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French Revolution
French Revolution

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5.2 The cult of the Revolution

With the suppression of aristocrats, royalists and counter-revolutionary priests came a cultural revolution against symbols and monuments of the Old Regime, the monarchy and the Catholic Church (see Figure 6, below). Freedom of religion was decreed in 1793. The Abbey of St Denis outside Paris, burial place of the French kings since the sixth century, was despoiled of its corpses. The bodies of Henri IV, Louis XIV, Louis XV and others were tossed into a common grave. Royal statues and emblems were demolished or ‘vandalized’ (the word was invented in 1794). Such deliberate destruction and desecration suggest, again, a desire literally to root out the past and begin again.

Figure 6
Figure 6 Joseph Chinard, La Raison sous les traits d'Apollon foulant aux pieds la Superstition (Reason, in the person of Apollo, treading Superstition underfoot), 1791, terracotta model, 51.5 x 13.3 x 12 cm, Louvre, Paris. Photo: © RMN/C.Jean

Joseph Chinard's La Raison sous les traits d'Apollon foulant aux pieds la Superstition (Reason, in the person of Apollo, treading Superstition underfoot) (Figure 6) depicts Apollo, the sun god, the rays of the sun streaming from his head, striding across a cloud bearing a torch. Superstition, in a nun's habit and veiled, is unable to see the true light. Superstition holds two sacred emblems of Christianity, the cross and the chalice. Chinard, who was then at the French Academy (of art) in Rome, was for a time imprisoned by the papal authorities, almost certainly because of his blasphemous treatment of Christian emblems. (I am grateful for this information to Dr Linda Walsh.)

Most churches were closed down, the sans-culottes making sure of that. Place names were changed. The town of St-Pierre-le-Moutier (St Peter's Monastery) became Brutus-le-Magnanime (Brutus the Magnanimous). Montmartre became Mont Marat. Around 1,400 Paris streets were renamed: the rue des vierges (virgins’ street) becoming the rue Voltaire and the ǐle Saint-Louis changed to the ǐle de la Fraternité. There was a rue de la Liberté and a rue de l'égalite. Even Christian names, strictly so-called, were discouraged in favour of the names of heroes of republican Rome or precursors of the Revolution: Jean-Jacques (after Rousseau) rather than Joseph. Men christened Louis tended to change their name.

Alternatives to Roman Catholicism were encouraged by the institution of revolutionary public ‘festivals’ with their own symbolism replacing Christian festivals and saints’ days. The revolutionaries, like the thinkers of the Enlightenment, even if they believed in God, were mostly doubtful about the reality of an afterlife, and they felt the need for a secular alternative that would glorify the names of those who had contributed to the progress of humanity by immortalizing them in the nation's collective memory. Diderot had written that posterity was for the philosophe what heaven was for the believer. This was applied literally in 1791 when the church of Sainte-Genevieve in Paris became the Pantheon (temple of all the gods), rededicated as a final resting place for the ‘great men’ of the nation. The inscription on the portico reads: Aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante (to its great men – the grateful fatherland). Here the remains of Voltaire – whose name personified the Enlightenment as none other – were ceremonially reburied in July 1791 in a festival decorated with floats designed by the artist Jacques-Louis David and accompanied by brass and massed choirs singing the anthem Peuple, éveille-toi! (People, awake!) under the direction of its composer, François-Joseph Gossec. In October 1794 the remains of Rousseau were likewise transferred to the Pantheon with similar pomp. Thus while Louis XVI was decapitated and the bodies of his Bourbon ancestors were wantonly desecrated, those of the two best-known figures of the Enlightenment were reconsecrated as hallowed relics of the prophets of the Revolution. In November 1793 the metropolitan cathedral of Notre Dame was rededicated as the Temple of Reason.

In May 1794 the Convention passed a decree introducing the cult of the Supreme Being. This represented the triumph of the deist trend of the Enlightenment. Men might be sceptical of a particularist, sectarian concept of a Christian god, but that did not necessarily lessen faith in the Supreme Being of a natural religion. The climax came in June 1794 with the Festival of the Supreme Being, publicly celebrated by Robespierre.

The example of Paris was swiftly followed throughout France. On 19 December 1793, within six weeks of the rededication of Notre Dame in Paris, the commune of Aubenas in the department of the Ardeche held its own festival to celebrate ‘the precious benefits of the Revolution and the abolition of the abuses of a hateful regime, remembered only with horror’ (Charay, 1990, p.195; trans. Lentin). It was also agreed that ‘in order to immortalize the memory of Marat, the friend of the people, there will be an apotheosis’ (the granting of divine or elevated status) ‘on the day of the Festival of Reason, in honour of the martyr of liberty’ (Charay, 1990, p.195). Marat too was buried in the Pantheon.

In 1795 the Catholic Church in France as reorganized under the Civil Constitution was formally separated from the state by decree of the Convention. The episode of de-Christianization was not long-lived, but it was significant of the utopianism which inspired many revolutionaries and which derived ultimately from the Enlightenment. In particular, this utopianism came from Rousseau: a belief in ‘regenerated man’, ‘the people’ and ‘humanity’, a return to the supposed virtues of Sparta or republican Rome (see Figure 7). It was accompanied by the ritual demonization of royalists, nobles and priests as ‘enemies of the people’.

Figure 7
Figure 7 Jacques-Louis Pérée, Regenerated Man Gives Thanks to the Supreme Being, 1794–5, 41.5 x 29 cm, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. With one hand he holds up the Rights of Man; in the other he wields a mattock. Beneath his feet lies the axed tree of the Old Regime, the debris of aristocratic privilege and luxury. A shaft of lightning sears a crown

Ideas of regeneration and reconstruction received further impetus during the Revolutionary Wars, in which, for example, the city of Lille near the Belgian frontier was damaged. Plans for rebuilding drew on the cult of the Revolution, on Rousseau, and on republican ideals with their strong classical associations. These ideals were eloquently expressed by Robespierre in his speech to the Convention of 5 February 1794 (Anthology I, pp. 98–9):

Now what is the fundamental principle of democratic or popular government, that is to say, the essential force that maintains and inspires it? It is virtue: I am speaking of public virtue, which brought about so many wonders in Greece and Rome, and which must produce even more astounding ones in republican France.

For an example of the reinterpretation of republican ideals in architecture, see Plate 4 (Verly's design for a public bath and theatre in Lille). This design recalls the public buildings and monuments of ancient Rome (baths and theatre, obelisks, equestrian statues). The Roman republic was central to the concept of a modern republic of free and equal citizens inspired by ‘public virtue’. The design is severely classical: symmetrical with arches and columns. (For other classically inspired republican symbols see Plates 4 and 5.)

Click to view Plate 4: François Verly, view of the proposed public bath and theatre in Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille. Photo: © RMN/Quecq d’Henripret [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Click to view Plate 5: Quatremère, group with la Patrie in the centre for the eastern nave of the Pantheon, 1793, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

Click to view Plate 6: Joseph Chinard, bas-relief for the city hall in Lyon, 6.4 x 5.4 x 3 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. Photo: © Studio Basset.