David’s The Coronation of Napolean
This 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