Revolutionary vandalism

Revolutionary vandalism

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Title: The violation of the kings' vaults in the Saint-Denis basilica, in October 1793.

Author : ROBERT Hubert (1733 - 1808)

Creation date : 1793

Date shown: October 1793

Dimensions: Height 54 - Width 64

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage location: Carnavalet museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bullozsite web

Picture reference: 00-008037 / InvP.1477

The violation of the kings' vaults in the Saint-Denis basilica, in October 1793.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

The suppression of the signs of the Ancien Régime

The fall of the monarchy on August 10, 1792 led to an outbreak of violence against visible symbols of feudalism, which a decree of the Assembly legitimized on August 14. With these acts of vandalism, the revolutionaries were trying to wipe out the past.

The following year, the Committee of Public Safety decided to commemorate the fall of the monarchy by destroying the sumptuous mausoleums of the kings, preserved in the abbey of Saint-Denis, whose history was closely linked to that of royalty. Part of the tombs was demolished and melted down to make cannonballs and cannons, while another joined Alexandre Lenoir's depot at the Petits-Augustins. Completed in October 1793, these operations did not spare the necropolis of the Bourbons, as witnessed by this painting by Hubert Robert.

Image Analysis

The violation of the royal vaults

The painting by Hubert Robert (1733-1808), executed in 1793, illustrates the relentlessness with which the patriots proceeded to the exhumation of the remains of the Bourbons, then thrown into mass graves, and the demolition of the carved tombstones. . Teams of workers lift the coffins out of the crypt using long ladders. Above this gutted underground gallery, lit by an overhead light, rise the Gothic walls of the abbey of Saint-Denis.

The image of the gallery in ruins, the virtuosity of the lines and the melancholic colors characterize the style of Hubert Robert, whose strength is to suggest here, through the spectacle of characters going about their work quietly, the routine and methodical vandalism, which historiography has gladly concealed in favor of its passionate and spectacular side. Thus, if the painter accounts for the profanatory acts to which the revolutionaries committed, his attitude towards vandalism is no less ambiguous, since it blurs the sacrilegious character of the scene. Everything seems to indicate that the subject of the painting served as a support for him to develop a poetic meditation on the theme of ruins, which announces the romantic sensibility of the 19th century.e century.


A purifying and regenerating work

Apart from any aesthetic consideration, the vision of this half-demolished crypt can also appear as the promise of a new world, to be built on the ruins of the Ancien Régime. This is why the decision to destroy the royal tombs aroused a collective enthusiasm in which even Father Grégoire joined, who was nevertheless the first to use the term "vandalism" to qualify the destruction or barbaric mutilation of the works of art by revolutionaries.

Like the new revolutionary calendar and toponymic changes, this event is part of the purifying and regenerating work of the Revolution, the first act of which was the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. However, in the face of numerous excesses committed, the government was forced to take measures intended to protect works of art belonging to the national heritage - measures which clearly reflect the impossibility of erasing collective memory at one stroke.

  • Old regime
  • Saint-Denis basilica
  • Bourbons
  • Convention
  • patrimony
  • ruins
  • sans culottes
  • vandalism
  • desecration
  • Abbot Gregory


Jean-Michel LENIAUD (dir.), Saint-Denis from 1760 to the present day, Paris, Gallimard-Julliard, 1996.

Dominique POULOT, Museum, Nation, Heritage, 1789-1815, Paris, Gallimard, 1997.

Louis REAU, History of vandalism. The destroyed monuments of French art, 2 vol., Paris, Hachette, 1959.

Marie-Anne SIRE, France of Heritage. The choices of memory, Paris, Gallimard, 1996.

To cite this article

Charlotte DENOËL, "Revolutionary vandalism"

Video: What French Revolution Hygiene Was Like


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