Jean-Paul Laurens was one of the last great history painters of the late 19th century, when the genre was in inexorable decline. The author of several very famous paintings in the Salon, widely circulated through reproduction and perfectly symbolised by The Excommunication of Robert the Pious, Lawrence was also an inspired decorator of the Pantheon and the Capitole in Toulouse in particular, and the main illustrator of the Récits des Temps Mérovingiens by Augustin Thierry.
Highly attached to Republican values and ferociously anticlerical, Lawrence chose obscure episodes in mediaeval history which enabled him to denounce religious intransigence in all its forms. Robert II, known as the Pious, the son of Hugues Capet, was excommunicated for incest by Pope Gregory V after refusing to repudiate his second wife and distant cousin Berthe of Burgundy.
As often in Laurens' work it is not the act itself but its eloquent consequences which are portrayed. The painting describes the moment after the announcement of the Pope's decision. The diagonal framing shows us the departure of the priests balanced by the prostration of the sovereigns, left alone to face a cruel, terrifying dilemma. Laurens here mobilises all his skill in staging, distilling the signs of condemnation in the silence and emptiness which followed the dramatic sentence: the sceptre that had fallen from the king's terrified hand and the taper symbolically knocked to the floor.