It was the year 451 AD and the great Roman Empire was beginning to crumble. The Goths and the Visigoths and the Vandals had been crossing the Rhine and entering Roman-occupied Gaul for the last forty years. And now came the worst of them all: Attila the Hun, whose ferocious army was the main reason other tribes fled their homes and headed west. Attila the Scourge of God was approaching the walls of Paris.
The men of Paris were getting nervous and started the preparation for abandoning their city but then Ste Genevieve and her nuns came along and beseeched them to stay and pray and promised that if everyone prayed to God for safety then their town would be spared. And so they prayed and Attila decided at the last minute to forget Paris and changed his target of mass destruction to Orleans. And so Paris was spared from Attila and the Huns.
One of the four walls in the Pantheon devoted to the life of Ste Genevieve displays this story of Attila the Hun. Philippe de Chennevières, the director of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, commissioned the popular artist Jules-Elie Delaunay to produce a painting of Attila for the wall’s first panel and then create a three-panel scene of Ste Genevieve convincing the citizens of Paris to pray. Delaunay began his four 15-foot panels and four 7-foot friezes around 1876 and worked on them off and on for the next fifteen years but when he died in 1891 the works were still unfinished. A couple of his pupils put finishing touches on major portions of the canvases and if you look at the paintings from a distance they look like they are finished. But up-close you can tell that the paintings are not complete.
Attila went on to Orleans and was inside that city when he heard that the Roman army under Flavius Aëtius (the last great Roman general) had allied with the Visigoths and their combined huge army was headed in their direction. Attila decided to leave Orleans and fight in the open rather then defend the city in a siege. But the Romans and their Visigoth allies defeated the Huns at the battle of Chalons and Attila retreated back across the Rhine and never entered Gaul again. The next year, though, he decided to invade northern Italy and he ravaged and plundered his way down the country and was soon at the gates of Rome. But Pope Leo the Great begged him to spare Rome and so he did and went back to his stronghold across the Danube. He died a year later and the Hun empire was never the same. In fact, a year after his death the Hunnic army led by his son Ellac was soundly defeated at the Battle of Nedao in what is today eastern Hungary. After this battle the Huns ceased to exist as a political entity and the surviving soldiers became mercenaries. Attila, however, is still a popular first-name in both Hungary and Turkey.
Ste Genevieve is given credit for saving Paris. Thirty years later the Franks captured Paris and Ste Genevieve had to intervene again to help her people. But that is another story on another wall and we’ll save it for another day.
Oh, history does not record what the people of Orleans thought of the Parisian prayers that sent Attila and his Huns to their town.