentine Republic on condition that it be made available to the public. Cosimo the Elder de’ Medici was entrusted with implementing this condition, and the library was entrusted to the Dominican convent of San Marco. Today, the library is part of the Laurentian Library.
  7. Prior General of the Camaldolese Order, Ambrogio Traversari was, along with Jean Bessarion, one of the authors of the decree of church union. According to the Urbino court historian Vespasiano de Bisticci, Traversari gathered in his convent at San Maria degli Angeli near Florence. There, Traversari brought together the heart of the humanist network: Nicolaus Cusanus; Niccolo Niccoli, who owned an immense library of Platonic manuscripts; Gianozzi Manetti, orator of the first Oration on the Dignity of Man; Aeneas Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II; and Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, the physician-cartographer and future friend of Leonardo da Vinci, whom Piero della Francesca also frequented.
  8. Philosophically speaking, reminding the whole of Christendom of the primordial importance of the concept of the filioque, literally « and of the son », meaning that the Holy Spirit (divine love) came not only from the Father (infinite potential) but also from the Son (its realization, through his son Jesus, in whose living image every human being had been created), was a revolution. Man, the life of every man and woman, is precious because it is animated by a divine spark that makes it sacred. This high conception of each individual was reflected in the relationship between human beings and their relationship with nature, i.e., the physical economy.

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The Congress for Cultural Freedom: How the CIA « weaponized » Modern Art

Painting of Jackson Pollock

This article, first published in 2006, came as a book review of the book Who Paid the Piper of British researcher Frances Stonor Saunder, published in French Article under the title Qui mène la danse? La CIA et la guerre froide culturelle, 506 pages, Editions Denoël, Paris, 2003.

This book, which caused a stir in Germany, England and the Hispanic world, is literally appalling. Not only for what it reveals, but above all for what it leaves unsaid.

After years of meticulous research, interviews and archival work, the young writer Frances Stonor Saunders, producer of historical documentaries for the BBC, delivers an uncompromising account of the Anglo-American cultural Cold War against the Soviet Union from 1947 onwards.

Congress for Cultural Freedom

At the heart of this secret « Kulturkampf », a veritable cultural Cold War, was the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), headed from 1950 to 1967 by CIA agent Michael Josselson.

Josselson, who spoke four languages, along with music composer Nicholas Nabokov, was a former member of the psychological warfare division of the Office for Strategic Services (OSS), which US President Harry Truman replaced with the CIA in 1945.

The first thing that strikes the reader is the analogy between the language of the Cold War and the narrative of today’s war hawks to justify a new crusade « against terrorism. »

Back then, under the guise of a merciless struggle against the horrors of Stalinism, the Anglo-American imperial faction deployed whole swathes of the CIA in an attempt to impose Bertrand Russell‘s utopian vision of « world government. »

From left to right: Raymond Aron and his wife Suzanne, Michael Josselson of the CIA and Denis de Rougemont promotor of regionalism.

The CIA described itself as an « Order of Knights Templar » charged with « saving Western freedom from Communist darkness ». Its principal theoretician was George Kennan, Director of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department.

Like the « Noble Lies » employed today by the neo-conservatives, followers of Leo Strauss, Kennan asserted in 1947 that the Communists had gained a position of prominence in Europe,

« through the shameless and skillful use of lies. They fought us with the weapon of unreality and irrationalism. Can we triumph over this unreality with rationalism, truth, honest and well-intentioned economic assistance? »

Obviously not! And the most formidable weapon for world domination will be, as always: the soft power of « culture ».

Indeed, « you can’t be a great power if you don’t have the art to go with it, it’s like Venice without Tintoretto or Florence without Giotto ».

So, ironically, while American public opinion was held hostage by the McCarthyite psychosis for whom « all modern art is communist », to the point of suspecting certain abstract paintings of indicating the exact location of American military bases (sic), the oligarchs saw in « lyrical abstract » expressionism the virtues of a specifically anti-communist ideology.

By a simple logic of inversion, everything that Nazis and Stalinists considered « degenerate art » automatically became emblematic of the values of freedom and free enterprise, and therefore got massively financed… in the greatest secrecy.

With a wealth of detail, the author documents the mesh of this operation over some five hundred pages. It is, of course, impossible to summarize here the descriptions of the lives of dozens of men, women, musicians, authors, magazines, networks and foundations, each page of which delivers a few pearls.

Some of the details shed a special light on contemporary French history.

The CIA in Paris

From left to right: Arthur Koestler, Irving Brown and James Burnham.

In Paris, it was Irving Brown (1911-1989), a representative of the powerful AFL-CIO union (with free access to secret Marshall Plan funds), who offered the CCF in Paris a suite in the Hôtel Baltimore on Avenue Kléber to set up its temporary headquarters, before paying the rent for a permanent office on Boulevard Haussmann.

On behalf of his boss Jay Lovestone (1897-1990), himself a helper of the CIA’s James Jesus Angleton, Irving Brown financed anything that might weaken France’s resistance to the utopia of world government, i.e. anything that might harm Gaullism and, to a certain extent, Communism.

Josselson and his wife met him quite often in a gay bar, « L’Indifférent ». One evening, they find him handing over a large sum of money to a Marseille mobster. A fan of the big boys, Brown was heavily involved in anything that could reduce the influence of the Communists.

It was from that perspective that he helped former members of the Vichy government, as well as Trotskyites. He controlled French ports, broke strikes and financed the new Force Ouvrière union to split the CGT communist union, all the while promoting modern art!*

Alongside Irving Brown, the CCF board included Michael Josselson, Lawrence de Neufville (his CIA recruiter, later appointed to Radio Free Europe), Arthur Koestler, Melvin Lasky, former Trotskyist James Burnham, as well as Carlo Schmid of the German SPD, Haakon Lie, leader of the Norwegian Labour Party, and David Rousset of the French Parti Socialiste.

In his book The Machiavellians, Burnham used Machiavelli to « challenge egalitarian political theory and show the persistence and inescapability of the elite, even in an age of equality ».

In 1953, Burnham played a crucial role in the CIA’s Operation AJAX, which overthrew Dr. Mossadegh in Teheran and replaced him with the Shah.

Later, « more presentable » funding sources than Irving Brown came into play: CIA front organizations such as the Farfield Foundation, headed by Julius Fleischman, or the Hoblitzelle Foundation, but also classics like the Ford, Carnegie or Rockefeller brothers’ foundations.

Thanks to these generous donors, the CCF made millions of dollars available to literary magazines such as

  • Encounter, edited by former Trotskyite Irving Kristol (father of current neo-conservative William Kristol) in London;
  • Preuves, edited in Paris by François Bondy of the European Union of Federalists;
  • Der Monat, edited by Melvin Lasky in Berlin;
  • Tempo Presente, edited by Ignazio Silone in Rome;
  • Soviet Survey, edited in Israel by historian Walter Laqueur.

After the OSS’s (reciprocal) expressions of sympathy for Hemingway or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, these magazines opened their columns to authors such as Jorge-Louis Borges, Raymond Aron, Arnold Toynbee, Bertrand Russell, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Herbert Read or Hugh Trevor-Roper, or contributed to the publication of their writings.

In 1950, the CIA commissioned the production of a cartoon based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm (real name Eric Blair).

Also in Paris, CIA man Peter Matthiessen helped found the Paris Review run by John Train, a far-right liberal New York billionaire.

CIA Culture

Destruction of the well tempered music

The CCF also financed major musical events to promote « modern » twelve-tone serialism (dodecaphony), such as the April 1952 festival organized by Nicolas Nabokov in Paris.

Nabokov believed that « dodecaphony abolishes natural hierarchies » and allows us to free ourselves from the internal logic of music.

Anne C. Shreffler argues that the « compositional avant-garde » was politicized more by its advocacy of personal freedom than by political influence. Shreffler goes on to argue that both the Soviet Union and the United States sent out messages that dealt with « freedom. » However, Western Europe and the United States claimed a « moral high ground » in the struggle for individual freedom, a high ground that made certain artistic aesthetics (e.g., cubism, surrealism, dodecaphony, and existentialism) almost « obligatory » for artists.

The promotion of « liberated » music as a counterpoint to « Social Realism« , which essentially « marginalized » the populist Soviet musical aesthetic, was explicitly a politically calculated move by the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

The festival opened with « The Rite of Spring » of Igor Stravinsky, new convert to twelve-tone dodecaphonic system.

Among the participants from the USA: Leontyne Price, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, the New York City Ballet (Balanchine‘s troupe), the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), James T. Farrell, W.H. Auden and Gertrude Stein.

European participants included Jean Cocteau, William Walton, Laurence Olivier, Benjamin Britten, the Vienna Opera, Covent Garden Opera, Czeslaw Milosz, Denis de Rougemont and Guido Piovene, to name but a few.

Appointed Eisenhower’s special advisor on Cold War strategy, American Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller played a fundamental role in promoting the CIA’s modernist painting. Supporting left-wing artists practicing abstract expressionism was commonplace for the Rockefellers.

Nelson’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, had founded the Museum of Modern Art in New York – the Modern Art Museum (MoMA) – asserting that reds would stop being reds « if we gave them artistic recognition ». Several MoMA trustees were also trustees of the Farfield Foundation, as indicated, a CIA front.

As Donald Jameson of the CIA put it:

« We understood that this was the kind of art that has nothing to do with social realism and makes it even more stylized, rigid and confined than it was. »

MoMA bought works by Diego Riviera, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Alexander Calder, Robert Motherwell, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper and others.

