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French Revolution
French Revolution

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2.5.1 Imagery of the Declaration

The decree on the abolition of nobility drew the line at damage to property, ownership of property having been proclaimed a natural right in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. (The decree is evidence that, as is known from other sources, the crowd was taking the law into its own hands by ransacking chateaux, destroying records of seigneurial dues, etc.)

Figure 1
Figure 1 French School, Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 1789, oil on canvas, Musée Carnavalet, Paris. Photo: Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library

Exercise 5

Looking at Figure 1, what does the imagery of the Declaration of the Rights of Man appear to draw upon?

Discussion

The basic form is biblical in inspiration: the well-known image of the two tablets of the law (the Ten Commandments) brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai. The implication is that the 17 rights of man parallel (or perhaps even supersede) the Judaeo-Christian decalogue. (In the preamble to the Declaration God is referred to as ‘the Supreme Being’, the divine creator of the universe postulated by Enlightenment deists.)

Other imagery is classical, drawn from motifs common in ancient republican Rome:

  • the central pike (the weapon of the free citizen), surmounted by the Phrygian cap, or legendary red cap of liberty, associated with the freed slave;

  • enveloping the pike, the fasces (upright sticks, bound together in a bundle, carried before the ‘lictors’ or senior magistrates and symbolising solidarity and civic virtue);

  • garlands of oak leaves, symbolising victory.

Other symbols include a chain with a broken fetter, symbolising emancipation from bondage; an equilateral triangle, symbolising equality; and the all-seeing eye of Providence (a masonic symbol).

The revolutionaries thus drew on appropriate aspects of classical and religious imagery, familiar under the Old Regime, and adapted them to a new ideology after 1789.