The Iconoclasm of the Human Body During the French Revolution

Kelsey Ritzema

How far does the act of destruction go when it comes to human image?

Upon reading about the iconoclasm that took place during the French Revolution, it seems the destruction of ‘image’ explores an appetite for political power. However, it was not the pulling down the statue of Louis 15th that piqued my interest, it was the severed heads on pikes. I began to wonder how far iconoclasm goes, is it solely the destruction of objects? Could the destruction of the human form could be considered an act of iconoclasm? The definition of iconoclasm is as follows: “Iconoclasm can be defined as the intentional desecration or destruction of works of art, especially those containing human figurations, on religious principles or beliefs.” This description assumes that the destruction is limited to only paintings, murals, windows, and statues. It also reads that often the motivation is religious, however could it be said that this was not the case during the French Revolution? During the French Revolution the mismanagement of the country by Louis XVI left the French people deprived of necessities, and a demand for change was arising. A decade earlier Louis’ father had lost the Seven Years War to the British over territory in North America. The consequence of governing bodies in the years that followed rendered France into a nation with the aristocracy and monarchy being the only social classes benefitting from an unjust system. The political landscape at the time split into three estates: The Clergy, The Aristocracy, and the Ordinary People. The Ordinary people were not represented in parliament the way that they saw fit. In an age of enlightenment where independent thinking was encouraged, for the first time the public were questioning social norms of hierarchy which encouraged a conversation of revolution to take place. Events of iconoclasm emerged such as the destruction of Bouchardon’s Louis XV statue. This was believed to be a public demonstration of the opposition to the monarchy. In Richard Clay’s book on the statue of Louis XV he mentions “'Busts of kings were pulled over, and larger royal statues, too massive to be removed, were covered in black cloth'. The addition of funereal cloth materially transformed statues of kings, including Bouchardon's, into signs of the monarchy's end, its death.” This highlights the public’s desire to demonstrate their distain of the monarchy. However, is the destruction of an inanimate object such as that of a statue really a powerful statement? Or is the destruction of the human form just as – if not more effective?
The Iconoclasm of the Human Body During the French Revolution
The French Revolution taking place in Jean-Pierre Houël's 'The Storming of the Bastille'

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The Iconoclasm of the Human Body During the French Revolution
Severed Head

A skewered image

Two days before the storming of Bastille on 12th July 1789 a crowd gathered outside the wax Museum of Salon de Cire in search of two figures: Duc d’Orleans and Necker. “There I saw about five or six thousand men marching fairly fast and without any order, some of them armed, others with sabres, spears, and pitchforks. They triumphantly carried the wax busts of the Duc d’Orleans and of Necker, whom they had asked of M. Curtius.” Was a description of the events by a journalist. The storming of Bastille would witness a violence that would solidify the revolution as a bloody part in French history. Bastille belonged to the king, it was commonly associated with king’s rule, and where his prisoners would experience the most horrendous pain and torture. The seize of Bastille for the French was a moment of confirmation that the people had claimed back the power. I feel, that not only the removal of the statue embodied the monarchy’s demise, but the destruction of the Bastille embodied the end of the king’s tyranny. However, during the chaos the people killed, and decapitated the heads of guards, and others who got in the way. This became a main theme during the brutal revolution. “They [The heads] were the real thing and obtained by revolutionaries after they attacked the Bastille’s commander, Bernard-Rene Jordan, Marquis de Launay and the mayor of Paris, Jacques de Flesselles. Both men were killed, after which revolutionaries sawed off their heads, put them on pikes, and paraded them through the streets.” Another witness described the decapitation of Marie Antionette’s friend who the mobs managed to capture: “I am filled with involuntary horror at the scenes which pass before me … They have dragged the dead and naked body of the princesse de Lamballe through the streets and treated it with all sorts of indignities.”
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It seems the mutilation of the human figure was a part of the revolution just as much as the mutilation of buildings and statues. The heads were often scalped, painted with makeup, or had their mouth and eye sockets stuffed with objects people could find. This desecration of the dead parallels in the destruction of image. Especially if the image was of a politician, or an aristocrat. A comparison that comes to mind when I think of the violation of the human form takes place during the American Revolution with the melting of the George III statue in which they cut off and mutilated its features before sending it back to England. However, is this not at least slightly less violent than the physical disfigurement of a person’s head? If an object can conjure representations of the collapse of the monarchy, then what does the placement of heads on pikes represent? Historically we have associated the head with power, spirituality, and individuality. To the French, displacing the heads is significant in the removal of power from their oppressors. In its most simple form; beheading is the finality of the thoughts, feelings and political leanings stripped from their power source. During the aftermath journalists, politicians and writers documented the case of severed heads and later historians spoke of the events “When the people cut off and displayed the head of a ‘traitor,’ they made the ‘sovereignty of the people’ more than a pretty compliment. They enacted the sovereignty by exercising a traditional prerogative of the sovereign. Cutting off the heads [they] redefined themselves as the sovereign people. The lesson of the heads is that there has been a fundamental change in social hierarchies and the distribution of power.” In conclusion, I believe that iconoclasm can be applied to both object and human images for a political purpose as demonstrated by the people destroying not only monuments, paintings and buildings but also in the mutilation of the human body for the highest impact, and to represent the downfall of the French aristocracy.
The Iconoclasm of the Human Body During the French Revolution

Kelsey Ritzema

Kelsey is an accomplished Art Historian with a passion for British aviation during World War I. Graduating with a dissertation on Victorian sentimentality in Scottish history and Highland culture, Kelsey has now shifted her focus to the thrilling world of fighter pilots. With a knack for writing captivating articles for history magazines, Kelsey has also made an appearance on the HistoryHit Warfare Podcast, delving into the fascinating topic of Jacobite uprisings. Currently, Kelsey is embarking on an exciting new endeavour, writing her debut book that explores the life of a Great War British Fighter Pilot in training.
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