With its single spire towering to 142 metres, the Cathedral in Strasbourg was the tallest building in the world until as late as 1874. During a recent visit, I heard for the first time how, the spire was saved during the Revolution by the addition of a giant metal bonnet rouge. The tale seemed unlikely but further investigation confirms that it is perfectly true.
In late 1793 the depredations of dechristianisation and Revolutionary iconoclasm began to make themselves felt in Strasbourg. On 25 brumaire an II (15th October) the Muncipal Commission under Mayor Pierre-François Monet – at 24 the enfant terrible of the Revolution in Strasbourg - closed several churches closed and made them into stores for fodder. Two days later Monet announced that the cathedral would be dedicated to the national cult and bear the name "Temple of Reason": for fifteen centuries it had stood as a theatre of imposture; in a mere three day it had been purified from “all the ridiculous ornaments of fanaticism".At first no move was made against the cathedral’s fabric itself, apart the removal of the iron grilles between the choir and the nave, which were sacrificed to the war effort. However, on 4 frimaire (24th November), the representatives Saint-Just and Lebas, ordered that the statues of Kings were to be toppled from the new Temple of Reason and a tricolour flag flown from the tower. Their demands met with consternation at the Hôtel de Ville, where the influence of Monet was not yet preponderant. The Revolutionaries found themselves caught between fear of being compromised and their love for the building which had long been a source of local pride. Orders were given on the same day to proceed with the removal the great bronze doors which were erroneously thought to be solid metal. A small number of the most politically compromising statues were also taken down, but the municipality courageously insisted that the cathedral was a “national monument” and opposed the destruction of stonework integral to the structure. In the end, however, it proved impossible to resist Monet and on 17 frimaire (7th December 1793) the work of destruction began in earnest. In the end more than 200 statues were destroyed. A gigantic tricolour flag was placed over the West door, and a sign hung on the facade which proclaimed, "Light after darkness". The cathedral’s other doors were also surmounted with wooden panels bearing revolutionary inscriptions. Inside the famous 15th-century pulpit (happily safely dismantled), was replaced by a Revolutionary tribune.
|The cathedral in 1809 |
|Cathedral of Our Lady in Strasbourg, turned into a Temple of Reason|
Illustration from : J. Ch. Dieterich: Revolutions-Almanach von 1795. Göttingen 1794
It seemed increasingly unlikely the spire would escape. In the Jacobins on 24 November 1793 the local terrorist, Antoine Tétérel proposed that it should be demolished to the base of the tower. He was seconded by the municipal Bierlyn who complained that the citizens of Strasbourg “regard with pride this pyramid, raised up by the superstition of the people and standing as a reminder of former errors”. Tétérel subsequently became a member of the municipality and renewed his proposition, claiming that the spire was offensive to the spirit of equality. His colleagues temporised and complained that the cost of demolition was prohibitive.It was the locksmith and ferronnier Jean-Michel Sultzer, himself a member of the municipality, who is traditionally credited with resolving the dilemma by proposing that the cross on the top of the lantern should be capped with a Phrygian bonnet to symbolise the liberation from slavery of the people of the Rhine: "Foreigners will see it from the opposite bank of the river and it will stand for us, like the Jewish brazen serpent, against the suffering of slavery" . The idea was not entirely novel: a district circular had previously instructed that symbols of superstition were to be replaced "by bonnets of liberty, visible from afar, so that foreigners can see these signs of our independence and so that they can gladden the hearts of true Republicans" (quoted Reuss (1922) p.294) The enormous bonnet was made out of sheet metal painted bright red. (une immense coiffure phrygienne en tôle, badigeonnée d'un rouge vif,) According to the municipal records work was carried out on the between 23 floréal and 5 prairial (12 May and 13 June 1794); other sources have 4th May for the date when the bonnet was hoisted up - at the expense of some damage - to the top of the tower. The arms of the cross were hidden with oak garlands, also in metal, painted green. Nicknamed the "Kaffeewärmer" by locals, the bonnet remained proudly in place until 27 germinal an X (17th Apil 1807). Jean-Jérémie Oberlin, the town librarian, then had it placed with assorted curios in the municipal library in the former church of the Dominicans. It was finally destroyed by fire during the German bombardment of Strasbourg in 1870.
There is a certain amount of scepticism that this feat of engineering was really possible with the technology available in the late 18th-century: see for example, the discussion on the Forum Napoleon:
A lot depends on how big the bonnet really was. According to some websites it was 10 metres tall, which is truly enormous and, apart from anything else, far too large to fit into an upstairs room of the municipal library, where the Strasbourg historian Rodolphe Reuss reported that he had seen it several times. However, it need not have been quite so huge in order to cover the apex of the cross at the very top of the spire. This picture from the 1920s gives some idea of scale: it suggests the bonnet need only have been two metres or so high, which seems more realistic.
|Postcard on "Geneanet" dating from about 1920.|
There is a bit more information to be had about Sultzer:
Born in Strasbourg in 1740, he was in his fifties at the time of the Revolution and was an established master locksmith. As well as creating the bonnet, he was responsible for dismantling the iron grilles and the doors of the Cathedral. His premises at 24 place de la Cathédrale still stand; since 1871 they have belonged to the family firm Antiquités Bastian. The facade of the building is adorned with a bust, thought to be that of Sultzer, or possibly Tétérel (The fine iron shop sign showing the cathedral and its bonnet was erected by Jean Bastian in the 1980s.) Sultzer's wife was Madeleine Drouel. Their son Charles-Michel became a renowned doctor, and their daughter was Soeur Vincent Sultzer, superior general of the Soeurs de la Charité in Strasbourg from 1813 to 1868.
Sultzer himself was a committed Revolutionary. Several websites mention him as a friend of Euloge Schneider, the notorious Public Prosecutor of the Revolutionary tribunal in Strasbourg. An compilation of "Hommes de la Revolution" in the Revue d'Alsace for 1882 has the following summary of his career:
Born in Strasbourg in 1740, Master Locksmith in the Place de la cathédrale before 1789.
Member of the Society of Jacobins (24 May 1792)
Notable of the commune (18 January 1793)
Member of the Committee of Surveillance of the Jacobins (10 October 1793)
Municipal officer (30 January 1794)
Appealed to his fellow citizens for shoes and equipment for the Army of the Rhine (7th April)
Reelected as Municipal officer (23rd April)
Approved the arrest of a hundred suspects (26th and 30th May)
Supported measures of general security proposed by Bierlyn (13th June)
Supported proposal for the construction of a warship against England (24th July)
Congratulated the National Convention for the measures against Robespierre and others (2nd August)
Confirmed as Municipal officer under the new Mayor André (5th September)
Present in the Jacobins (25th October)
Sultzer died in 1799.
Hervé Schuler, Un bonnet phrygien pour la cathédrale Almanach Sainte-Odile, Diocese of Strasbourg. 2010
Rodolphe Reuss, La cathédrale de Strasbourg pendant la Révolution,1789-1802, (1888)
_____, La Constitution civile du clergé et la crise religieuse en Alsace 1790-1795 (1922)
Archi-Wiki, Strasbourg: Entry for 24 Place de la Cathédrale.
"Rencontre avec les Bastian, antiquaires de père en fils" Amazing Strasbourg [blog]. 12 January 2016.