Anatole France: The Merrie Tales of Jacques Tournebroche

Anatole France’s Merrie Tales: Concerning an Horrible Picture


The word “limnings” appears odd (as does the entire, long-winded title). It’s Middle English, meaning “to illuminate”, as in the only illustrations most people would have seen in an earlier age, in illuminated manuscripts. It refers to paintings, or drawings. The use of this word signals that the story is set in such times.

Jacques Tournebroche describes the paintings in the gallery of a man called Philemon. Knowing that our author, Anatole France, was French, we could wonder if there is any connection with a French comic book series of the same name. This particular Philemon, a teenage farm boy, had a donkey named Anatole. But these comics had only appeared in the 1960, long after our Nobel Prize winning author was dead.

Battle of Issus mosaic, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples c. 100 BCE.

So clearly it’s an earlier Philemon who owned the paintings. There’s one in the Bible, in the New Testament, with a book named after him, which religious scholars love to analyse and interpret. It’s because the book is actually a letter written in 61 AD from Rome by none other than St Paul, while in prison, to a fellow called Philemon. In his letter, or epistle, St Paul, in summary, asked him to be merciful to a slave named Onesimus, whom Philemon had owned but who fled to Rome. This earlier Philemon however can’t be the right one, strictly speaking, because in 61 AD there were no art collectors with libraries full of paintings, oil or otherwise. We only know of paintings, frescoes, on the walls of houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum and certainly not depicting the detailed types of scenes described in the story. There is an ancient portrait of Homer in a New York museum, from 200 BC, but it’s a marble sculpture and not a painting.

Goethe wrote about a Philemon too, referring to a character in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. That fellow however was an old man. He and Baucis, his wife, were hospitable to two Greek gods in disguise when they knocked at his door. In return for their kindness, they warned him to flee before they destroyed the entire village, the other villagers having turned them away or not even opened their doors to them. This is not our Philemon, however, because he was poor and certainly did not own an art gallery.

Carl Gustav Jung, whom some consider the father of modern psychiatry, also wrote about Ovid’s Philemon. He wrote that he dreamt of Philemon, who appeared as a sort of guiding spirit. After all, this is the CG Jung who expatiates on the interpretation of dreams. Jung built himself a home, known as the Bollingen Tower, on the shore of the upper lake of Lake Zurich. Philemon was so important to him that he had his name inscribed on the gate: Philemonis Sacrum (Philemon’s Sanctuary).

There was even a gallery inside this small four towered castle, with a huge painting of Philemon by Jung, one of three attributed to him. Other inscriptions include, in stone, in classic Greek, a quote from Homer’s Odyssey, Homer being the subject of the painting most prized to the Philemon in question. Could this be the right Philemon?

Unfortunately, Jung only bought the land in 1922 and built the tower in 1923. And, alas, Anatole France, who died in 1924, had written The Merrie Tales of Jacques Tournebroche in 1908. Darn… So the limnings and the Philemon written about by our author may perhaps just have been imagined to be the Biblical Philemon, the Bishop of Gaza, the wealthy Christian with a big house in which early Christians had met. A fictional character who in France’s imagination had loved a painting of Homer above all others. There are of course many portraits of Homer, from an age in which ancient Greek literature was highly appreciated.


HILEMON was used to confess how, in the fire of his callow youth and fine flower of his lustie springal days, he had been stung with murderous frenzie at view of a certaine picture of Apelles, the which in those times was showed in a temple. And the said picture did present Alexander the Great laying on right shrewdly at Darius, king of the Indians, whiles round about these twain, soldiers and captains were a-slaying one another with a savage furie and in divers strange fashions. And the said work was right cunningly wrought and in very close mimicrie of nature. And none, an they were in the hot and lustie season of their life, could cast a look thereon without being stirred incontinent to be striking and killing poor harmlesse folk for the sole sake of donning so rich an harnesse and bestriding such high-stepping chargers as did these good codpieces in their battle,—for that young blood doth aye take pleasure in horseflesh and the practise of arms. This had the aforesaid Philemon proven in his day. And he was used to say how ever after ’twas his wont to turn aside his eyen of set purpose from suchlike pictures of wars and bloodshed, and that he did so heartily loathe these cruelties as that he could not abear to behold them even set forth in counterfeit presentment.

