Sunday, 23 February 2014

The posthumous life of Joseph Chalier

Chalier - 19c bust from the 
Musée Gagagne,Lyon
Following the fall of Lyon Chalier rapidly gained the status of secular saint. 

On 4th November 1793, the fanatical Collot d'Herbois arrived in Lyon to replace Couthon as représentant en mission, to be followed a few days later by Fouché.  One of their first acts, signalling an agenda of ruthless Revolutionary vengeance, was a carefully staged ceremony in honour of the martyred Chalier.  The "apotheosis" was scheduled for 10th November (20 brumaire Year II) to coincide with Chaumette's "Festival of Reason" in the capital, and featured much deliberate commandeering of religious imagery. 

To make the message clear, on the eve of the celebration Dorfeuille, the president of the new people's court, pronounced a commemorative oration on the place des Terreaux, in which he castigated Lyon as a "latter-day Sodom" and assured the martyred Chalier that "we will avenge you ....and cleanse [your] hallowed soul" with the "blood of the scoundrels".
The Republic, between the spirits
 of Chalier and Barra
Contemporary engraving

The next day at daybreak, accompanied by canon fire, a procession set off from the place Bellecour and moved along the banks of the Saône in the direction of the town hall.  In the lead was "a gigantic statue carrying a large axe of the law on its half-naked shoulders", accompanied by "a group of sans-culottes armed with pikes and wearing Phrygian caps" and "a throng of young women dressed in white and wearing flowers".  The focal point was a palaquin, covered with a tricolour cloth and  borne aloft by four Parisian Jacobins.  On it stood the bust of Chalier, crowned with flowers, an urn containing his supposed ashes and the dove which was said to be his companion in prison.  "Twenty thurifers burning incense" circled round.  Next came a "corps of musicians and singers" just ahead of "an ass wearing a mitre, mantled by a bishop's vestment, with a chalice around its neck and a missal attached to its tail".  The rear was brought up by a mock muscadin, "dragging a flag of fleur-de-lys through the mud".

With the funeral urn duly installed before the town hall on an  improvised altar, the two representatives held forth.  In the name of a "prostrate nation" Collot d'Herbois asked God to forgive the slaying of "this most virtuous of men...[whose] suffering he swore to avenge" whilst Fouché pledged threateningly to "avenge Chalier's torment, using the blood of aristocrats as incense".

As a finale, the blasphemous symbolism was brought home by making the ass drink out the chalice whilst the missal was burned.  The urn was then conveyed to the nearby church of Saint-Nizier, to the accompaniment of a rousing song to the tune of the Marseillaise which vowed to  "avenge the honour and virtue" of Chalier, the "greatest of all genuine san-culottes." That same evening Collot d'Herbois and Fouche wrote to assure the Convention that they would heed the call for vengeance which had repeatedly punctuated the solemn ceremony.

In a further letter dated 25th November (5 frimaire)  Collot d'Herbois pressed home his advantage by announcing his intention to forward the relics of Chalier to Paris, this time accompanied by a new treasure: "We are sending to you the bust of Chalier and his mutilated head (in wax) as it came out for the third time from under the axe of his ferocious murderers".  This bloody head, he declared, should be uncovered to rouse the pusillanimous to full severity of national vengeance.

Whence came this gruesome object?

On  21st December (1 nivôse) 
Couthon helpfully revealed to the Convention that the funeral ceremonies of Chalier had been made possible thanks to the devotion of one Citizen Padovani who, aided by her son, had dug up "the precious remains of the martyr" and recouped the head, which she subsequently handed over to the authorities thereby enabling "the preservation of his traits". There is even a decree of the Convention awarding her 300 livres for her initiative!  It is hard to imagine quite what the waxwork entailed; the ashes must certainly have been spurious, given the lack of funeral pyres or handy crematoria in Revolutionary Lyon.

Collot d'Herbois's commissioners from Lyon duly arrived in Paris, accompanied by Chalier's mistress, "La Bonne Pie", whom they presented, to acclaim, before the Jacobins on 13th December (23 frimaire), together with the bust, the head and, of course, the urn containing the martyr's ashes. The chemist Antoine-François Fourcroy, who had the bad luck to be presiding, was obliged to vote the lady an accolade of honour.  On the motion of Hébert and Chaumette, the Commune set the 20th (30 frimaire)  as the date for a Parisian "apotheosis" in which the relics were to be venerated with great pomp in the grande salle of the Hôtel de Ville, then processed to the Convention itself.

The appointed day dawned and the fête commenced with patriotic hymns.  The hapless Pie was brought  into the middle of the assembly, greeted with enthusiasm and made to sit beside the President so as to share in the honour of presiding.  Chalier's final letters of commendation were read. Then the deputation from Lyon brought in the bust, the head and the ashes and an oration was given, comparing Chalier to Marat.  The ceremonial at the Convention was less satisfactory, for  the majority of deputies had absented themselves, and the procession was  forced to move swiftly on to the Jacobins where the relics were duly deposited.  The blooded head was unveiled dramatically to appreciative crowds (who were doubtless disappointed when it proved not to be the real thing).

The reception by the Convention was not to be put off indefinitely and the next day, 21st December, the bust, head and urn set out once more on their travels.  This time the deputies, whether through enthusiasm or desire to be rid of them, decreed that the remains should be immediately translated to the Pantheon, the Committee of Public Instruction charged with the eulogy and Pie assigned a generous pension "equal to that enjoyed by the widow of Jean-Jacques Rousseau".

Chalier - 19c Sevre biscuitware 
bust - Musée de la Révolution, 
française, Vizille
In Lyon the Terror unfolded with much Baroque apostophising directed at the head of Chalier. In Paris passions perhaps ran less high. The deification of Chalier was certainly a gift for enterprising purveyors of Revolutionary memorabilia;  according to Helen Maria Williams, "The good citizens of the republic, not to be behind hand with their representatives, placed Chalier in the cathedrals, in their public-houses, on fans and snuff-boxes - in short, wherever they thought his appearance would proclaim their patriotism.(Letter of 11th June 1794.)

Chalier's glory was, of course, relatively short-lived.  After Thermidor his ashes were swiftly removed from the Pantheon and in Lyon the Fête de la Concorde (18th February 1795) saw Chalier burned in effigy on the place des Terreaux to cries of relief and triumph.


Taken mainly from:
Aime Guillon de Montléon,  Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de la ville de Lyon pendant la Révolution (1824). vol. 2, p.406-
See also:
Antoine de Baecque The body politic: corporeal metaphor in Revolutionary France, 1770-1800 1997, p.290 [ Extracts on Google Books]

Philip Bourdin, "La Terreur et la mort" in  Cahiers de mediologie 13 (2002) [online journal]

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