8 June 1794, 220 years ago, the “Festival of the Supreme Being“, the first national holiday of Robespierre’s new state religion, was celebrated in Paris.
“The unique interest of people in France is to acquire a sum of available money. They act with such agitation as those on a shipwrecked vessel would grab any plank that would bring them to the shore regardless of what happens to the crew. One defies the other, and no one offers assistance . . . . There is no longer even a hypocrisy of language in personal relationships. Personal interest is so highly exalted by all sorts of fears of which it is composed that mentioning virtue, sacrifice, devotion would, in a manner of speaking, produce the effect pedantry did in other times . . . . Under the reign of the Terror a sort of passion inhered in the barbarism that was exercised. Those people were ferocious animals who satisfied their instinct rather than greedy men who offered sacrifice to their interest. Whoever commits cruel acts these days in France is solely inspired by calculating what the gamble of this or that agent of the power can be. It is better to bail out your life than defend it . . . . No one listens to reason of any kind for the issue is invariably one of selfish motives . . . am I wrong therefore to believe that we have to look for aid in the religious ideas?“ (Anne Louise Germaine Staël-Holstein)
|Pierre-Antoine Demachy’s (1723 – 1807) capture of the climax of the “Festival of the Supreme Being”, finished shortly after the event took place in July 1794.|
The exuberance of revolutionary passion and the satisfying sensation of smashing an antique shop to pieces with a sledgehammer did naturally not make a stop at religious affectivities during the first years of the French Revolution. Quite the reverse. Voltaire’s words “écrasez l'infâme“, smash the despicable church, uttered on the eve of the storming of the Bastille, were taken quite literally. Religious services were forbidden and the “Cult of Reason” was promoted by the radical elements among the revolutionaries, the Hébertists, abandoning all superstitions and Antoine-François Momoro, who had already framed the revolution’s motto of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, obviously a man of clear words, laid down: "Liberty, reason, truth are only abstract beings. They are not gods, for properly speaking, they are part of ourselves." and Anacharsis Clootz added that there would be indeed only one god henceforward, “Le Peuple", the people. The Hébertists’ idea of an atheistic ersatz-religion culminated in the nationwide Fête de la Raison on 20 Brumaire, Year II (10 November 1793), churches all over France had already been transformed into Temples of Reason and now Notre Dame in Paris received its very own altar to Liberty with a half-dressed Madame Momoro sitting upon it during the festival as personification of the said capacity to make sense of things and was, according to Thomas Carlyle “one of the best Goddesses of Reason; though her teeth were a little defective." The Cult of Reason came to an end when all the Hébertists received an appointment with Madame Guillotine in March 1794.
Whatever made the Jacobites to disestablish the “Cult of Reason”, allegedly it was the lurid, licentious depravities taking place during the festival, and atheism in toto at the same time, but in any case l'Incorruptible Robespierre bowed to the belief of Le Peuple and introduced a new ersatz-religion along with a deity, the Supreme Being, the revolution was supposed to bow to, commencing from 7 May 1794 onwards. Together with his friend, the artist Jacques-Louis David who had just finished the Pietà of the Revolution, the famous “Death of Marat”, Robespierre planned the “Festival of the Supreme Being” of the new state religion for 20 Prairial Year II with himself as the High Priest and the happy people rejoicing around him during the days when la Terreur reigned in France.
|Another contemporary take on the festival|
After addressing the people in the Tuileries and lighting a pyre for a symbolisation of atheism that burned away and released a statue of wisdom, then a procession went to a man-made hill on the Champ de Mars, where a liberty pole and another idol, this time of the Supreme Being, had been placed and the people made a solemn oath on the Republic underneath it. With no lurid, licentious depravities to speak of, the celebration proved to be a failure, by and large, even though the cult seemed to have caught on in some places in the province. Six weeks later, Robespierre himself was shaved with the “National Razor” and the Republic returned to the Revolution’s original idea of religious tolerance, but religion proved to be something of a bête noire over the next years until Napoleon’s Concordat of 1801 with the Catholic Church, bringing back most of its civil status in France.
The protocol for the festival can be found here:
and more about the “Cult of the Supreme Being” on