Solving the problem of evil in the twenty-first century

David’s The Coronation of Napolean

Painting by David of the coronation of NapoleonThis propaganda piece by David doesn’t initially appear to have any obvious religious symbolism. It does though, upon closer inspection, reveal religion’s persistent role in a society which had for years sought to separate the Church from the state. Religion’s role in the French revolution was dynamic; the National Assembly initially tried to control it and Napoleon eventually sought to separate the Church and state completely. The Catholic Church in particular was not particularly popular during the revolution due to its perceived opulence and overindulgence. With these themes of religion in mind, the inclusion of the Pope in David’s painting seems totally out of place. David certainly didn’t include the approving Pope in order to give an accurate account of the day’s proceedings, because although the Pope did attend the ceremony he was by no means in full agreement with the crowning of the new Emperor. Certainly by depicting the Pope as submissive to Napoleon David reveals the French people’s defeat of the Church, portraying how they now have the ability to turn the Pope’s will as they wish. But by including the Pope at all, whether in agreement or disagreement, David indicates that the Church’s approval was still a prominent determinant of the king’s authority, revealing the lingering attachment of the French to the stability that the Church provided. Interestingly, the idea to change the Pope’s expression from one of scorn to one of blessing came from Napoleon himself. The Emperor better than anyone understood the need to establish authenticity as ruler, and despite the revolution and the separation of Church and state, Napoleon recognized that the French people continued to lean to the Church for reassurance and validation. And so the Pope stands depicted here submissive, approving, and in essence conquered by the French people, but he stands nonetheless, and it is his presence alone which speaks loudest about the place of religion, and specifically the Catholic Church, in France at this time.


Image credit- Wikimedia Commons


2 responses

  1. I think your analysis is very good. When I first looked at the picture I just saw someone becoming Emperor, but I enjoyed the historical context to it. Your analysis of why the Pope was in the picture while not in real life event, and the meaning of him being there at all, was very interesting. I also enjoyed your concluding sentence as a complete wrap-up. Other than a few grammar errors, I don’t know what to say for constructive criticism, so great job.

    March 9, 2011 at 9:20 am

  2. Elizabeth Hinojos

    I remember going over this painting in an Art History survey class a few semesters ago and we never went in depth as far as the religious aspect of this piece by David. It’s quite intriguing to think that false advertisement of one degree or another, has traced back to the times of Napoleon and David. I appreciate how you illuminated how political this painting really is.

    April 9, 2011 at 6:33 pm

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