This article is about the life and death of Bernard Palissy.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1990. 5 pages.

Bernard Palissy - A Victim in the Bastille in 1589

Potter and Protestant🔗

The Bastille and its sad, forlorn inhabitants were much to the fore in 1989. The bicentenary of the French Revolution of 1789 has been recalled in many ways. Few, even among Christians, give thought to the spiritual revolution in France in the sixteenth century. Even fewer will know the name of the seventy-six-year-old Christian veteran who was sent during this period to the Bastille and who died there in 1589. The victim, Bernard Palissy, was sufficiently well known then for the French King, Henry III, to pay him a visit. Palissy deserves to be well known in our day.

Humble peasant though he was, Bernard Palissy had had the patronage and protection of both the Queen Mother, Catherine of Medici and the Constable of France. Although Palissy was a Huguenot, a Protestant of simple and clear evangelical conviction, yet he was spared massacre after massacre and rescued from prison because important people in the realm highly valued his skills as a potter.

He could write to the powerful Constable as follows:

I think that you may find it ill in me, that I did not thank you at the time when you were pleased to engage the queen-mother to draw me out of the hands of my mortal and capital enemies.

Friends of the Constable had saved him from the gallows in 1562, 'well knowing that no man could bring your work to completion but myself', as he simply puts it.

Palissy had been working during that period on the Château d'Ecouen of the Constable. 'If Palissy had not acquired his secret as a potter, if his death had not meant the extinction of an ornamental art, in that year 1562 he would have died upon the gallows', is a fair verdict. 1 Palissy was quite clear at the time that incensed local clergy did want to see him hanged and, indeed, steps were being taken to accomplish this when the friends intervened.

Ten years later, there occurred an even more infamous and widespread massacre, that of St Bartholomew. By this time Palissy had the patronage and support of the very person to whom many historians trace the origin of the butchery, namely, the Queen Mother herself. In 1564 she had undertaken an extensive tour of France. At Saintes she had been introduced to the sixty-year-old potter and also to specimens of his work.

When he followed up this advantage by designing a grotto for her, still more impressed, she promised to employ him on her return to Paris. She kept her word and two years later he was installed with his own studio and ovens in the rising palace of the Tuileries. Here is how one of her biographers puts it:

In a corner of her new garden she had created a little world of fantasy, a grotto guarded by yews cut to resemble Adam and Eve and approached by paths scented by thyme, marjoram and rosemary. The surrounding flower-beds were embellished by Bernard Palissy's wonderful enamel creations — toads, snakes and fabulous reptiles as well as life-sized men, curiously attired — which the designer had placed there.2

A document in the National Library shows a payment made in 1570 'to Bernard, Nicolas and Mathurin Palissy sculptors in earth, the sum of 2,600 livres for all the works in earth, baked and enamelled, which remain to be done for the completion of the ... grotto commenced for the queen in her palace'.3 Nicolas and Mathurin were two of Palissy's sons who were now working with their father. It would seem that they never showed the same original talent though they did later continue the business.

His Artistic Quest🔗

Such prosperity was late in arriving and must have seemed a stark contrast to Palissy's early years. Taught by his own parents to paint and draw on glass, Palissy had worked for some years as a surveyor of the local salt-marshes, a job which did provide a reasonable income. However, one day he had seen an Italian earthen cup turned and enamelled with exquisite beauty and he was determined to find the secret, then unknown in France, of the lovely glaze.

Money earned from his survey of the salt-marshes was diverted to support this quest. Other monies were borrowed. Debts accumulated. The growing family were hungry. Scoffing neighbours said he was a madman, wasting both time and money. Little sympathy came from his wife, though it must be mentioned in her defence, that there were times when in order to keep his ovens going he tore up palings, tables and even the floors of the house. Patience has its limits! His own vivid account of the physical hardships he himself endured is worth giving in some detail:

I have been for several years, when, without the means of covering my furnaces, I was every night at the mercy of the rain and winds, without receiving any help, aid, or consolation, except from the owls that screeched on one side, and the dogs that howled upon the other; sometimes there would arise winds and storms, which blew in such a manner up and down my furnaces, that I was constrained to quit the whole with loss of my labour; and several times have found that, having quitted all, and having nothing dry upon me because of the rains which had fallen, I would go to bed at midnight, or near dawn, dressed like a man who has been dragged through all the puddles in the town, and turning thus to retire, I would walk rolling, without a candle, falling to one side and the other like a man drunk with wine, filled with great sorrows, inasmuch as, having laboured long, I saw my labour wasted; then, retiring in this manner, soiled and drenched, I have found in my chamber a second persecution worse then the first, which causes me to marvel now that I was not consumed with suffering.