By attributing the « success » of an impressive number of contemporary cultural actors to the will of an imperial elite, motivated by a more than suspect ideological blindness and endowed, what’s more, with unparalleled financial resources and communication strategies, Stonor Saunders’ book immediately casts deep discredit on all post-war artistic creation.

Most of these « artists » were chosen because they conveyed an ideology deemed compatible with the totalitarian designs of the high priests of world order.

Only the reactionary Peregrine Worsthorne titles his book review of Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper, « How Western Culture was saved by the CIA », nostalgically lamenting the Machiavellian genius of the Anglo-American elite in its heyday.

Of course, some artists weren’t necessarily aware of the source of the funds, but they all expected them to fill their pockets… And perhaps most shockingly of all, the CIA took art more seriously than many citizens or critics of the time.

So, perhaps this survey does posthumous justice to all those talents sacrificed on the altar of illusory power. Think of all those crushed hopes, sabotaged careers and stifled seeds of genius. For in this delirious tournament of the Cold War, the great priesthood ruling over the art world would only saddle those willing to bend the knee, while with a wave of the hand, send others to the deadly silence of oblivion.


*In his book Les Trotskistes (Fayard, 2002), Christophe Nick states, with regard to the non-communist student union UNEF, that at one time, « thanks to Irwing Brown‘s good offices, the U.S. Embassy was able to cover the student union’s end-of-month budgets ».
In Secrets de famille (Fayard, Paris 2001), Serge Raffy reveals that « Lionel Jospin, then First Secretary of the Socialist Party, met in Washington on April 14, 1982 with leaders of the American AFL-CIO union to reassure them that the Mauroy government would include Communist ministers. The man who organized the meeting was a CIA agent, Irving Brown, the same man who founded and financed the French trade union Force Ouvrière to combat the Communist CGT financed by Soviet Russia. Irving Brown is also said to have constantly maintained links between the Trotskyites, and in particular the OCI, and FO. »

On the right, the student union, Union Inter-Universitaire (UNI), which made the career of so many politicians on the right, was also backed by CIA agent of influence Irving Brown and received $575,000 between April 1984 and April 1985 from the government of the United States through the National Endowment for Democracy.

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Van Eyck, a Flemish Painter using Arab Optics?

What follows is an edited transcript of a lecture by Karel Vereycken on the subject of “Perspective in XVth-century Flemish religious painting”.

It was delivered at the international colloquium “La recherche du divin à travers l’espace géométrique” (The quest for the divine through geometrical space) at the Paris Sorbonne University on April 26-28, 2006, under the direction of Luc Bergmans, Department of Dutch Studies (Paris IV Sorbonne University).


« Perspective in XVth-century Flemish religious painting ». At first glance, this title may seem surprising. While the genius of fifteenth-century Flemish painters is universally attributed to their mastery of drying oil and their intricate sense of detail, their spatial geometry as such is usually identified as the very counter-example of the “right perspective”.

Disdained by Michelangelo and his faithful friend Vasari, the Flemish « primitives » would never have overcome the medieval, archaic and empirical model. For the classical “narritive”, still in force today, stipulates that only « Renaissance » perspective, obeying the canon of « linear », “mathematical” perspective, is the only « right », and the “scientific” one.

According to the same narrative, it was the research carried out around 1415-20 by the Duomo architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), superficially mentioned by Antonio Tuccio di Manetti some 60 years later, which supposedly enabled Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), proclaiming himself Brunelleschi’s intellectual heir, to invent « perspective ».

Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Madrid II, examination of the Albertian model

In 1435, in De Pictura, a book entirely devoid of graphic illustration, Alberti is said to have formulated the premises of a perspectivist canon capable of representing, or at least conforming to, our modern notions of Cartesian space-time (NOTE 1), a space-time characterized as « entirely rational, i.e. infinite, continuous and homogeneous », « in one word, a purely mathematical space [dixit Panofsky] » (NOTE 2)

Long afterwards, in a drawing from the Codex Madrid, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) attempted to unravel the workings of this model.

But in the same manuscript, he rigorously demonstrated the inherent limitations of the Albertian Renaissance perspectivist canon.

Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Madrid II, f°15, v°, critical examination of the Albertian system.

The drawing on f°15, v° clearly shows that the simple projection of visual pyramid cross-sections on a plane paradoxically causes their size to increase the further they are from the point of vision, whereas reality would require exactly the opposite. (NOTE 3)

With this in mind, Leonardo began to question the mobility of the eye and the curvilinear nature of the retina. Refusing to immobilize the viewer on an exclusive point of vision (NOTE 4), Leonardo used curvilinear constructions to correct these lateral deformations. (NOTE 5) In France, Jean Fouquet and others worked along the same lines.

But Leonardo’s powerful arguments were ignored, and he was unable to prevent this rewriting of history.

Despite this official version of art history, it should be noted that at the time, Flemish painters were elevated to pinnacles by Italy’s greatest patrons and art connoisseurs, specifically for their ability to represent space.

Bartolomeo Fazio, around the middle of the 15th century, observed that the paintings of Jan van Eyck, an artist billed as the « principal painter of our time », showed « tiny figures of men, mountains, groves, villages and castles rendered with such skill that one would think them fifty thousand paces apart. » (NOTE 6)

Such was their reputation that some of the great names in Italian painting had no qualms about reproducing Flemish works identically. I’m thinking, for example, of the copy of Hans Memlinc‘s Christ Crowned with Thorns at the Genoa Museum, copied by Domenico Ghirlandajo (Philadelphia Museum).

But post-Michelangelo classicism deemed the non-conformity of Flemish spatial geometry with Descartes’ « extended substance » to be an unforgivable crime, and any deviation from, or insubordination to, the « Renaissance » perspectivist canon relegated them to the category of « primitives », i.e. « empiricists », clearly devoid of any scientific culture.

Today, ironically, it is almost exclusively those artists who explicitly renounce all forms of perspectivist construction in favor of pseudo-naïveté, who earn the label of modernity…

Robert Campin, Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1427)

In any case, current prejudices mean that 15th-century Flemish painting is still accused of having ignored perspective.

It’s true, however, that at the end of the XIVth century, certain paintings by Melchior Broederlam (c. 1355-1411) and others by Robert Campin (1375-1444) (Master of Flémalle) show the viewer interiors where plates and cutlery on tables threaten to suddenly slide to the floor.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that whenever the artist « ignores » or disregards the linear perspective scheme, he seems to do so more by choice than by incapacity. To achieve a limpid composition, the painter prioritizes his didactic mission to the detriment of all other considerations.

For example, in Campin’s Mérode Altarpiece, the exaggerated perspective of the table clearly shows that the vase is behind the candlestick and book.

Jan van Eyck, central panel of the Lam Gods [Mystic Lamb], (1432).
Robert Campin, detail of shadows, Merod Altarpiece (c. 1427)

Jan van Eyck’s Lam Gods (Mystic Lamb) in Ghent is another example.

Never could so many figures, with so much detail and presence, be shown with a linear perspective where the figures in the foreground would hide those behind. (NOTE 7)

But the intention to approximate a credible sense of space and depth remains.

If this perspective seems flawed by its linear geometry, Campin imposes an extraordinary sense of space through his revolutionary treatment of shadows. As every painter knows, light is painted by painting shadow.

In Campin’s work, every object and figure is exposed to several sources of light, generating a darker central shadow as the fruit of crossed shadows.

Van Eyck influenced by Arab Optics?

Roger Bacon, statue in Oxord.

This new treatment of light-space has been largely ignored. However, there are several indications that this new conception was partly the result of the influence of « Arab » science, in particular its work on optics.

Translated into Latin and studied from the XIIth century onwards, their work was developed in particular by a network of Franciscans whose epicenter was in Oxford (Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, etc.) and whose influence spread to Chartres, Paris, Cologne and the rest of Europe.

It should be noted that Jan van Eyck (1395-1441), an emblematic figure of Flemish painting, was ambassador to Paris, Prague, Portugal and England.

I’ll briefly mention three elements that support this hypothesis of the influence of Arab science.

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini couple (1434)

Curved mirrors

Robert Campin, detail of the left panel of the Werl triptych (c. 1438)

Robert Campin (master of Flémalle) in the Werl Triptych (1438) and Jan van Eyck in the Arnolfini portrait (1434), each feature convex mirrors of considerable size.

It is now certain that glaziers and mirror-makers were full members of the Saint Luc guild, the painters’ guild. (NOTE 8)

But it is relevant to know that Campin, now recognized as having run the workshop in Tournai where the painters Van der Weyden and Jacques Daret were trained, produced paintings for the Franciscans in this city. Heinrich Werl, who commissioned the altarpiece featuring the convex mirror, was an eminent Franciscan theologian who taught at the University of Cologne.

Artistic representation of Ibn Al-Haytam (Alhazen)

These convex and concave (or ardent) mirrors were much studied during the Arab renaissance of the IXth to XIth centuries, in particular by the Arab philosopher Al-Kindi (801-873) in Baghdad at the time of Charlemagne.

Arab scientists were not only in possession of the main body of Hellenic work on optics (Euclid‘s Optics, Ptolemy‘s Optics, the works of Heron of Alexandria, Anthemius of Tralles, etc.), but it was sometimes the rigorous refutation of this heritage that was to give science its wings.

After the decisive work of Ibn Sahl (Xth century), it was that of Ibn Al-Haytam (Latin name : Alhazen) (NOTE 9) on the nature of light, lenses and spherical mirrors that was to have a major influence. (NOTE 10)

Robert Grosseteste, illustration from De Natura Locorum, refraction of light in a spherical glass filled with water

As mentioned above, these studies were taken up by the Oxford Franciscans, starting with the English bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253).

