Wednesday, 15 May 2019

The Fête de la Raison at Notre-Dame

La fête de la Raison dans Notre-Dame de Paris le 10 novembre 1793, par Charles-Louis Müller (1878)

On the evening of Gobel's abdication,  the Commune and the Department of Paris announced that the patriotic fête for the following décadi, 20 Brumaire (10 November 1793)  would take place in Notre-Dame:"the musicians of the National Guard and others will come to sing patriotic hymns before the statue of liberty, erected in the stead of the former Virgin Mary".  The printed procès-verbal for the Department also specified that the musicians of the Opéra would  be invited to perform their libretto  l'Offrande à la Liberté.  In his Circular the mayor, Pache, described the event as a fête de la liberté et de la raison.

On the appointed day, the members of the Commune and Department, followed by a considerable crowd of supporters, braved the rain to arrive at Notre-Dame at 10 o'clock in the morning. There was no military presence: arms,  Hanriot  pronounced sententiously  in his order for the day, are  appropriate only for combat; they are not for brothers meeting together "to wash away Gothic prejudices" and "to enjoy the sweetness of equality". (cited in Prudhomme's Révolutions de Paris)

At the east end of the nave, beneath the Gothic vaulting, a stage set had been erected consisting of an immense mountain confectioned from linen and  papier-mâché.  Artful draperies were attached to the pillars on either side so as to conceal the choir and  the rear of the church.   On the summit of the mountain a small round Grecian temple bore the inscription "A la philosophie". On either side of the door were the busts of four "philosophers":  according to Aulard, Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and possibly Montesquieu.  Half-way down the mountain, was  a rock which served as the base for a circular altar, decorated with oak branches.  Here a lighted torch  represented the "Flame of Reason" or "Flame of Truth". Aulard comments that, with the West doors open, the interior of the cathedral must have appeared relatively light and airy, as can be seen in the engraving which accompanied the account in Prudhomme's Révolutions de Paris.

Plate from Prudhomme, Révolutions de Paris, vol. 17, no. 215
(23 Brumaire II [13 November 1793]):
The ceremony began with a performance by the musicians of the National Guard. While the music played, two rows of  girls, dressed in white, with tricolour belts and crowns of flowers/oak leaves, came down each side of the mountain and moved across it, flaming torches in hand.

 Liberty, personified by a beautiful woman dressed in white, complete with  Phrygian bonnet and pike, how appeared from the Temple. She bowed to the flame of Reason and seated herself on a bank of foliage to receive the homage of her admirers.  According to the procès-verbal of the Convention, she was "a faithful image of Beauty"; "her imposing and gracious attitude commanded Respect and Love"  The assembled republicans  stretched out their arms and gave an impassioned rendition of the newly composed  L'Hymne à la Liberté, words by M.-J. Chénier, music by Gossec.    Liberty then retreated to her temple, pausing on the threshold to cast "one last benevolent glance on her friends".  According to the Révolutions de Paris,  general enthusiasm now erupted into cries of joy and spontaneous vows of fidelity.  Speeches followed,  though (possibly mercifully) the texts no longer exist.

Jean-François Garneray, Portrait of Mademoiselle Maillard (Marie-Thérèse Davoux, 1766-1818), c.1790.
Musée Carnavalet

It was to the disgust of many observers, that this well-choreographed performance so conspicuously featured the cast of the Parisian Opéra;  Hébert (Père Duchêne) commented with satisfaction that the jolies damnées sang better than Angels. The identity of the actress who represented Liberty excited speculation, even from the disapproving and usually sober abbé Grégoire.  She was variously pronounced to be Mlle Maillard or Mlle Aubry, or perhaps Mlle  Candeille, all three singers of the Opéra. She was also occasionally identified as the wife of the Cordelier printer Momoro - who performed at a similar event in the former church of  Saint-André-des Arts. Henri Lyonnet in his Dictionary of Les Comédiennes favoured Mlle Maillard, Marie-Thérèse Davoux  - the Opéra's lead singer of the day.