There was the great difficulty of mixing things in the correct proportions. Once he seemed to have glimpsed his eldorado, only to find that he could not repeat the performance. On another occasion he thought he had discovered the process and, on the strength of this borrowed money to make a lot of vessels. But, although he had got the enamel right, he had not foreseen other problems and found the fine vessels pierced through with pieces of flint that had flown about. When some urged him to cut his losses and get some money for this inferior product, his response was typical:

But because that would have been a decrying and debasing of my honour, I broke in pieces the entire batch from the said furnace, and lay down in melancholy...

So it was a long and arduous process, with countless setbacks, before he could produce such vessels as caught the attention of the great and wealthy. He wrote, 'You see, then, how a man who labours in the art of earth is always an apprentice, because of the unknown nature of the diversities of earth.' One commentator aptly observes, 'Palissy puts it well: "The mistakes I have made in mixing my enamels have taught me more than my successes."' 4

Palissy's own description of himself was 'Worker in Earth, and Inventor of Rustic Figurines'. One writer who labels it 'artifice and not art' also writes:

A dish of Palissy ware is manifestly designed for admiration rather than for service. The ferns, the leaves, the shells and the snake coiled in the centre are raised above the surface and gleam in all the variety of their natural colours. The birds that pecked at the fruit in Apelles' picture would certainly test their beaks on these snail­shells — or no, perhaps they would be scared away by the snake. It is all so amazingly done that we catch our breath at the artifice of it.5

Writing as a non-expert, I can only say that he bears an honoured place in the various histories of pottery which I have consulted. One history of world pottery particularly highlights the vivid colouring and sees him as a pioneer and trend-setter: 'The first artist potters emerged in France as early as the sixteenth century when Bernard Palissy was making highly individualised tin-glazed pots modelled with realistic animals and plants.' 6

Another history remarking on the realism, adds a distinctly twentieth-century note of mild disapproval, as it comments on the methods used. 'The dishes as illustrated are rather too "rustic", when one learns that the close similarity to nature was achieved by taking actual casts of snakes, frogs, lizards and fish with which he decorated so many of his wares.' 7

In our own day it has been said perhaps with some exaggeration that the only good thing about modern art is that things cannot possibly be as bad as they are painted. Allowing for the fact that there is some place for impressionism and for the grotesque caricature, Palissy obviously would have provided a clear contrast. His work pleased many eyes.

His Quest for Truth🔗

Palissy was certainly dominated by his quest for making a beautiful type of pottery. After seeing the Italian cup he tells us: 'Thereafter regardless of the fact that I had no knowledge of clays, I began to seek for the enamels, as a man gropes in the dark.' Yet Palissy was even more dominated by another quest. After hearing the Word of God from some of Reformed persuasion, and possibly also through the influence of the martyrdom of a Protestant, Palissy cast in his lot with the Huguenots.

That such a man should survive in such a climate, and especially one so close to the Constable (a fanatical Roman Catholic) and above all to Catherine of Medici, suggests that he was a time-server and trimmer. This was not so. From the beginning to the end of his Christian pilgrimage he was in fact noted for his stand for truth. Ultimately it was the hand of God that protected him and not compromising shifts and evasions before the great of the land. The surgeon, Ambroise Pare, is taken by some to be a Huguenot and by others to be a Roman Catholic; but about Bernard Palissy's Reformed convictions there is no shadow of doubt.

In a veiled way he is describing himself as he writes:

There was in this town a certain artisan, marvellously poor and indigent, who had so great a desire for the advancement of the Gospel, that he demonstrated it every day to another as poor as himself, and with as little learning, for they both scarcely knew anything; nevertheless, the first urged upon the other that if he would employ himself in making some form of exhortation, that would be productive of great fruit.

The Power of the Gospel🔗

He was a founder member of the Reformed church of Saintes, teaching the scriptures as a preacher among the congregation and becoming a staunch supporter of the pastors as the congregation began to grow. It would seem that he regularly testified openly to his faith and, at a particularly dangerous time in the realm, he spoke up to the authorities on behalf of his friend and fellow 'heretic', Philebert Hamelin, who was held under sentence of death.