In De Natura Locorum, for example, Grosseteste shows a diagram of the refraction of light in a spherical glass filled with water. And in his De Iride he marvels at this science which he connexts to perspective :

« This part of optics, so well understood, shows us how to make very distant things appear as if they were situated very near, and how we can make small things situated at a distance appear to the size we desire, so that it becomes possible for us to read the smallest letters from incredible distances, or to count sand, or grains, or any small object.« 

Annonciation (detail), painting of Rogier van der Weyden (or his workshop). The spherical vessel filled with water, letting through the light, is a metaphore of the immaculate conception.

Grosseteste’s pupil Roger Bacon (1212-1292) wrote De Speculis Comburentibus, a specific treatise on « Ardent Mirrors » which elaborates on Ibn Al-Haytam‘s work.

Flemish painters Campin, Van Eyck and Van der Weyden proudly display their knowledge of this new scientific and technological revolution metamorphosed into Christian symbolisms.

Their paintings feature not only curved mirrors but also glass bottles, which they use as a metaphor for the immaculate conception.

A Nativity hymn of that period says:

« As through glass the ray passed without breaking it, so of the Virgin Mother, Virgin she was and virgin she remained… » (NOTE 11)

The Treatment of Light

In his Discourse on Light, Ibn Al-Haytam develops his theory of light propagation in extremely poetic language, setting out requirements that remind us of the « Eyckian revolution ». Indeed, Flemish « realism » and perspective are the result of a new treatment of light and color.

Ibn Al-Haytam:

« The light emitted by a luminous body by itself -substantial light- and the light emitted by an illuminated body -accidental light- propagate on the bodies surrounding them. Opaque bodies can be illuminated and then in turn emit light. »

Jan van Eyck, Madonna to Canon van der Paele (1436)

This physical principle, theorized by Leonardo da Vinci, is omnipresent in Flemish painting. Just look at the images reflected in the helmet of St. George in Van Eyck‘s Madonna to Canon van der Paele (NOTE 12).

In each curved surface of Saint George’s helmet, we can identify the reflection of the Virgin and even a window through which light enters the painting.

The shining shield on St. George’s back reflects the base of the adjacent column, and the painter’s portrait appears as a signature. Only a knowledge of the optics of curved surfaces can explain this rendering.

Ibn Al-Haytam:

« Light can penetrate transparent bodies: water, air, crystal and their counterparts. »

And :

« Transparent bodies have, like opaque bodies, a ‘receiving power’ for light, but transparent bodies also have a ‘transmitting power’ for light.« 

Isn’t the development of oil mediums and glazes by the Flemish an echo of this research? Alternating opaque and translucent layers on very smooth panels, the specificity of the oil medium alters the angle of light refraction.

In 1559, the painter-poet Lucas d’Heere referred to van Eyck‘s paintings as « mirrors, not painted scenes.« 

Binocular perspective

Diagram of binocular vision, Witelo, Perspectiva, III, 37.

Before the advent of « right » central linear perspective, art historians sought a coherent explanation for its birth in the presence of several seemingly disparate vanishing points by theorizing a so-called central « fishbone » perspective.

In this model, a number of vanishing lines, instead of coinciding in a single central vanishing point on the horizon, either end up in a « vanishing region » (NOTE 13), or align with what some call a vertical « vanishing axis », forming a kind of « fishbone ».

French Professor Dominique Raynaud, who worked for years on this issue, underscores that « all medieval treatises on perspective address the question of binocular vision », notably the Polish scholar Witelo (1230-1280) (NOTE 15) in his Perspectiva (I,27), an insight he also got from the works of Ibn Al-Haytam.

Witelo presents a figure to defend the idea that

« the two forms, which penetrate two homologous points of the surface of the two eyes, arrive at the same point of the concavity of the common nerve, and are superimposed at this point to become one » (Perspectiva, III, 37).

A similar line of reasoning can be found in Roger Bacon‘s Perspectiva Communis, written by John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury (1240-1290) for whom:

« the duality of the eyes must be reduced to unity »

So, as Professor Raynaud proposed, if we extend the famous vanishing lines (i.e., in our case, the « fish bones ») until they intersect, the « vanishing axis » problem disappears, as the vanishing lines meet. Interestingly, the result is a perspective with two vanishing points in the central region!

The « primitive » « fishbone perspective » (left), in reality hides a sophisticated binocular perspective construction that Panofsky refused to see.

Suddenly, the diagrams drawn up to demonstrate the « empiricism » of the Flemish painters, if viewed from this point of view, reveal a legitimate construction probably based on optics as transmitted by Arab science and rediscovered by Franciscan networks and others.

Two paintings by Jan van Eyck clearly demonstrate that he followed this approach: The Madonna with Canon van der Paele of 1436 and the Dresden Tryptic of 1437.

Jan Van Eyck, Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436)
Jan van Eyck, central panel of the Dresden Triptych (1437).

What seemed a clumsy, empirical approach in the form of a « fishbone » perspective (left) turns out to be a binocular perspective construction.

Was this type of perspective specifically Flemish?

A close examination of works by Ghiberti, Donatello and Paolo Uccello, generally dating from the first half of the XVth Century, reveals a mastery of the same principle.


But this whole demonstration is merely a look into the past through the eyes of modern scientific rationality. It would be a grave error not to take into account the immense influence of the Rhenish (Master Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, Heinrich Suso) and Flemish (Hadewijch of Antwerp, Jan van Ruusbroec, etc.) « mystics ».

This trend began to flourish again with the rediscovery of the Christianized neo-Platonism of Dionysius the Areopagite (Vth-VIth century), made accessible… by the new translations of the Franciscan Grosseteste in Oxford.

The spiritual vision of the Aeropagite, expressed in a powerful imagery language, is directly reminiscent of the metaphorical approach of the Flemish painters, for whom a certain type of light is simply the revelation of divine grace.

In On the Heavenly Hierarchy, Dionysius immediately presents light as a manifestation of divine goodness. It ennobles us and enables us to enlighten others:

« Let those who are illuminated be filled with divine clarity, and the eyes of their understanding trained to the work of chaste contemplation; finally, let those who are perfected, once their primitive imperfection has been abolished, share in the sanctifying science of the marvelous teachings that have already been manifested to them; similarly, let the purifier excel in the purity he communicates to others; let the illuminator, gifted with a greater penetration of spirit, equally fit to receive and transmit light, happily flooded with sacred splendor, pour it out in pressing streams on those who are worthy…  » [Chap. III, 3]

Let’s think again of the St. George in Van Eyck‘s Madonna to Canon van der Paele, which indeed pours forth the multiple images of the Virgin who enlightens him.

This theo-philosophical trend reached full maturity in the work of Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa (Cusanus) (1401-1464) (NOTE 16), embodying the extremely fruitful encounter of this « negative theology » with Greek science, Socratic knowledge and Christian Humanism.

Face of Christ.

In contrast to both a science « without a hypothesis of God » and a metaphysics with an esoteric drift, an agapic love leads it to the education of the greatest number, to the defense of the weak and the humiliated.

The Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, educating Erasmus of Rotterdam and inspiring Cusanus, are the best example of this.

But let’s sketch out some of Cusanus’ key ideas on painting.

In De Icona (The Vision of God) (1453), which he sent to the Benedictine monks of the Tegernsee, Cusanus condenses his fundamental work On Learned Ignorance (1440), in which he develops the concept of the coincidence of opposites. His starting point was a self-portrait of his friend « Roger », the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden, which he sent together with his sermon to the monks.

This self-portrait, like the multiple faces of Christ painted in the XVth century, uses an « optical illusion » to create the effect of a gaze that fixes the viewer, regardless of his or her position in front of the altarpiece.

In De Icona, written as a sermon, Cusanus asks monks to stand in a semicircle around the painting and watch this gaze pursue them as they move along the segment of the curve. In fact, he elaborates a pedagogical paradox based on the fact that the Greek name for God, Theos, has its etymological origin in the verb theastai (to see, to look at).

As you can see, he says, God looks at you personally, and his gaze follows you everywhere. He is therefore one and many. And even when you turn away from him, his gaze falls on you. So, miraculously, although he looks at everyone at the same time, he nevertheless establishes a personal relationship with each one. If « seeing » for God is « loving », God’s point of vision is infinite, omniscient and omnipotent love.

Arnolfini portrait (detail), Van Eyck, 1434.

A parallel can be drawn here with the spherical mirror at the center of Jan van Eyck’s painting The Arnolfini portrait, painted in 1434, nineteen years before this sermon.

Firstly, this circular mirror is surrounded by the ten stations of Christ’s Passion, juxtaposed by a rosary, an explicit reference to God.

Secondly, it reveals a view of the entire room, an image that completely escapes the linear perspective of the foreground. A view comparable to the allcompassing « Vision of God » developed by Cusanus.

Finally, we see two figures in the mirror, but not the image of the painter behind his easel. These are undoubtedly the two witnesses to the wedding. Instead of signing his painting with « Van Eyck invent. », the painter signed his painting above the mirror with « Van Eyck was here » (NOTE 17), identifying himself as a witness.

As Dionysius the Aeropagite asserted:

« [the celestial hierarchy] transforms its adepts into so many images of God: pure and splendid mirrors where the eternal and ineffable light can shine, and which, according to the desired order, reflect liberally on inferior things this borrowed brightness with which they shine. » [Chap. III, 2]

The Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec (1293-1381) evokes a very similar image in his Spiegel der eeuwigher salicheit (Mirror of eternal salvation) when he says:

« Ende Hi heeft ieghewelcs mensche ziele gescapen alse eenen levenden spieghel, daer Hi dat Beelde sijnre natueren in gedruct heeft. » (And he created each human soul as a living mirror, in which he imprinted the image of his nature).

