This picturesque painting is typical of a certain kind of historical romanticism, a nostalgia for a bygone past that fuelled popular interest in the chivalrous times of the Ancien Régime. Alexandre Dumas the elder’s swashbuckling novels set off this enthusiasm for the seventeenth century, with 1844’s The Three Musketeers being so successful that he adapted it for the stage. Two other novels — Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne — followed to form a trilogy.
Painted after the fall of France’s Second Empire by a celebrated artist then over seventy years old, this painting is indicative of Isabey’s later work, which features scenes of vengeance, duels, assassinations, ambushes and swordfights, with particular emphasis on certain episodes from the Inquisition and the French Wars of Religion, especially the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. In the dramatic scene depicted here, taking place at the foot of one of Mont-Saint-Michel’s posterns, Isabey employs a multitude of romantic effects: the vanishing point perspective of the stairway, the theatrically diagonal illumination by the moon and, in the shadows pierced by a red-glowing lantern, a glimpse of a statue of the Virgin Mary in a shrine. The composition provides a direct explanation of the tragedy — a murder has been committed, the killer takes flight, and a tearful family discovers the body.