After his own release from imprisonment at the instigation of the Constable in 1562, he found most of his ovens smashed and in ruins. He quietly set about repairing the damage just as he regularly did with regard to the attacks on the Word of God which had drawn others from the faith. It was not that he experienced no terror. He admits to such fear, especially as he heard little children indulging in blood-thirsty blasphemy: 'Now, that lasted a long time, while neither fathers nor mothers exercised over them any rule. Often I was seized with a desire to risk my life by going out to punish them; but I said in my heart the seventy-ninth Psalm, which begins, "O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance."' At this point he did not risk his neck.

Nevertheless he was often in trouble with the Roman Catholic clergy. He repeatedly quoted Jeremiah 34 to them and met opposition 'for having wished to incite them to feed their flocks, following God's commands.' In a discussion in one of his works as to whether all inventions should be made public property (to which he answers 'No') he nevertheless resonantly affirms that 'the Word of God ought not to be hidden' and in keeping with that he begins 'The Huguenot's Preface' as follows:

Monseigneur, though there are some who would at no time hear mention of the Holy Scriptures, yet so it is that I have found nothing better than to pursue the counsel of God, his edicts, statutes, and ordinances; and in regarding what might be his will, I have found that by his last testament he has commanded his heirs that they should eat bread by the labour of their bodies, and that they should multiply the talents which he had committed to them, in accordance with his testament.

For the last years of his life Palissy was put in the Bastille for his faith. He was in his late seventies and although the powerful Constable and Queen Mother were no longer there to protect him, the Duke of Mayenne, one of the Guise family, did prevent the death sentence from being carried out. Palissy was for a time imprisoned near two young girls, daughters of Jacques Foucaud, attorney to the parliament. The girls were condemned like him for their loyalty to Christ. A contemporary records how the king visited him:

My good man, said the king, you have been forty-five years in the service of the queen my mother, or in mine, and we have suffered you to live in your own religion, amidst all the executions and massacres. Now, however, I am so pressed by the Guise party and my people, that I have been compelled in spite of myself to imprison these two poor women and you; they are to be burnt tomorrow, and you also, if you will not be converted. Palissy replied: These girls and I, who have part in the kingdom of heaven, we will teach to talk royally. The Guise party, all your people and you yourself cannot compel a Potter to bow down to images of clay.

The girls were burnt a few months afterwards, in June 1588. The news of their death reaching the Huguenot camp, Monsieur du Plessis said to the King of Navarre, shortly to be King Henry IV of France: 'Courage, sire, since even our girls can face death for the gospel.' It was not the will of God that Palissy should die in this way but he did later die in the Bastille for his faith at the age of eighty years old.

The church where Palissy worshipped prospered and their Huguenot pastor became respected in the community. So much so that the town itself was changed. Palissy, before his death, described at length the transformation which came over the whole of the local society. We select a few excerpts.

In that way our Church was established: in the beginning (it was attended) by despised folk; and when its enemies arrived to waste and persecute it, it had so well prospered in a few years, that already the games, dances, ballads, banquets, and superfluities of headdress and gildings, had almost ceased. There were almost no more scandalous words or murders. You would have seen in those days on a Sunday, fellow-tradesmen rambling through the fields, groves, and other pleasant places, singing in troops, Psalms, canticles, and spiritual songs, reading, and instructing one another. You would have seen the daughters and virgins seated by troops in the gardens and other places, who, in a like way, delighted themselves in the singing of all holy things. On the other hand, you would have seen the teachers, who had so well instructed the youth that the children had even no longer a childish manner but a look of manly courage. These things had so well prospered that people had changed their old manners, even to their very faces.

Palissy is a fine example of Huguenot character. He was spiritual, scriptural and industrious. Unashamed of God's truth and unafraid of men's faces, he must have been typical of very many French Protestants in the period between the Reformation and the reign of Louis XIV— and even beyond that time. He reminds us today that our first duty is to serve God on earth in our callings and to seek to have God glorified in the world.


  1. ^ Palissy the Potter, Henry Morley. Chapman & Hall, London, 1855, p. 290. 
  2. ^ Catherine de Medici, Hugh Ross Williamson. Michael Joseph, 1973, p. 213.
  3. ^ Quoted in The Huguenots, Alison Grant and Ronald Mayo. Longman, 1973, p. 40. 
  4. ^ Introduction to Modern France, 1500-1640. An essay in historical psychology. Robert Mandrou. Edward Arnold, 1975, p. 185, note 9.
  5. ^ The Life and Times of Catherine de Medici, Francis Watson. Cedric Chivers, 1970 (first published 1935), pp. 236-7.
  6. ^ A History of World Pottery, Emmanuel Cooper. Batsford, 1981, p. 173.
  7. ^ Pottery and Porcelain, John Cushion. The Connoisseur, 1972, p. 81

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