#see power tuesdays: On the effectiveness of symbolic violence


Hubert Robert (1733 – 1808) “La violation des caveaux des rois dans la basilique Saint-Denis, en Octobre 1793″

The painting above by Hubert Robert, one of the principal 18th-century French painters, famous for drawing Italian ruins conveys very little of the shocking events it depicts. Yet it documents an extraordinary episode of French history. In just three days, in October 1793, twelve centuries of French history were symbolically destroyed – a tabula rasa.

1793 was the year of all dangers for revolutionary France. As foreign armies prepared to avenge the execution of the French king and queen and internal unrest loomed, the Convention embarked on the collection of lead and bronze to turn them into patriotic bullets. Its members set their sights on the necropolis of the French kings, the basilica of Saint Denis, their objective being two-fold: recuperate strategic metals used in abundance in the fabrication of monuments and coffins, and get rid of physical remnants of those who until then had exclusively incarnated France.

The bodies of all French royalty buried in the St Denis basilica were taken out of their resting places, sometimes voluntarily dismembered or damaged in the process, all unceremoniously dumped into a ditch nearby. Ordinary workmen came thus face to face with the bodily remnants of royal power. Reactions ranged from superstition, to rage, to indifference.

You can listen here
to a Radio France culture feature by Anaïs Kien “La seconde morts des
rois de France
”. What I found interesting is that historians interviewed
for the feature do not dwell on the sheer violence
of these acts, or at least, such musings were not kept for the final cut.

The use of symbolic violence is nevertheless remarkable, as it shows that the destruction of the old justified by the creation of the new is not the exclusive domain of 20th or 21st century ideologues. This brings the heads of 1793 revolutionary France uncomfortably close to a totalitarian ideology. Which is an iconoclastic thought in some quarters until today.

Hubert Robert by the way ended up in jail right after painting “The violation
of the sepulcher of the kings in the Saint Denis Basilica
” and only narrowly
escaped execution (an administrative error – someone with the same name lost his head in his place). He became one of the curators of the future Louvre.

The restauration of the monarchy brought the reburial of what was left of the kings and queens France, as well as symbolic gestures of expiation, but the disenchantment operated via the desecration of the royal tombs and bodies could not be undone. 

Johanna M

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