And so, like a polished mirror, Van Eyck’s soul, illuminated and living in God’s truth, acts as an illuminating witness to this union. (NOTE 18)

So, although the Flemish painters of the XVth century clearly had a solid scientific foundation, they choose such or such perspective depending on the idea they wanted to convey.

In essence, their paintings remain objects of theo-philosophical speculation or as you like « intellectual prayer », capable of praising the goodness, beauty and magnificence of a Creator who created them in His own image. By the very nature of their approach, their interest lay above all in the geometry of a kind of « paradoxical space-light » capable, through enigma, of opening us up to a participatory transcendence, rather than simply seeking to « represent » a dead space existing outside metaphysical reality.

The only geometry worthy of interest was that which showed itself capable of articulating this non-linearity, a « divine » or « mystical » perspective capable of linking the infinite beauty of our commensurable microcosm with the immeasurable goodness of the macrocosm.

Thank you,


  1. Recently, Italian scholars have pointed to the role of Biagio Pelacani Da Parma (d. 1416), a professor at the University of Padua near Venice, in imposing such a perspective, which privileged only the « geometrical laws of the act of vision and the rules of mathematical calculation ».
  2. Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, p.41-42, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1975.
  3. Institut de France, Manuscrit E, 16 v° « the eye [h] perceives on the plane wall the images of distant objects greater than that of the nearer object. »
  4. Leonardo understands that Albertian perspective, like anamorphosis, condemns the viewer to a single, immobile point of vision.
  5. See, for example, the slight enlargement of the apostles at the ends of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in the Milan refectory.
  6. Baxandall, Bartholomaeus Facius on painting, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 27, (1964). Fazio is also enthusiastic about a world map (now lost) by Jan van Eyck, in which all the places and regions of the earth are depicted recognizably and at measurable distances.
  7. To escape this fate, Pieter Bruegel the Elder used a cavalier perspective, placing his horizon line high up.
  8. Lionel Simonot, Etude expérimentale et modélisation de la diffusion de la lumière dans une couche de peinture colorée et translucide. Application à l’effet visuel des glacis et des vernis, p.9 (PhD thesis, Nov. 2002).
  9. Ibn Al-Haytam (Alhazen) (965-1039) wrote some 200 works on mathematics, astronomy, physics, medicine and philosophy. Born in Basra, after working on the development of the Nile in Egypt, he travelled to Spain. He is said to have carried out a series of highly detailed experiments on theoretical and experimental optics, including the camera obscura (darkroom), work that was later to feature in Leonardo da Vinci’s studies. Da Vinci may well have read the lengthy passages by Alhazen that appear in the Commentari of the Florentine sculptor Ghiberti. According to Gerbert d’Aurillac (the future Pope Sylvester II in 999), Bishop of Rheims, brought back from Spain the decimal system with its zero and an astrolabe, it was thanks to Gerard of Cremona (1114-c. 1187) that Europe gained access to Greek, Jewish and Arabic science. This scholar went to Toledo in 1175 to learn Arabic, and translated some 80 scientific works from Arabic into Latin, including Ptolemy’s Almagest, Apollonius’ Conics, several treatises by Aristotle, Avicenna‘s Canon, and the works of Ibn Al-Haytam, Al-Kindi, Thabit ibn Qurra and Al-Razi.
  10. In the Arab world, this research was taken up a century later by the Persian physicist Al-Farisi (1267-1319). He wrote an important commentary on Alhazen’s Treatise on Optics. Using a drop of water as a model, and based on Alhazen’s theory of double refraction in a sphere, he gave the first correct explanation of the rainbow. He even suggested the wave-like property of light, whereas Alhazen had studied light using solid balls in his reflection and refraction experiments. The question was now: does light propagate by undulation or by particle transport?
  11. Meiss, M., Light as form and symbol in some fifteenth century paintings, Art Bulletin, XVIII, 1936, p. 434.
  12. Note also the fact that the canon shows a pair of glasses…
  13. Brion-Guerry in Jean Pèlerin Viator, sa place dans l’histoire de la perspective, Belles Lettres, 1962, p. 94-96, states in obscure language that « the object of representation behaves most often in Van Eyck as a cubic volume seen from the front and from the inside. Perspectival foreshortening is achieved by constructing a rectangle whose sides form the base of four trapezoids. The orthogonals thus tend towards four distinct points of convergence, forming a ‘vanishing region' ».
  14. Dominique Raynaud, L’Hypothèse d’Oxford, essai sur les origines de la perpective, PUF, Paris 1998.
  15. Witelo was a friend of the Flemish Dominican scholar Willem van Moerbeke, a translator of Archimedes in contact with Saint Thomas Aquinas. Moerbeke was also in contact with the mathematician Jean Campanus and the Flemish neo-Platonic astronomer Hendrik Bate van Mechelen. Johannes Kepler‘s own work on human vision builds on that of Witelo.
  16. Cusanus was above all a man of science and theology. But he was also a political organizer. The painter Jan van Eyck fought for the same goals, as evidenced by the ecumenical theme of the Ghent polyptych. It shows the Mystic Lamb, symbolizing the sacrifice of the Son of God for the redemption of mankind, capable of reuniting a church torn apart by internal differences. Hence the presence of the three popes in the central panel, here united before the lamb. Van Eyck also painted a portrait of Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, one of the instigators of the great Ecumenical Council organized by Cusanus in Ferrara and then moved to Florence. If Cusanus called Van der Weyden « his friend Roger », it is also thought that Robert Campin may have met him, since he would have attended the Council of Basel, as did one of his commissioners, the Franciscan theologian Heinrich Werl.
  17. Jan Van Eyck was one of the first painters in the history of art to date and sign his paintings with his own name.
  18. Myriam Greilsammer’s book L’Envers du tableau, Mariage et Maternité en Flandre Médiévale (Editions Armand Colin, 1990) documents Arnolfini’s sexual escapades. Arnolfini was taken to court by one of his victims, a female servant. Van Eyck seems to have understood that the knightly Arnoult Fin, Lucchese financier and commercial representative of the House of Medici in Bruges, required the somewhat peculiar presence of the eye of the lord.
Merci de partager !

Et si on corrigeait les erreurs de Marx?

Transcription éditée de la présentation de Karel Vereycken, 14 juin 2018.

Chers amies et amis, bonjour,

Ce soir je vais vous amener sur la planète Marx, la planète rouge ! Non pas parce qu’il y a quelques métaux rares à ramasser mais simplement parce qu’à partir de cette planète vous allez mieux voir ce qu’il se passe sur terre !

Vous allez aussi mieux comprendre pourquoi l’économiste américain Lyndon LaRouche (1922-2019), qui est depuis quarante ans l’inspirateur de notre mouvance au niveau international, a fait de Karl Marx (1818-1883) son « point de départ » pour élaborer sa propre contribution à la science économique, en partant d’une réfutation de tout ce que Marx a de gravement problématique dans sa conception de l’homme et de l’économie.

Alors que tout le monde disait qu’on avait enterré le vieux barbu en 1991, après la dislocation de l’Union soviétique, le voici de retour et en pleine forme, surtout depuis la crise de 2008 ! Voyons ensemble si c’est une bonne ou une moins bonne nouvelle.

Enfin, il y a des prétextes plus immédiats :

  1. 2018, année du bicentenaire de sa naissance.
  2. Sur la crise financière, Marx a vu juste, nous disent certains. Une note de février 2018 de l’économiste Patrick Artus pour la banque Natixis a surpris ses lecteurs. Dans ce document intitulé « La dynamique du capitalisme est aujourd’hui bien celle qu’avait prévue Karl Marx », l’économiste observe, dans les pays de l’OCDE, la succession d’évolutions que Karl Marx avait déjà anticipées : baisse tendancielle du profit, compression des salaires, spéculations boursières… Or, si les banquiers nous disent que Marx avait raison, il y a un problème, soit chez les banquiers, soit chez Marx, soit chez les deux… On va regarder ça.
  3. Certaines pensées de Marx sont toujours vivaces dans les esprits : la lutte des classes perdure et certains nous disent que « puisque les capitalistes ramassent des profits record, prenons l’argent là où il est », ou bien : « La crise, quelle crise ? Il n’y a pas de crise ! les riches deviennent plus riches et les pauvres plus pauvres, c’est la nature même du capitalisme », ou encore : « La régulation ne sert à rien, il faut changer de système. »

Bicentenaire de Marx, mini-bio

Hegel devant ses élèves

Karl Heinrich Marx est né à Trèves en 1818, c’est-à-dire il y a 200 ans. Son père, un avocat issu d’une famille de marchands et de rabbins, s’est converti au protestantisme pour exercer sa profession.

Après avoir étudié à Bonn, Karl obtient son doctorat en philosophie à Iéna.

Le philosophe allemand Hegel meurt du choléra en novembre 1831. Ses élèves et disciples se divisent en hégéliens de droite (conservateurs) et hégéliens de gauche, qui retiennent son message révolutionnaire.

Réunion d’un club d’hégéliens à Berlin, dessin de Friedrich Engels.

A Berlin, Marx fréquente les clubs d’hégéliens « de gauche » et y adhère. Considéré comme des fauteurs de troubles potentiels, ils n’ont pas la faveur du régime. Marx, hégélien de gauche et juif, se voit empêché d’exercer sa profession de professeur d’université.

En 1842, comme alternative, il devient alors journaliste et crée à Cologne La Gazette rhénane, dont il est le rédacteur en chef à l’âge de 24 ans. Jeune journaliste, il milite pour la liberté de la presse et défend le libre-échange. Alors que sous l’Empire français, les libertés individuelles avaient progressé en Rhénanie, c’en est fini depuis l’occupation des Prussiens.

