January 2024 Print

Propaganda in Paint: The Coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte

by Andrew Latham

There may not have been a more complete, more rapid, more shocking destruction of the autonomy and power of the Catholic Church in history than the events which took place in France between November 1789 and July 1790. In nine months, the Catholic Church in France had gone from a curious confusion about the new government of the Third Estate to utter shock that their naiveté had been utterly violated. They had made the mistake common to all victims of revolution—“surely it can’t get that bad…” They had made a further mistake of not taking with deadly gravity the words of madmen when they tell you what they will do, as Voltaire did with his common refrain: “Crush out the infamous thing!”

Voltaire was sincere. And yes, it got that bad, and much worse. John P. Philip, in a July 1989 article of The Angelus,[1] gives an overview better than what I can give of the events and their implications. I’ll quote it in full:

In November, 1789 all Church property in France was declared property of the nation, and secular priests were placed on the state’s payroll. From there it was downhill fast.
February, 1790: monastic vows of religious orders are declared a threat to liberty! The National Assembly declares them null and void, suppresses all such orders, and prohibits them from accepting novices. A pension was guaranteed for anyone who would return to the world. There were 37,000 nuns, but only 600 broke their vows. The breaking of vows was much more common among the 13,136 monks and friars (Women usually are more faithful to Our Lord: consider the foot of the Cross).
The body blow to the Church came on July 12, 1790—the approval, over much opposition, of the Civil Constitution of the clergy. These fanatical revolutionaries, the world’s first terrorists, were mounting to supreme power by way of mob riots, sinister intrigues, and ruthless assassinations. Now they could establish the world’s first materialistic and Godless state. With iconoclastic hatred they would destroy Catholicism. And they would obliterate every civil institution of the past, too.

However, for all the suffering of the Church, for all the condemnations of Pope Pius VI, for all the pleas from faithful Catholics who were eventually forced underground, the terror continued. It in fact became known as the Reign of Terror—the great stain on the history of Catholic France.

The people fought back, of course: we know the stories of the Vendée insurgents, who resented the harsh conditions imposed on Catholicism by the provisions of the Civil Constitution. A guerrilla war known as the Revolt in the Vendée was led at the outset by peasants who were chosen in each locale. It cost more than 240,000 lives before it ended in 1796. And still, the Revolutionary government was not swayed; subsequent laws abolished the traditional Gregorian calendar and Christian holidays.

The Concordat of 1801

It was not conscience, or the horrors of bloodshed that finally caused the French Republican government to rethink its position, but a simple political calculus that an ongoing insurgency of citizens would be a thorn in the side of the man now running the country—Napoleon Bonaparte.

A concordat was signed in 1801 between representatives from the government and the Catholic Church. It was hailed as a great compromise, but in reality was an agreement heavily tilted in favor of the state.

The idea was to bring a workable, peaceable solution between the revolutionaries and the Church. The result was a diminution of the papacy’s authority and a greater ceding of power to the state, as well as a failure to return Church lands lost during the Revolution.

But Napoleon, ever shrewd, understood the utility of religion as an important factor of social peace and as a basis of his longevity. He could now win favor with French Catholics while also controlling Rome politically.

The hostility of devout Catholics against the state was—almost shockingly—quickly resolved. Even though the Catholic landholdings were long sold off, Catholic clergy returned from exile or hiding, and resumed their former positions in their traditional churches, now owned by landlords or the state. While the Concordat restored much power to the papacy in France, the balance of church-state relations tilted firmly in Napoleon’s favor. He selected the bishops and supervised church finances.[2]

Terms of the Concordat

  • A declaration that “Catholicism was the religion of the great majority of the French” but not the official state religion, thus maintaining religious freedom for Protestants and other French citizens.
  • The Church was to be free to exercise its worship in public in accordance with police regulations that the Government deemed necessary for the public peace. The authority to determine if a public religious observance would violate the public peace resided with each mayor, who had the power to prohibit a public ceremony if he considered it a threat to the peace of his commune.
  • The Papacy had the right to depose bishops, but this made little difference because they were still nominated by the French government. The state paid clerical salaries and the clergy swore an oath of allegiance to the state.
  • The Catholic Church gave up all its claims to Church lands that were confiscated after 1790.
  • Sunday was reestablished as a “festival.” The rest of the French Republican Calendar was not replaced by the traditional Gregorian Calendar until January 1, 1806.

The Coronation’s Public Humiliation of the Church

In 1804, the French Senate granted the power of the government to be held in the hands of an emperor, and preparations for a lavish coronation were soon underway. The symbolism throughout borrowed from Carolingian traditions and the Revolution, as well as French Ancien Régime ceremonies (though de-emphasizing any Catholic sacramental or ritual aspects such as consecration and anointing).

