Thursday 8 June 2017

'Great are the perils of symbolism': Scenes from the Revolution

Things could be worse...
On this day in 1794 (20 Prairial Year II, as it was known at the time), the French revolutionary leader Robespierre inaugurated the first - and, as it turned out, last - Fesitval of the Supreme Being. Appalled by the naked atheism of the Cult of Reason, the 'sea-green incorruptible' had extinguished the cult, executed its leaders, and devised his own national religion, based on the salutary worship of a 'Supreme Being'.
  For the Festival of the Supreme Being in Paris, Robespierre had devised a spectacular ceremony, organised by the artist Jacques-Louis David and staged around a man-made mountain on the Champs de Mars. Huge crowds were assembled for the occasion, and Robespierre dressed with especial care, donning a splendid sky-blue coat.
 'As he looked out from the windows of the Tuileries upon the jubilant crowd in the gardens,' writes the historian John Morley, 'he was intoxicated with enthusiasm. "O Nature," he cried "how sublime thy power, how full of delight! How tyrants must grow pale at the idea of such a festival as this!" In pontifical pride, he walked at the head of the procession, with flowers and wheat-ears in his hand, to the sound of chants and symphonies and choruses of maidens. On the first of the great basins in the gardens, David, the artist, had devised an allegorical structure for which an inauspicious doom was prepared. Atheism, a statue of life size, was throned in the midst of an amiable group of human Vices, with Madness by her side, and Wisdom menacing them with lofty wrath. Great are the perils of symbolism. Robespierre applied a torch to Atheism, but alas, the wind was hostile, or else Atheism and Madness were damp. They obstinately resisted the torch, and it was hapless Wisdom who took fire. Her face, all blackened by smoke, grinned a hideous ghastly grin at her sturdy rivals. The miscarriage of the allegory was an evil omen, and men probably thought how much better the churchmen always managed their conjurings and the art of spectacle...'
 Weeks later, Robespierre's many enemies finally turned on him and his reign of terror ended. Besieged and at bay, Robespierre tried to shoot himself, but the bullet went through his jaw, leaving him alive, in great pain and, for once, speechless. Carlyle describes the scene:
'Robespierre lay in an anteroom of the Convention Hall, while his prison-escort was getting ready; the mangled jaw bound up rudely with bloody linen: a spectacle to men. He lies stretched on a table, a deal box his pillow; the sheath of the pistol is still clutched convulsively in his hand. Men bully him, insult him: his eyes still indicate intelligence; he speaks no word. He had on the sky-blue coat he had got made for the Feast of the Etre Supreme - O Reader, can thy hard heart hold out against that? His trousers were nankeen; the stockings had fallen down over the ankles. He spake no word more in this world.'
 That same day, Robsepierre suffered the fate he had himself decreed for so many thousands in the cause of 'Liberty': he was guillotined.