Marx et Engels, éditeur et journaliste.

Ainsi, en 1843, bien que Marx démissionne de son poste, son journal est fermé.

Jenny von Westphalen, contre l’avis de sa famille aristocratique, se marie avec Marx la même année. Ils auront sept enfants. Avec sa femme, Marx part en exil en France, où il rencontre le poète Heinrich Heine, lui aussi fâché avec les Prussiens.

Il y rencontre également un autre hégélien de gauche, l’allemand Friedrich Engels installé en Angleterre et qui a fait des études sur la classe ouvrière anglaise.

Sous la pression des Prussiens, Guizot, le ministre français de l’Intérieur, ordonne l’expulsion de Marx qui s’exile en Belgique. Il écrit alors à son ami, le poète allemand Heinrich Heine : « De tous ceux que je laisse en partant, c’est la perte de Heine et du patrimoine qu’il représente qui m’est le plus pénible (…) J’aimerais vous emporter dans mes bagages. »

Marx se révolte contre l’idéalisme allemand et l’hypocrisie des intellectuels de son époque, et se plaint que « les philosophes n’ont fait qu’interpréter diversement le monde. Or, ce qui importe, c’est de le transformer ».

Expulsé à son tour de Bruxelles, Marx est de retour à Paris début 1948, puis, après le déclenchement de la révolution de mars, à Cologne. Expulsé de nouveau d’Allemagne, il revient à Paris qu’il doit finalement quitter pour Londres, où il restera définitivement en exil. Plusieurs de ses enfants meurent de façon précoce et ce n’est que grâce à l’argent d’Engels, qui a repris l’usine familiale à Manchester, qu’il arrive à joindre les deux bouts.

Enfin, c’est en 1867 qu’il publie le premier chapitre du Capital, ce qu’il affirme être le « missile le plus terrible » jamais lancé contre la bourgeoisie.

Jacques Attali, avec sa délectation habituelle, note pour sa part :

« La police britannique surveille cet apatride aux relations planétaires, mais ne s’intéresse pas spécialement à lui. Elle sait que, depuis son arrivée quinze ans auparavant, l’Empire britannique n’est pas son principal sujet de préoccupation, ni la Couronne sa principale ennemie. L’organisation internationale qu’il dirige, et à laquelle les syndicats britanniques sont si largement associés, n’est pas considérée comme hostile à la monarchie ; quant à ses livres, si rares, ils ne se vendent pas.

« Et même s’il a critiqué violemment, dans la presse américaine, Palmerston et la politique de Londres, il ne fait jamais le moindre appel à la violence ni ne remet en cause les institutions du pays. « 

Cela n’a pas empêché Xi Jinping, pourtant considéré comme l’ennemi n°1 de l’Empire britannique, d’offrir à la ville de Trèves une énorme statue en bronze de Karl Marx en l’honneur de sa contribution !

Fondement de sa doctrine

Marx résume sa critique de l’exploitation capitaliste dans son œuvre principale, Le Capital, une critique de l’économie politique, publiée en quatre tomes. Le Tome I est publié en 1867, les trois autres seront publiés par son ami Friedrich Engels en 1885 et 1894, donc après la mort de Marx en 1883.

Pour tenter de combattre les énormes écarts de richesse de son époque et expliquer que le capitalisme engendre les conditions de sa propre destruction, Marx définit plusieurs concepts clés qui forment un tout cohérent.

Je ne prends ici que les principales :

  1. Comme socle philosophique : « le matérialisme dialectique » de Hegel.
  2. Enquête sur l’origine de « la plus-value ».
  3. Enquête sur le « coût du travail ».
  4. « Contradictions internes » du capitalisme dont la « baisse tendancielle du profit ».
  5. Solution : la « lutte des classes ».

1. Le matérialisme dialectique et historique

Il reprend le « matérialisme dialectique » du philosophe allemand G.W.F. Hegel, pour qui l’histoire obéit à une transformation dialectique qui engendre une nouvelle réalité.

Ce qui séduit le jeune Marx c’est la notion de dialectique que Hegel reprend de Platon : une marche de la pensée procédant par contradictions surmontées en allant de « l’affirmation » à « la négation », et de la négation à « la négation de la négation » (on dit parfois : thèse, antithèse, synthèse).

Pour sa démonstration, Hegel pervertit le concept de l’Idée chez Platon. Pour Hegel, c’est le dynamisme de l’Esprit qui se réalise dans l’histoire du monde. Le devenir s’opère par dépassements successifs des contradictions. Dépasser, ici, c’est nier mais en conservant, sans anéantir.

On pourrait dire qu’il s’agit d’une lecture aristotélicienne de la fameuse « coïncidence des opposés » développés par le cardinal Nicolas de Cues lors des débats théologiques sur la Trinité précédant le concile de Florence.

En 1807, dans son œuvre principale, La phénoménologie de l’Esprit, Hegel donne un exemple de sa démarche avec sa « dialectique du maître et de l’esclave ».

WHF Hegel

Tout homme, pour connaître et se connaître, a besoin de reconnaissance. Dans une première phase, dans un duel à mort, c’est le maître qui accepte le risque de mourir pour arracher la reconnaissance de l’autre qui lui, y renonce. Or, celui qui refuse ce risque se rend esclave de celui qui prend ce risque.

Ensuite, dans un processus dialectique, on assiste à une inversion des rôles. Car, contrairement au maître, l’esclave travaille. Et en travaillant à transformer, il va se transformer lui-même et donc s’ouvrir la voie de l’autonomie. Le maître, lui, ne travaille pas, il fait réaliser l’objet consommable, puis s’en approprie la jouissance. Ainsi, puisque le maître dépend du travail effectué par l’esclave, les rôles s’inversent et le maître devient l’esclave de son esclave. Enfin, lorsque l’esclave accepte de risquer sa propre vie, c’est lui et non pas le maître qui devient l’agent de la révolution historique.

Cette dialectique a largement de quoi séduire les jeunes rebelles de la génération de Marx !

Dans la préface de la deuxième édition du Capital (1867) Marx indique sa filiation avec la pensée de Hegel tout en précisant sa différence :

Sa différence avec Hegel :
« Ma méthode dialectique ne diffère pas seulement quant au fondement, de la méthode hégélienne : elle en est le contraire direct. Pour Hegel, le processus de la pensée, dont il fait même, sous le nom d’idée, un sujet autonome, est le créateur de la réalité qui n’en est que le phénomène extérieur. Pour moi, le monde des idées, n’est que le monde matériel, transposé et traduit dans l’esprit humain.« 

Sa filiation avec Hegel :
« (la dialectique) est un scandale et un objet d’horreur aux yeux des bourgeois (…) et cela pour différentes raisons : dans l’intelligence positive des choses existantes, elle implique en même temps l’intelligence de leur négation, de leur destruction nécessaire ; elle conçoit toute forme en cours de mouvement et, par conséquent, d’après son côté périssable ; elle ne se laisse imposer de rien et est, de par son essence, critique et révolutionnaire.« 

Soulignons qu’aujourd’hui, Hegel est une des grandes références des néoconservateurs anglo-américains pour la simple raison qu’il arrive à la conclusion que l’historicité de l’existence humaine est impossible sans la violence. Un monde entièrement pacifique est en contradiction avec la nature de cette historicité. L’existence humaine est, par conséquent, mieux comprise en termes de lutte à mort pour la reconnaissance que de recherche d’harmonie, comme le prônent les moralistes.

La dialectique chez Marx

Marx reprend la dialectique du maître (le capitaliste) et de l’esclave (le travailleur). Mais plutôt que de la situer sur le plan de l’esprit, il la situe sur le plan économique.

Selon lui, c’est l’évolution du travail qui va transformer les hommes et les rapports sociaux. Car par le travail, l’homme se produit lui-même et produit la société. Car pour Marx, « ce n’est pas la conscience des hommes qui détermine leur existence, c’est au contraire leur existence sociale qui détermine leur conscience ».

L’histoire, en gros, se résume à une succession « logique » de modes de production : communautés primitives, esclavagisme, féodalisme, capitalisme et communisme.

Cependant, comme le note Jacques Cheminade dans La faille du marxisme,

« le pire aspect de Marx est qu’il falsifie l’histoire de l’économie politique. Il la fait partir de la publication de La Richesse des nations d’Adam Smith (Londres, 1776), véritable manifeste de la Compagnie des Indes orientales britannique, qui avait pris le contrôle de la monarchie anglaise à la fin de la guerre de Sept ans, en 1763. Plus d’un siècle et demi après la publication de Société et Economie de Leibniz (1671), Marx n’a rien à dire d’intéressant sur le colbertisme ou le mercantilisme, rien sur Lazare Carnot et sa théorie des machines, rien sur l’Ecole polytechnique et les travaux de Chaptal ou Dupin, rien sur les fondateurs économiques de l’Etat-nation, rien de passionnant sur Laffemas, Montchrestien ou Sully, rien de sérieux sur le développement industriel des Etats-Unis contre le régime impérial britannique.« 

Pour Marx, le capitalisme naît exclusivement avec la naissance du salariat et pas avant.