The Convention did not attend the ceremony.  Probably advisedly, the deputies were informed of it only when the Assembly was already in session.  A deputation from Notre-Dame raced to announce the fait accompli.  Chaumette declared triumphantly that the people , having made "a sacrifice to Reason in the former metropolitan church",  had now come to repeat it in "the sanctuary of the Law"  The cortege was admitted: a crowd of noisy musicians and performers, with Liberty herself borne aloft on a litter carried by four citizens.  The group stopped opposite the president;  the young girls formed a circle around Liberty, and there followed  an enthusiastic reprise of the patriotic hymns that had just been sung in Notre-Dame.

Chaumette harangued the Assembly, congratulating  himself on the fall of fanaticism. The people would have no more priests,  and "no other gods than those whom Nature offers to us". He asked for Notre-Dame to be consecrated to Reason and Liberty.  On Chabot's proposal,  the Convention formally decreed that the cathedral should henceforth be designated as a temple of Reason.  Romme demanded that the goddess be seated beside the president Pierre-Antoine Laloy, who extended to her a fraternal embrace.  On the motion of Thuriot, the deputies then repaired to Notre-Dame where the pageant was repeated for their benefit.

By no means the majority in the Assembly were favourably disposed (See Aulard, p.58-9).  Durand-Maillane and abbé Grégoire both confirm that only half the Conventionnels went on to Notre-Dame; many had already absented themselves in order  to avoid participation in anti-religious scenes.

Fête de la Raison, German print of 1793 
"Idolatrous fete celebrated in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, where the Jacobins had an Actress seated on the Altar, whom they worshipped as the Goddess of Reason".


Historians have debated for a century over the meaning of the fête de la Raison.  Who were responsible and what were their motivations?  Was it a cult still impregnated with religiosity, albeit republican?  A step towards the laïcisation of society, or a diversion become grass roots, to hide the crucial issue of subsistence?  This singular fête of 20 brumaire, which anticipated a world without God, without Christ, without churches, happened two hundred and twenty years ago, one décadi, in the Temple of Reason....[Serge Bianchi]