The coronation itself, presided over by Pius VII, had, at first glance, many Catholic elements, and would have seemed unobjectionable. However, a closer glance reveals that while some Catholic traditions were followed, Napoleon and his wife Josephine carefully chose to buck others. For instance, they remained seated during the Veni Creator and the Litany of the Saints, something notable even to the allies gathered in Notre-Dame.

The customary hymns were sung, the robes were symbolic of Roman emperors, and the crown—well, Napoleon wanted the historic French crown. But it had of course been destroyed during the French Revolution. So he commissioned a so-called Crown of Napoleon, made to look medieval.

The most striking feature of the coronation came at the actual placing of the crown. The formula for French coronations was the Latin Accipe coronam... (Receive the crown...), indicating that the crown is placed on the head of the monarch, which he receives. However, Napoleon preferred the phrase, Coronet vos Deus… (May God crown you ...). Pope Pius VII did agree to the change in this formula—Church historians debate why—and the implication was obvious; Napoleon was too grand to receive the crown from any one person or institution. Only God could “crown” him. The plural vos was used as well, as Napoleon and his wife were to receive the crown almost simultaneously—another departure from the norm.

The actual moment of the coronation has stirred up much controversy ever since. While Pope Pius VII was reciting the formula, Napoleon turned and removed his laurel wreath, took the crown from the Holy Father, and crowned himself. He then crowned the kneeling Joséphine with a small crown surmounted by a cross, which he had first placed on his own head before transferring to hers.

Many historians debate whether Pope Pius VII knew about this symbolic coup beforehand. Pro-Revolutionary historian David Markham thinks he did:

Napoleon’s detractors like to say that he snatched the crown from the pope, or that this was an act of unbelievable arrogance, but neither of those charges holds water. The most likely explanation is that Napoleon was symbolizing that he was becoming emperor based on his own merits and the will of the people, and not in the name of a religious consecration. The pope knew about this move from the beginning and had no objection (not that it would have mattered).

But even Markham notes the symbolic significance of a self-coronation—and admits that it was an act of purposeful hubris and animosity towards the Catholic Church in her grand cathedral. Whether the Pope knew, and was weak in allowing this, or didn’t, and was simply struck with shock, is a matter of debate.

However, we have one vital clue in the form of a twenty by thirty-two foot canvas.

Le Sacre de Napoléon—Jacques-Louis David (1807)

David was a Revolutionary through and through, and was commissioned by Napoleon directly to create a painting of the coronation. In fact, he had been present through the ceremony for the express purpose of sketching as much of the detail as possible to provide a historic view of the occasion. And it is an extraordinarily proficient, well-composed, detailed example of Neo-Classical history painting, of which David was perhaps the greatest practitioner.

The image, nearly life-size, enough to feel like one can step inside the event in Notre-Dame, shows the moment that Napoleon is crowing the Empress Josephine. The painting is shockingly accurate in some respects—though we do have written correspondence that show where the line is between propaganda and documentary. For instance, Napoleon’s mother, shown prominently seated in the center of the painting, did not attend due to a dispute between Napoleon and his brother. The Ottoman sultan was invited but not allowed into Notre-Dame by the bishop. So David simply painted him in.

But the most interesting figure in the painting for our purposes is Pius VII. We have correspondence requesting that David change the hands of Pius to a gesture of blessing – giving approval of the coronation. But initial sketches of David’s—and x-ray analysis backs this up—show that David had initially depicted the Holy Father with his hands folded on his lap. What was not edited, and what remains the most eye-opening detail, is the Pope’s body language and facial expression.

He is almost slumped—one could read this as “protesting” or as “weakened.” Perhaps the dual interpretation is why it was allowed to stay, since I certainly see it as the Pope almost saying “I have to be here to protect my bishops and priests, but what a pompous silly thing…” And his facial expression gives the same dual interpretation—complete uninterest.

The focus of the work is meant to be the grandness of Napoleon and his Josephine; it is their literal crowning achievement. But it is difficult to not see the figure of the Holy Father as the real point of drama and pathos in the work. He represents the power of the Catholic Church, regained in some aspects to a bare minimum by this time in France, but still tragically diluted by the ravages of Napoleon’s ego and the Revolution’s thirst for blood and power.

Coronation is a brilliant work, despite its truth and lies, despite its purpose of propaganda before beauty, and despite its deep sadness for Catholics. But great art is one that tells a story. And this work tells a magnificent story of the age-old struggle between the Church and the State in a manner we are unlikely to ever see again.


[1] Mr. Philips gives a wonderful overview of the entire history of the Catholic Church in Revolutionary France. See bit.ly/theangelus1989 on AngelusOnline.org for a full understanding of all that was happening at this time.

[2] The Concordat was abrogated by the law of 1905 on the separation of Church and state.