A cela, précise Cheminade, il faut ajouter que:

« Marx découple toute morale de son analyse historique. Pour lui, l’esclavage – malgré l’ouvrage que lui a adressé Henry Carey [sur cette question] et ce qu’il sait des Etats-Unis – est une étape nécessaire dans l’accumulation du capital, et c’est grâce à l’accumulation produite par l’esclavage que le passage au féodalisme a été possible, de même que c’est grâce à l’accumulation produite par le servage que le capitalisme a pu apparaître. Il s’agit pour Marx d’étapes sans doute tragiques, injustes, mais nécessaires, fatales.« 

Comme chez Hegel, l’histoire se déroule (presque) en dehors de toute intervention humaine. Pourtant, Marx n’a pas tort lorsqu’il constate que le progrès scientifique et technologique change les rapports sociaux :

« Les rapports sociaux sont intimement liés aux forces productives. En acquérant de nouvelles forces productives, les hommes changent leur mode de production, et en changeant le mode de production, la manière de gagner leur vie, ils changent tous leurs rapports sociaux. Le moulin à bras vous donnera la société avec le suzerain ; le moulin à vapeur, la société avec le capitalisme industriel.« 

En 1848, dans Le Manifeste, Marx et Engels, pour nous convaincre de cette dialectique historique, se félicitent de la façon dont la bourgeoisie (c’est-à-dire le capitalisme) a liquidé la féodalité et le nationalisme (ce que nous appelons la mondialisation aujourd’hui) :

« Par l’exploitation du marché mondial, la bourgeoisie donne un caractère cosmopolite à la production et à la consommation de tous les pays. Au grand désespoir des réactionnaires, elle a enlevé à l’industrie sa base nationale. Les vieilles industries nationales ont été détruites et le sont encore chaque jour. Elles sont supplantées par de nouvelles industries (…) qui n’emploient plus de matières premières indigènes, mais des matières premières venues des régions les plus lointaines, et dont les produits se consomment non seulement dans le pays même, mais dans toutes les parties du globe. (…)

« À la place de l’ancien isolement des provinces et des nations se suffisant à elles-mêmes, se développent des relations universelles, une interdépendance universelle des nations.« 

Ainsi, autant la féodalité a créé les conditions de sa propre destruction en accouchant du capitalisme, autant elle crée les conditions pour l’enfantement d’une société nouvelle. Par exemple, en concentrant les moyens de production dans d’énormes unités, les capitalistes créent les conditions où la classe ouvrière peut prendre conscience de son rôle en tant que classe et le cas échéant, renverser le système.

Sa vision dialectique l’amène à voir le système de son époque comme mourant, tout en étant optimiste sur celui qui peut émerger.

« À grands traits, les modes de production asiatique, antique, féodal et bourgeois moderne peuvent être qualifiés d’époques progressives de la formation sociale économique. Les rapports de production bourgeois sont la dernière forme contradictoire du processus de production sociale (…) Cependant les forces productives qui se développent au sein de la société bourgeoise créent en même temps les conditions matérielles pour résoudre cette contradiction. Avec cette formation sociale s’achève donc la préhistoire de la société humaine.« 

Cependant, ces passages d’une plateforme sociétale inférieure à une plus élevée ne sont pas le résultat d’idées, mais la conséquence mécanique du matérialisme historique et d’une « lutte des classes » érigée en moteur exclusif de l’histoire dont elle accélère le déroulement.

Et pour expliciter que les idées n’y changent rien, il dira :

« À toute époque, les idées de la classe dominante sont les idées dominantes ; autrement dit, la classe qui est la puissance matérielle dominante de la société est en même temps la puissance spirituelle dominante.« 

2. La plus-value et l’exploitation

La plus grande contribution de Marx à la science économique, nous dit-on, est son analyse de la plus-value.

Or, comme nous allons le montrer, elle est non seulement inopérante mais fondée sur des méthodes comptables, c’est-à-dire des axiomes erronés où l’on cherche à mesurer le monde vivant et en expansion avec des critères gouvernant le monde des objets morts et finis.

Dès qu’il parle macro-économie, en adoptant les méthodes comptables des physiocrates, Marx, tout comme hélas Rosa Luxemburg, se déleste de sa dialectique et de son amour pour un monde en transformation permanente…

Au lieu de provoquer une révolution axiomatique, Marx s’acharne à vouloir « prouver » qu’il a raison dans les mêmes termes utilisés par ceux qu’il conteste. Une approche suicidaire et fortement déconseillée !

Or, comme le disait un jour l’économiste américain Lyndon LaRouche : un vrai révolutionnaire, c’est quelqu’un qui, comme Einstein, commence par démontrer que tout ce qu’il a appris à l’école est totalement erroné et à le jeter à la poubelle de l’histoire ! Ce n’est, hélas, pas le cas de Marx, qui fait les poubelles de l’histoire pour alimenter sa théorie.

Une histoire de petits pois

A force de les étudier, Marx s’est fait infecter par ce que j’appellerais le « virus physiocrate ».

François Quesnay

En économie politique, le plus connu de cette école était l’un des médecins de Louis XV, le Dr François Quesnay (1694-1774), membre de l’Académie des Sciences et de la Royal Society britannique, qui présenta en 1758 son « Tableau économique ».

Ses disciples, très nombreux, se réunissaient souvent. Parmi eux, Dupont de Nemours et Mirabeau notamment.

Or, pour Quesnay et les physiocrates, qui défendent la propriété privée et la liberté d’entreprendre, seule la terre est productive et source de richesse : c’est elle seule qui peut fournir un surplus.

Selon eux, la nation se réduit à trois classes :

  • la « classe productive » constituée par les exploitants agricoles,
  • la « classe des propriétaires fonciers », qui vivent de la rente et collectent la dîme,
  • la « classe stérile », composée des artisans, manufacturiers et marchands.

Considérée comme utile et nécessaire, l’industrie est qualifiée de « stérile » car accusée de ne créer aucune « vraie » richesse.

Ecoutons le physiocrate italien Paoletti :

« L’industrie ne crée rien ; elle donne des formes, modifie. Mais, me dira-t-on, puisqu’elle crée des formes, elle est productive. Entendu. Mais elle ne crée pas de richesse, elle en dépense au contraire… L’économie politique suppose et étudie une production matérielle ; or, celle-ci ne se rencontre que dans l’agriculture qui, seule, multiplie la matière et les produits qui constituent la richesse… L’industrie achète à l’agriculture les matières premières pour les façonner ; en donnant à ces matières une forme déterminée, elle ne leur ajoute rien, ne les augmente pas… Remettez à un cuisinier des petits pois pour qu’il vous prépare un repas. Il vous les apportera sur la table, bien cuits et bien assaisonnés, mais la quantité n’aura pas changé. Donnez une égale quantité de petits pois à un jardinier avec ordre de les semer. Le moment venu, il vous en rendra pour le moins le quadruple. Voici la seule, l’unique production.« 

Le Tableau économique de François Quesnay

Ainsi, le Tableau économique de Quesnay, véritable début de la macro-économie, tente de démontrer du point de vue comptable que c’est grâce à la classe productive (l’agriculture) que la société parvient à se reproduire comme un tout.

Quesnay donne comme exemple un royaume dont la production agricole rapporte chaque année 5 milliards. Cette somme est d’abord partagée entre la classe productive qui reçoit 3 milliards et la classe des propriétaires qui en reçoit 2. Cette dernière dépense les 2 milliards qu’elle reçoit en donnant un milliard à la classe productive et un autre à la classe stérile.

Cependant, la classe stérile reçoit un autre milliard de la classe productive ce qui fait deux en tout, une somme qu’elle va à son tour employer à la classe productive en achats pour la subsistance de ses agents et les matières premières de ses ouvrages. Et puisque la classe productive dépense elle-même les deux milliards restants en production, on retrouve la somme totale des 5 milliards de la richesse annuelle.

Pour enrichir la nation il faut donc donner primauté absolue à l’agriculture, seule source de plus-value, et réduire l’intervention de l’Etat, notamment en supprimant les réglementations qui entravent l’agriculture et le commerce. Si pour les physiocrates, la source de la richesse c’est la nature, pour les économistes classiques (Ricardo, Smith, etc.), c’est le libre-échange.

Ricardo n’est, au fond, qu’un post-physiocrate :

« Le produit de la terre, c’est-à-dire tout ce que l’on retire de sa surface par l’utilisation conjointe du travail, des machines et du capital, est réparti entre trois classes de la communauté : les propriétaires de la terre, les détenteurs du fonds ou capital nécessaire à son exploitation, et les travailleurs qui la cultivent. (…) Déterminer les lois qui gouvernent cette répartition, constitue le principal problème en Économie politique.« 

La plus-value chez Marx

Regardons maintenant dans Le Capital de Marx comment il analyse le « procès » de production de la plus-value :

Le capital C se décompose en deux parties : une somme d’argent c dépensée pour les moyens de production, et une somme d’argent v dépensée pour la force de travail ; c représente la partie de la valeur transformée en capital constant, c la partie transformée en capital variable.

A l’origine, nous avons donc : C = c + v

Par exemple, le capital avance 500 livres sterling = 410 (c) + 90 (v)

A la fin du processus, il résulte de la marchandise, dont la valeur est c + v + pl (plus-value) ;

Nous avons donc : 410 (c) + 90 (v) + 90 (pl)

Le capital primitif C ou 500 livres sterling est devenu C’ ou 590 livres sterling. La différence est pl, soit une plus-value de 90 livres sterling.

Enfin, Marx appelle « composition organique du capital » (co) le rapport entre c et v.

Avec l’accumulation du capital, la co du capital augmente, c’est-à-dire que la part du capital variable diminue, et que celle du capital constant augmente. Le travail humain sera de plus en plus remplacé par le travail des machines et des robots.

Cependant, Marx persiste à soutenir que le « travail salarié » est la source exclusive de plus-value (Pl).