It is the general modern consensus that the festival did not in fact represent the start of a unified "Cult of Reason":  see particularly Mona Ozouf, Festivals and the French Revolution, p.97-8.
  • The event was a civic festival not a religious ceremony - it is described by Momoro in the Révolutions de Paris as "une fête patriotique".  
  • The mise en scène was not novel.  An  existing civic celebration, to be held in the gardens of the Palais-Royal on the next décadi, 20 brumaire, was simply transferred to Notre-Dame. There was only three days' notice of the change, leaving little chance for modification.  The occasion, as originally conceived, was basically an open-air concert;  the musicians of the National Guard were to play in the  Lycée des Arts adjacent to the gardens;  Chénier and Gossec had already composed their new Hymne à la Liberté for the event.   It was also no great surprise that the musicians and singers of the Opéra were hurriedly called into service; they had performed in many such patriotic entertainments, starting with the festivities which had accompanied the "call to arms" in 1792.  The libretto Offrande à la Liberté which supplied the dramatic elements had been playing at the Opéra for more than a year .
  • The festival was not dedicated to "Reason" at all, but to Liberty.  Although the procès-verbal of the Convention  refers to the actress as the "goddess of Reason", it was clearly Liberty that she was intended to personify:  Chénier's anthem opened with the invocation, "Descend, O Liberty, Daughter of Nature".   Mona Ozouf  emphasises the fluidity of the iconography:  the anthems sung could refer to Liberty but could equally well be adapted "to celebrating the triumph that Reason has gained in this season over the prejudices of eighteen centuries" .  This ambiguity is clear in the various Sectional and provincial celebrations which followed the ceremony in Notre-Dame.  Many of these were highly improvised and a good deal less decorous.  In the provinces, there was often no clear differentiation between festivals of the so-called "Cult of Reason" and later ones dedicated to the Supreme Being.  
We do not, then, get any sense of a highly individualised festival.  According to the official accounts, it actually went by different names: at one place it might be the Festival of Morals, at another the Festival of Virtue.  It is also clear why it is difficult to distinguish it from the Festival of the Supreme Being, to which, logically, it is opposed.  I don't need to repeat here what was demonstrated so well by both Aulard and Mathiez: the two cults were not clearly differentiated in the minds of the organisers, using as they did the same decorations, the same speeches, the same invocations, and the same actors.  In the Festival of Reason there were sometimes invocations to the Supreme Being, and the Supreme Being might be worshipped in the Festival of Reason without anyone thinking it necessary to erase the was the France of 1905, not that of 1794, that saw the cult of Reason as the triumph of freethinking. [Ozouf p.97]
  • The aim of "dechristianisation" was to deliver ordinary people from the trammels of religion and the ideological dominance of the Church. The word  "homage" was sometimes used to describe the celebration of "Reason", but it was not equated with actual worship.  According to Laloy, on 7th November, "The Supreme Being wants no other worship than that of reason". The organisers were mindful of the need to avoid the substitution of one set of irrational superstitions for another.  They emphasised that Liberty was represented by "a living woman and not a statue", so that there could be no temptation towards idolatry.
  • A "world without God"?  Not all  of the sponsors by any means were doctrinaire atheists. Chaumette, for instance adhered to an emotional deism and proposed the erection of a statue to Rousseau:  
Atheism, moreover, except as an erroneous synonym for non-Theism or infidelity was not avowed by the sponsors of the cult of Reason, but at most agnosticism; and most of them were Deists.  According to Aulard, the only professed atheist prominent in Paris in that period was Salaville; and far from being pleased with the cult and fete of Reason, he protested against the whole affair [Lyttle, p.23; see Aulard, p.79]
  • The festival has been seen through the prism of hostile commentaries, starting with that of Robespierre himself, who juxtapositioned the "aristocracy" of atheism with the purified Cult the Supreme Being.  The abbé Grégoire's Histoire des cultes, which first appeared in 1814, is another very influential, but ultimately misleading source. Grégoire divides the "religions" of the Revolution in four: atheism or the Cult of Reason; the national fêtes of the new Republican calendar; the Cult of the Supreme Being and finally "Thephilanthropism" in the Directory period.


François-Alphonse Aulard, Le culte de la raison et le culte de l'Être Suprême (1793-1794) : essai historique (1892)

James Guillaume, "La déesse de la Liberté  à Notre-Dame (fete du 20 Brumaire an II)", Etudes révolutionnaires (1909).

 Charles Lyttle, “Deistic Piety in the Cults of the French Revolution.” Church History, vol. 2, no. 1, 1933, pp. 22–40.

Mona Ozouf, Festivals and the French Revolution (Harvard U.P. 1991), p.97

Serge Bianchi,"l793:  La Fête de la Liberté à Notre-Dame-de-la-Raison", L'Humanité, 15.11.2013.


Momoro in Prudhomme, Révolutions de Paris
In the former metropolitan church of Paris, an immense crowd gathered.  A temple had been erected there, of simple architecture, majestic, on the facade of which could be read the words "To philosophy"; the entrance to the temple had been decorated with the busts of the philosophers who had contributed most, through their ideas,  to  the present revolution.   The sacred temple was elevated on the top of a mountain.  Towards the middle, on a rock, burned the flame of truth.  All the constituted authorities assembled in this sanctuary. Only the armed forces were not present; the commander-general in his order of the day, informed those who noticed this, that arms belonged only in combat, not in a place where  brothers joined together to finally wash away gothic prejudices and to taste, in joyous satisfaction, the sweetness of equality.