And he was used to say that any honest and prudent wight must needs be sore offended and scandalized by all this appalling array of armour and bucklers and the horde of warriors Homer calls Corythaioloi (glancing-helmed) by reason of the terrifying hideousness of their head-gear, and that the portrayal of these same fighting fellows was in very truth unseemly, as contrarie to good and peaceable manners, immodest, no thing in the world being more shameful then homicide, and eke lascivious, as alluring folk to cruelty, the which is the worst of all allurements. For to entice to pleasant dalliaunce is a far lesse heinous fault.

And the aforesaid Philemon was used to say that it was honest, decent, of good ensample and entirely modest to show by painting, chiselling, or any other fine artifice the scenes of the Golden Age, to wit maidens and young men interlacing limbs in accord with the craving of kindly Nature, or other the like delectable fancy, as of a Nymph lying laughing in the grass. And on her ripe smiling mouth a Faun is crushing a purple grape.

And he was used to say that belike the Golden Age had never flourished save only in the fond imagining of the poets, and that our first forebears of human kind, being yet barbarous and silly folk, had known naught at all thereof; but that, an the said age could not credibly be deemed to have been at the beginning of the world, we might well wish it should be at the end, and that meanwhiles it was a gracious boon to offer us a likeness of the same in pictured image.

And like as it is (so he would say) obscene,— ’t is the word Virgil writes of dogs wallowing in the mud and mire,—to depict murderers, whoreson men-at arms, fighting-men, conquering heroes and plundering thieves, wreaking their foul and wicked will, yea! and poor devils licking the dust and swallowing the same in great mouthfuls, and one unhappie wretch that hath been felled to the earth and is striving to get to his feet againe, but is pinned down by an horse’s hoof pressing on his chops, and another that looketh piteously about him for that his pennon hath been shorn from him and his hand with it,—so is it of right subtile and so to say heavenly art to exhibit prettie blandishments, caresses, frolickings, beauties and delights, and the loves of the Nymphs and Fauns in the woods. And he would have it there was none offence in these naked bodies, clothed upon enow with their owne grace and comeliness.

And he had in his closet, this same Philemon aforesaid, a very marvellous painting, wherein was limned a young Faun in act to filch away with a craftie hand a light cloth did cover the belly of a sleeping Nymph. ’T was plain to see he was full fain of his freak and seemed to be saying: The body of this young goddess is so sweet and refreshing as that the fountaine springing in the shade of the woods is not more delightsome. How I do love to look upon you, soft sweet lap, and prettie white thighs, and shady cavern at once terrifying and entrancing! And over the heads of the twain did hover winged Cupids and watched them laughingly, whiles fair dames and their gallants, their brows wreathen with flowers, footed it on the lush grass.

And he had, the aforesaid Philemon, yet other limnings of cunning craftsmanship in his closet. And he did prize very high the portraiture of a good doctor a-sitting in his cabinet writing at a table by candle-light. The said cabinet was fully furnished with globes, gnomons, and astrolabes, proper for meting the movements of the orbs of heaven, the which is a right praiseworthy task and one that doth lift the spirit to sublime thoughts and the exceeding pure love of Venus Urania.

And there was hanging from the joists of the said cabinet a great serpent and crocodile, forasmuch as they be rarities and very needful for the due understanding of anatomy. And he had likewise, the said doctor, amid his belongings, the books of the most excellent philosophers of Antiquity and eke the treatises of Hippocrates. And he was an ensample to young men which should be fain, by hard swinking, to stuff their pates with as much high learning and occult lore as he had under his own bonnet.

And he had, the aforesaid Philemon, painted on a panel that shined like a polished mirror a portraiture of Homer in the guise of an old blind man, his beard white as the flowers of the hawthorn and his temples bound about with the fillets sacred to the god Apollo, which had loved him above all other men. And, to look at that good old man, you deemed verily his lips were presently to ope and break into words of mélodie.


Note on France’s text and the illustrations: Translation of The Merrie Tales of Jacques Tournebroche is by Alfred Allinson (London: John Lane, Bodley Head, 1909). Woodcuts by British artist Marcia Lane Foster (1897–1983) have been confirmed as Public Domain Mark 1.0 (free of known restrictions under copyright law). Acknowledgement to David Widger for his digital edition.

Battle of Issus mosaic: ‘Reconstruction of a mosaic depiction of the Battle of Issus after a painting supposed to be by Apelles or Philoxenus of Eretria found in the House of the Faun at Pompeii’ (Wikimedia Commons).

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