En réalité, copiant Adam Smith, il réduit v au seul travail « salarié », c’est-à-dire produisant une plus-value… financière et non pas une plus-value physique :

« Seule la forme sous laquelle [le] surtravail est extorqué au producteur immédiat, l’ouvrier, distingue les formations sociales économiques, par exemple la société esclavagiste de celle du travail salarié.« 

Parmi les économistes, une blague circule qui se moque des méthodes comptables employées pour calculer le Produit intérieur brut (PIB) : « Si tu veux faire chuter le PIB, épouse ta femme de ménage ! »

3. Le coût du travail

Les raboteurs (1875), tableau de Caillebotte.

Par contre, Marx analyse bien deux phénomènes : le coût du travail et la dérive de ce que nous appelons aujourd’hui le capitalisme financier.

Alors qu’il ne voit la plus-value produite que sous la forme de la conversion de la marchandise produite en valeur monétaire, il refuse, avec raison, de réduire le coût de production au simple coût du travail fourni pour une production donnée.

L’idée de base consiste à distinguer la valeur du travail (valeur, en temps de travail, des marchandises vendues par le capitaliste) et la valeur de la force de travail (salaire reçu par le salarié, supposé égal au temps de travail nécessaire pour reproduire sa force de travail). Ce que le capitaliste doit payer, dit Marx, ce n’est donc pas le coût « du travail », mais le coût « de la force de travail », c’est-à-dire les conditions de son existence dans la durée en tant que force productive.

C’est la différence entre la plus-value et le coût de cette « force de travail » qui définit la marge du profit du capitaliste.

Or ce dernier ne pense plus qu’à s’enrichir à tout prix. Marx constate que, déjà à son époque, le capital financier prend le dessus sur le capitalisme industriel. Si avant, en convertissant la marchandise en argent, un producteur pouvait acheter une autre marchandise, le but final n’est plus désormais la production ou la consommation, mais l’accumulation primitive du capital, c’est-à-dire faire plus d’argent avec de l’argent.

Ce qu’on peut faire avec le fer en Northumbrie (Angleterre), tableau de William Bell Scott. 1861

A partir de cette théorie de la valeur-travail, Marx va déduire sa théorie de l’exploitation de la force de travail. Pour ce faire, Marx affirme que les ouvriers vendent non pas le produit de leur travail, mais leur « force de travail ».

Ce que le propriétaire de l’entreprise achète, c’est leur capacité physique et intellectuelle à faire un travail : c’est leur force de travail. La force de travail est donc une marchandise. Pour Marx, c’est une marchandise exceptionnelle car elle permet de créer plus de valeur qu’elle n’en a coûté (c’est la plus-value).

Exemple : si le salarié travaille 9 heures par jour et que le salaire ne représente que 4 heures de travail, la plus-value sera de 5 heures. Ce temps de « surtravail » est à l’origine du profit du capitaliste.

Le capitalisme ne peut donc vivre sans l’exploitation du prolétariat. Les relations entre classes sociales ne peuvent être qu’antagonistes puisque l’une (capitaliste) n’existe que par l’exploitation de l’autre (prolétaire).

« Le capital est du travail mort, qui ne s’anime qu’en suçant tel un vampire du travail vivant, et qui est d’autant plus vivant qu’il en suce davantage.« 

C’est sur cette base que le socialiste français Paul Lafargue élabore son Droit à la Paresse. Une fois que le salarié a produit ce qu’il faut pour la simple reproduction de la société, il peut renoncer sans danger à produire la plus-value pour les capitalistes. (Note 1)

Les moyens d’accroître la plus-value

Les capitalistes cherchent toujours à accroître la plus-value. Ils disposent à cet effet de deux moyens :

  • accroître la pl absolue en augmentant les cadences ou la durée du travail et par conséquent « le travail gratuit » ;
  • accroître la pl relative en développant la productivité ou en diminuant le temps de travail nécessaire à la production des biens et services destinés à la reproduction de la force de travail.

Pourtant, Marx reste optimiste, car:

« le capitalisme contribue au progrès de la civilisation en ce qu’il extrait ce surtravail par des procédés et sous des formes qui sont plus favorables que ceux des systèmes précédents (esclavage, servage, etc.) au développement des forces productives, à l’extension des rapports sociaux et à l’éclosion des facteurs d’une culture supérieure. Il prépare ainsi une forme sociale plus élevée, dans laquelle l’une des parties de la société ne jouira plus, au détriment de l’autre, du pouvoir et du monopole du développement social, avec les avantages matériels et intellectuels qui s’y rattachent, et dans laquelle le surtravail aura pour effet la réduction du temps consacré au travail matériel en général.« 

4. Les « contradictions internes » du système capitaliste

Pour Marx, le capitalisme est un système historiquement daté et fondé sur l’exploitation de la force de travail, appelé à disparaître à cause de ses contradictions internes qui ne peuvent se résoudre qu’en passant à un régime fondé sur la propriété collective des moyens de production.

Ces contradictions sont au nombre de trois :
a) baisse tendancielle du taux de profit
b) paupérisation de la classe ouvrière
c) crise de surproduction

Marx cherche à montrer qu’avec le développement du capitalisme, on assistera à une opposition croissante entre une majorité misérable (prolétaires) et une minorité de riches propriétaires des moyens de production. La condition de la classe ouvrière doit se dégrader davantage avec le progrès technique et la concentration du capital. Cette dégradation débouchera un jour sur la révolte « expropriation des expropriateurs ».

a) Baisse tendancielle du profit

Le taux de profit selon Marx s’écrit : Pl/c+v

Comme nous l’avons indiqué, le rapport entre C et V définit ce que Marx appelle la « composition organique » du capital. Aujourd’hui on dirait que cette fonction indique s’il s’agit d’une économie « à faible intensité capitalistique » ou « à faible intensité de main d’œuvre ». Le premier modèle est celui du tiers-monde, le deuxième celui des pays avancés.

Pour Marx, la logique veut que si la composition organique augment, c’est-à-dire si le capitaliste investit dans l’amélioration de l’appareil productif (l’utilisation de la machine à la place de l’homme), par simple effet mécanique la part de v par rapport à c baissera. Et puisque selon son dogme, c’est exclusivement v (c’est-à-dire le travail salarié) qui est source de Pl, le taux de profit subira logiquement une baisse tendancielle.

b) Paupérisation de la classe ouvrière

L’augmentation de c, c’est-à-dire le remplacement de l’homme par la machine, conduit donc à des licenciements et une paupérisation de la force de travail. Or, faute de travail, le pouvoir d’achat de la force de travail chutera, provoquant une baisse de la consommation.

c) Crise de surproduction

Bien que cette baisse soit perçue par la classe capitaliste comme une « crise de surproduction », il s’agit en réalité d’une crise de sous-consommation puisque les besoins élémentaires des populations ne sont pas satisfaits.

« La contradiction de ce mode de production capitaliste réside dans sa tendance à développer de manière absolue les forces productives, qui entrent sans cesse en conflit avec les conditions spécifiques de la production dans lesquelles se meut le capital.

Car, « l’expansibilité immense et intermittente du système de fabrique, jointe à sa dépendance du marché universel, enfante nécessairement une production furieuse suivie d’un encombrement des marchés dont la contraction amène la paralysie.

« La raison ultime de toutes les crises réelles, précise Marx, c’est toujours la pauvreté et la consommation restreinte des masses. (…) C’est une pure tautologie de dire : les crises proviennent de ce que la consommation solvable ou les consommateurs capables de payer font défaut. (…). Dire que les marchandises sont invendables ne signifie rien d’autre que : il ne s’est pas trouvé pour elles d’acheteurs capables de payer, donc de consommateurs.« 

Ainsi la « baisse tendancielle du profit » crée un cercle vicieux :

  • concurrence grandissante
  • surexploitation
  • paupérisation
  • crise de surproduction
  • baisse tendancielle du profit
  • spéculation boursière

Ces contradictions peuvent être freinées par la conquête de débouchés extérieurs. Marx pense bien sûr aux puissances européennes qui, pour compenser la baisse tendancielle du profit, se lancent dans le colonialisme en Afrique, en Asie et ailleurs.

Marx contre le protectionnisme

Le protectionniste américain et conseiller du président Lincoln, Henry C. Carey.

Aux Etats-Unis, Marx était totalement enthousiasmé à l’idée d’écrire pour le New York Tribune, surtout qu’il avait vraiment besoin d’argent. Le journal lui permettait d’enseigner le socialisme aux capitalistes. A cela s’ajoute qu’entre 1852 et 1854, presqu’un demi million d’Allemands ont émigré vers les Etats-Unis via New York, dont certains avaient participé à la révolution de 1848.

La Tribune était également le porte-voix des transcendentalistes américain, de sentiment assez opposé au capitalisme.

Le journal a publié 487 articles de Marx, 350 écrits de sa main et 12 en coopération avec Engels, les autres 125 étant signés par Engels tout seul. Un quart des articles ont été publiés comme des éditoriaux non signés.

A un moment donné, Marx dit à Engels que « depuis deux mois, l’équipe Marx-Engels a fonctionné quasiment comme l’équipe éditoriale de la Tribune », tellement leurs écrits furent utilisés.

Henry Charles Carey, le plus grand économiste protectionniste de l’époque et conseiller de Lincoln, était alors considéré comme « le patron virtuel » du journal. En 1852, il envoie à Marx deux de ses livres, dont L’harmonie des intérêts où, reprenant les doctrines d’Alexander Hamilton et de Henry Clay, il résume les doctrines de ce que les historiens appellent le Système américain d’économie politique.