This ceremony did not resemble those mummeries in Greek and Latin; it spoke directly to the soul.  The musical instruments did not roar out like the horns of the churches.  Republican musicians, placed at the foot of the mountain, played in our native language; the people understood the hymn all the better since it expressed natural truths and not mystical and chimerical praises. During this majestic music, two rows of young girls, dressed in  white and crowned with oak, came down and traversed the mountain, torches in hand, before returning in the same direction.  Liberty, represented by a beautiful woman, then came out from the temple of philosophy.  From a seat of greenery, she received homage from republican men and women, who  sang a hymn in her honour and held out their arms to her.   Liberty then got up and returned to her temple, stopping to throw a benevolent glance at her friends.  As soon as she had re-entered, enthusiasm broke out with joyous singing and  and oaths to be faithful to her forever.

Since the members of the National Convention could not attend this ceremony in the morning, it was repeated in the evening in their presence.

No-one noticed how little time had passed between the session of the Convention where fanaticism was thrown down and the day when this great and eternal victory was celebrated.  Everything was suitably arranged; it should be noted, above all,  that attention was taken to employ a living woman and not a statue to represent Liberty.  The aim, from the first, was to free people's minds of any sort of idolatry; care was taken not to replace the Holy-Sacrament with an inanimate representation of Liberty.  In this way simple minds could not mistakenly substitute a god of stone for one of bread;  there must be no more superstition among men;  if we have overturned deceitful cults, it is not to erect others in their stead, to set up objects which might mislead the imagination and the heart;  this living woman, despite all the charms which beautified her, could not be deified by the uneducated, as might have been the case with a stone statue.
Prudhomme, Révolutions de Paris, vol. xvii, p.214,

From the procès-verbal  of the Convention
The constituted authorities of Paris presented themselves at the bar of the Convention;  the procureur of the Commune of Paris spoke:

"The people have just made a sacrifice to Reason in the former metropolitan church;  it now comes to offer another in the sanctuary of the Law.  I ask the Convention to admit them."

On the proposition of a member, the Convention decreed their admittance.

The procession began with a group of young musicians; they were followed by young republicans, defenders of the Fatherland;  they sang a patriotic hymn, repeated in chorus, in the midst of the most lively applause.  A group of many republicans, wearing bonnets of liberty came forward repeating cries of long live the Republic!  Long live the Mountain!  The people and members of the Convention added their voices to those of these republicans.

A prodigious number of musicians raised the roof with the cherished songs of the Revolution;  a troop of republican girls, dressed in white, girded with tricolour ribbons and with garlands of flowers on their heads, preceded and surrounded Reason.  This was a woman, a faithful image of beauty;  she had on her head a bonnet of liberty;  on her shoulders was a blue cloak, and she held in her right hand a pike.  Seated on a simple litter, decorated with oak garlands, she was carried aloft by four citizens; her imposing and gracious appearance commanded respect and love.

These sentiments were demonstrated with the greatest enthusiasm; the cries of Long live the Republic  redoubled;  bonnets and caps were throw in the air;  the people gave themselves over to cries of the most pure joy.

The goddess of Reason was placed in front of the bar, opposite the president.  The procureur of the Commune of Paris expressed himself thus:

You have seen, Citizen legislators, that fanaticism has been overcome together with cowardice;  it has abandoned its place to reason, to justice and truth;  its furtive eyes could not stand the bright light;  it has fled.  We have taken possession of the temples that it has abandoned to us;  we have regenerated them.  Today the people of Paris came together under the Gothic vaults which have so long been assaulted by the voice of error, but  which today resounded to the cry of liberty.  We have made our sacrifice to liberty, to equality, to nature; we cried there Long live the Mountain!  The Mountain heard us; for it joined us in the temple of Reason.  We did not offer our sacrifices to empty images, to inanimate idols; no it is a masterpiece of nature that we have chosen and that image has inflamed all our hearts.  A single vow, a single cry was heard everywhere.  The people said: "No more priest, no other gods than those which nature offers us.

We their magistrates have taken up their vow, we bring it to you from the temple of Reason;  we come into that of the Law, to celebrate again Liberty.  We ask that the former metropolitan church of Paris be dedicated to Reason and Liberty.  Fanaticism has abandoned it;  reasonable beings have taken possession of it;   consecrate their ownership."

