The Young Martyr represents both Delaroche’s emphasis on historical accuracy and flair for drama and emotionality in painting as The Young Martyr depicts the historical martyrdom of a Christian, while, at the same time, an otherworldly halo, emanating above the Martyr’s forehead, emphasizes the painting’s dramatic, emotional effect.
The Young Martyr depicts the sacrifice of a young Christian woman into the Tiber River. However, what the painting alludes to is not merely the countless Christian martyrs throughout the centuries, but specifically the martyrdom Christians under the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian- when Christians were systematically persecuted for their religious beliefs.
Although the painting of The Young Martyr does not overtly allude to Diocletian, it could easily be said that, since the Diocletianic Persecution of Christians is so well known in history, and so often cited in Art, the Persecution would have served as a firm foundation for Delaroche, artistically, and would have given Delaroche ample reason to paint the martyrdom of a young Christian. It should also be noted, however, that Delaroche opted to depict the martyrdom of a “female” Christian in The Young Martyr. Although Delaroche is known to have “introduced the genii or muses, who symbolize or reign over the arts,” and to have often idealized female figures, the choice to depict the martyrdom of a young woman may, more truly, have been part of Delaroche’s response to the death of his wife, Louise Vernet, in 1845, whom he was known to have included as a figure in many of his paintings, for homage.
King Mwanga II, who reigned from 1884 to 1888, was widely reported to have engaged in sexual relations with his male subjects.
Researcher Ambrose Mukasa said: ‘It is documented that King Mwanga II had many young men in his palace and was sodomizing them at his will.
‘When missionaries introduced Christianity and some of the young men were baptized and taught about the dangers of homosexuality, they started denying Mwanga the usual “pleasure” he used to get from them.’
Mwanga reportedly became annoyed and went wild wondering how mere pages had started disobeying him. He clashed with the missionaries. He instructed the killing of all the young men who disobeyed him – with the executions taking place between 1885 and 1887. And the murdered young men were considered martyrs because they resolved to die for their new religion rather than surrendering their bodies to the king.
The word Bbaffe in Buganda kingdom means ‘our husband’. All subjects in Buganda under Mwanga, including men, were instructed to refer to king Mwaga as Bbaffe because to him, men were also his wives.
‘Even men referred to king Mwanga II as Bbaffe which means that he was free to sodomize any man he wanted after all he was the husband for all men and women,’ said an elder in Buganda, Siomon Mugere.
On April 1899, Mwanga was forced out of his kingdom and exiled by the British into the Seychelles Islands, where he was detained until his death.