Marx n’était pas particulièrement emballé par les écrits de Carey. Ainsi, dans une lettre à Engels, il note que Carey a « changé de camp ». Avant de devenir protectionniste et faire l’éloge de l’Etat, « Carey se plaignait d’un Etat trop interventionniste dans les affaires ». Ensuite, Carey, comme l’indique le nom de son livre, semblait sur une autre planète en termes de « lutte des classes ».

Dans sa lettre du 5 mars 1952 à Weydemeyer, Marx se lâche :

« H.C. Carey (de Philadelphie), le seul économiste d’importance, est la preuve éclatante que la société civile américaine manque de maturité pour fournir une réponse claire et cohérente à propos de lutte des classes.« 

Et il poursuit :
« Il (Carey) s’en prend à Ricardo, le représentant le plus classique de la bourgeoisie et l’adversaire le plus stoïque du prolétariat, accusé d’être un homme dont les œuvres sont un arsenal pour les anarchistes, les socialistes et tous les ennemis du système bourgeois. Il en veut, pas seulement à lui, mais à Malthus, Mill, Say, Torrens, Wakefield, McCulloch, Senior, Whately, R. Jones et d’autres, les économistes les plus en vogue d’Europe, pour morceler la société et préparer la guerre civile parce qu’ils montrent que les bases des différentes classes tendent à faire naître des antagonismes croissants entre eux. Il tente de les réfuter (…) en montrant que les conditions économiques (la propriété), le profit (capital) et les salaires (travail salarié), au lieu d’être des conditions de combat et d’antagonismes, sont plutôt des conditions d’association et d’harmonie. La seule chose qu’il prouve, évidemment, c’est qu’il prend les conditions ‘sous-développées’ des Etats-Unis pour des ‘conditions normales’.« 

« Même Carey lui-même est frappé par le début de disharmonie aux Etats-Unis. Quelle est la source de ce phénomène étrange ? Carey l’explique par l’influence destructrice de l’Angleterre, par son désir d’arriver à un monopole industriel sur le marché mondial (…) L’Angleterre crée une entorse à toutes les relations économiques du monde (…) L’harmonie des relations économiques repose, selon Carey, sur la coopération harmonieuse des villes et de la campagne, de l’industrie et de l’agriculture. Ayant dissout cette harmonie fondamentale chez elle, en Angleterre, dans une concurrence, elle procède à la détruire sur le marché mondial, et elle est donc l’élément destructeur de l’harmonie générale. La seule défense sont les tarifs protecteurs – la barricade nationale contre l’industrie anglaise de grande taille (…) Ainsi, toutes les relations qui lui apparaissent comme harmonieuses à l’intérieur des frontières nationales spécifiques ou autrement, dans la forme abstraite des relations générales de la société bourgeoise, (…) lui apparaissent comme disharmonieuses là où elles apparaissent dans leur forme la plus développée : le marché mondial.« 

Le 14 juin 1853, il écrit à Engels : « Ton article sur la Suisse était évidemment une gifle indirecte contre la ligne qui domine la Tribune et son Carey. J’ai continué cette guerre cachée (hidden warfare) dans mon premier article sur l’Inde, dans lequel la destruction de l’industrie domestique indienne par l’Angleterre est décrite comme révolutionnaire. Ce sera drôlement choquant pour lui.« 

Tout en rajoutant : « Les Britanniques, soit dit en passant, ont géré l’Inde comme des porcs, et cela perdure jusqu’aujourd’hui.« 

Contre Carey, on vient de le voir, Marx mènera, comme un idéologue et surtout comme un journaliste, à moitié sérieux, à moitié pour rire, une « guerre de l’ombre ».

En 1841, Friedrich List, un autre père fondateur du protectionnisme intelligent (inspiré par le Français Chaptal), publie son Système national d’économie politique. Engels incite alors Marx à écrire au plus vite une réfutation des thèses protectionnistes.

Marx s’acquitta de la tâche, sans toutefois faire publier son analyse. Elle le sera bien plus tard sous le titre Notes critiques sur Friedrich List.

Marx y traite List de « philistin » : « Au lieu d’étudier l’histoire réelle, M. List cherche à deviner les mauvais buts secrets des individus.« 

Pour Marx, les nations appartiennent à tout le monde : « La nationalité du travailleur n’est pas française, anglaise, allemande, c’est le capital. L’air qu’il respire chez lui n’est pas l’air français, anglais, allemand, c’est l’air des usines (…) ». Pour en conclure que « l’argent est la patrie de l’industriel« .

Du point de vue de la dialectique, Marx estime que, de toute façon, l’extension du capitalisme à la terre entière allait susciter la naissance de l’Internationale ouvrière.

Le 7 janvier 1848, dans son « Discours sur la question du libre-échange« , Marx déploie sa dialectique sophiste :

« Il faut choisir : soit on refuse l’ensemble de l’économie politique, telle qu’elle existe à présent, soit il faut admettre que la liberté des échanges entraînera une sévérité accrue des lois de l’économie politique à l’égard des classes laborieuses. Est-ce dire que nous sommes contre le libre-échange ? Non point, nous sommes partisans du libre-échange parce qu’avec le libre-échange, toutes les lois de l’économie, avec leurs étonnantes contradictions, peuvent s’exercer à une plus grande échelle, et s’étendre à un vaste territoire, voire la terre entière. L’accumulation de ces contradictions résultera en un combat final qui permettra l’émancipation des prolétaires.« 

Certes, ce discours venait deux ans après l’abolition des lois protectionnistes sur la production céréalière (corn laws), défendue par les Chartistes anglais. Marx y fait référence lorsqu’il dit : « En général, si l’on veut le libre-échange, c’est pour soulager la condition de la classe laborieuse ( …) Frapper de droits protecteurs les grains étrangers, c’est infâme, c’est spéculer sur la famine des peuples… »

Et surtout, au « protectionnisme national et bourgeois », Marx préfère un « libre-échange étendant à la totalité du monde les contradictions du capitalisme ». Point de vue cynique, en un sens, puisqu’il s’agissait pour Marx de pousser les ouvriers à participer à leur propre défaite : cessons de vouloir domestiquer un capitalisme qu’il faut accompagner à la destruction !

Le protectionnisme intelligent défendu par Carey et List est donc systématiquement combattu par Marx sur des bases idéologiques et économiques. « L’illusion » d’une solution gagnant-gagnant prônée par L’harmonie des intérêts de Carey n’est considérée que comme une fausse solution, retardant la fin du capitalisme inscrite dans le code génétique de la dialectique historique. Aujourd’hui Marx dirait sans doute la même chose de la Chine lorsqu’elle propose une coopération gagnant-gagnant et des politiques économiques « inclusives », tout en disant éventuellement que l’extension du capitalisme là-bas porte les promesses de son éradication.

C’est pour cette opposition viscérale à toute idée d’Etat-nation moderne, que l’extrême-gauche actuelle déteste autant le président Franklin Roosevelt.

L’Etat s’éteindra avec le capitalisme

Au-delà de la régulation économique, Marx dira tout et son contraire sur l’Etat. Marx et Engels voient avant tout l’Etat comme un instrument aux mains de la classe dominante (la bourgeoisie), destinée à dominer la classe des prolétaires. Mais pour assurer sa domination, la bourgeoisie confie à l’Etat la gestion de ses intérêts généraux et peut lui confier une certaine autonomie. Bien que l’Etat s’élève parfois « au-dessus des classes » pour rétablir un ordre social menacé, il ne peut jamais agir pour « l’intérêt général », car ce concept n’est qu’une invention des capitalistes pour endormir les masses.

Pourtant, le 5e point du Manifeste de 1848 exige « la centralisation du crédit entre les mains de l’Etat, par une banque nationale à capital d’Etat et à monopole exclusif ».

Pour Marx et Engels, la dictature du prolétariat est une phase transitoire vers une société sans classes, où l’Etat « s’éteindra ».

Engels précise cette dialectique dans L’origine de la famille, de la propriété privée et de l’Etat, dont une sixième édition parut à Stuttgart dès 1894 :

« Le prolétariat s’empare du pouvoir d’Etat et transforme les moyens de production d’abord en propriété d’Etat. Mais par là, il se supprime lui-même en tant que prolétariat, il supprime toutes les différences et oppositions de classes, et également en tant qu’Etat. La société antérieure, évoluant dans des oppositions de classes, avait besoin de l’Etat, c’est-à-dire, dans chaque cas, d’une organisation de la classe exploiteuse pour maintenir ses conditions de production extérieures, donc surtout pour maintenir par la force la classe exploitée dans les conditions d’oppression données par le mode de production existant (esclavage, servage, salariat). (…) Quand il finit par devenir effectivement le représentant de toute la société, il se rend lui-même superflu.

Dès qu’il n’y a plus de classe sociale à tenir dans l’oppression ; dès que, avec la domination de classe et la lutte pour l’existence individuelle motivée par l’anarchie antérieure de la production, sont éliminés également les collisions et les excès qui en résultent, il n’y a plus rien à réprimer qui rende nécessaire un pouvoir de répression, un Etat.

Le premier acte dans lequel l’Etat apparaît réellement comme représentant de toute la société, – la prise de possession des moyens de production au nom de la société -, est en même temps son dernier acte propre en tant qu’Etat. L’intervention d’un pouvoir d’Etat dans des rapports sociaux devient superflue dans un domaine après l’autre, et entre alors naturellement en sommeil. Le gouvernement des personnes fait place à l’administration des choses et à la direction des opérations de production. L’Etat n’est pas ‘aboli’, il s’éteint.« 

Ainsi, pense Marx, lutte de classes aidant, le capitalisme est condamné à disparaître et avec lui, cet outil de répression qu’est l’Etat.

5. La lutte des classes