This speech was greeted with applause.

The president replied:   The Assembly sees with the greatest satisfaction the triumph that reason has gained today over superstition and fanaticism;  it will go as a body in the midst of  the people to the temple that you have just consecrated to this goddess,  to consecrate with it this august and memorable celebration;  it is the work of the people and its cry of victory which has decreed it.

A member converted into a motion the request of the citizens of Paris that the metropolitan church should henceforth be a temple of Reason.

A member demanded that the goddess of Reason be seated next to the president.

The procureur of the Commune led her to the desk.  The president and secretaries offered her a fraternal embrace in the midst of applause.

She sat next to the president.

A member demanded that the National Convention walk as a body among the people to the Temple of Reason, to sing the hymn of liberty.  This proposition was decreed.

The Convention walked with the people to the temple of Reason, in the middle of transports and acclamations of universal joy.

When they arrived at the temple of Reason, they sang the hymn which follows, words by Chenier, representative of the people and music by Gressec.

Descend, O Liberty, daughter of Nature; 
The people, recovering thy immortal power, 
Upon the stately ruins of old imposture,
Raise once again thy altar!

Come, conqueror of kings, Europe's example; 
Come, over false Gods complete thy success!
Thou, Saint Liberty, inhabit this temple,
Be of our nation the Goddess!
quoted in Delarc, L'église de Paris pendant la révolution française, 1789-1801, Vol. 2 (1895)  p.431-3.

The abbé Grégoire.
There came into the chamber of the Assembly, to the noise of fanfares, a crowd of people surrounding a woman from the Opera named Maillard, carried shoulder-height and representing, so the procès-verbaux say, the divinity of the French, Liberty.

The procureur of the Commune  Chaumette spoke: "Fanaticism has ceded its place to truth.  Its squinting eyes could not stand the light. The people of Paris took possession of its neglected temple and regenerated it. The Gothic vaults, which up until now only resounded with lies, have today heard the voice of truth....You will note that we did not have for our fetes inanimate idols, but a chef-d'oeuvre of nature, which we dressed in the garments of liberty, and its sacred image moved all our hearts.  The people have only one cry: no more priests; no more God than that of nature; we come with them to ask that you decree that the former church of Notre Dame be converted into a temple dedicated to Reason and Truth."

This request was instantly decreed in the midst of acclamations.  The goddess of Liberty took her place next to the president who gave her a fraternal embrace; the musicians played the hymn to liberty of Gossec, and half the Convention left with this horde of atheist-fanatics to go and celebrate Reason in its new temple.  Thus the basilica which for centuries had resounded with  the truths of the gospels, was delivered over to a crowd of prostitutes, hysterics and atrocious persecutors.
abbé Grégoire, Histoire des sectes, vol. 1 (1828 ed.)

The change of the calendar was the prelude to the abolition of Christianity.  The Commune proposed this act of impiety to the Convention, which made itself complicit, and replaced by decree the catholic cult with the cult of reason.  This deplorable scandal, the speeches in honour of atheism, the indecent abjurations - for the most part forced - figured in the procès-verbal that was sent to the authorities and to the armies.  The poet Chénier composed a hymn, where,  true disciple of Voltaire that he was, he made open war against the religion of Jesus-Christ:
Descend, O Liberty, daughter of Nature; 
The people, recovering thy immortal power, 
Upon the stately ruins of old imposture,
Raise once again thy altar!

Come, conqueror of kings, Europe's example; 
Come, over false Gods complete thy success!
Thou, Saint Liberty, inhabit this temple,
Be of our nation the Goddess!

I did not go to the scandalous event in the church of Notre-Dame, where an actress from the Opera was showered in incense like a divinity;  and I must say that half at least of the members of the Convention refused to attend.  A great number of them refused even to go to the sessions of the Assembly after the day when the bishop of Paris was dragged to the bar to declare himself an impostor...
Durand de Maillane,  Histoire de la Convention (1825), p.181-2.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Print Friendly and PDF