Newspaper and pamphlet comment during this period often approved of iconoclasm in principle but condemned it in practice. Fears were expressed that, if the destruction continued, France would become a cultural desert and lose its leadership in the arts. Further, those engaged in government-sponsored iconoclasm were often compared to “Ostrogoths,” “Visigoths,” “Moslem fanatics,” or to “early Christians, who had destroyed the statues of Pheidias and Praxiteles.” This type of objection was sometimes echoed in the National Convention, often by the same members who were (on other occasions) insisting upon the necessity for the destruction of all royal, feudal, and religious symbols.
Attempts were made to cast the blame on the enemies of the Republic and to provide for a remedy. In June, 1793, notice was taken of the “irreparable losses” suffered by the fine arts through “the outrages of aristocrats,” and an act was adopted providing two years in irons for anyone discovered mutilating works of art. In October, 1793 – the same month in which a law was passed insisting upon the destruction of all offending monuments without delay – a member of the Committee of Public Instruction presented to the Convention an omnibus decree respecting the arts, intended to remedy the defects of earlier laws on the subject. The speaker asserted that “the enemies of liberty” had given the laws of the Convention “a disastrous interpretation.” He blamed “English spies” for leading the people to the destruction of “monuments which attest the superiority of our arts and our genius.” Under the terms of the new law, it was “forbidden, under the pretext of destroying symbols of royalty, feudalism, or superstition, to efface, destroy, mutilate, or alter in any manner whatsoever . . . any object of art . . . which has artistic, historical, or educational value.” Those objects which bore the symbols of the ancien regime, and had historical, educational, or artistic value were to be “taken to the nearest museum” for conservation. The last article of the law read, “All good citizens are invited to be as zealous in destroying the symbols proscribed in the preceding decrees . . . as they are to assure the conservation of those works of art which are of interest chiefly to the arts, history, and education.”
The provisions of this law relate to the problem of revolutionary iconoclasm in two important respects. First, there is the attempt of the Conventionnels to grasp both horns of the dilemma: to destroy specific works of art, yet preserve the arts. Second, there is a proposed solution of the dilemma: the creation of public museums. The Louvre museum and the Museum of French Monuments were products of the Revolution; it was there that the Monuments Commission and the Temporary Arts Commission collected many works of art containing the “proscribed symbols.” The Louvre was first opened to the public in August, 1793, and while many sans-culottes admired symbols of “royalty, feudalism, and superstition” inside the museum, they continued to engage in iconoclastic activities outside of it. This paradoxical activity need not imply a contradiction in attitudes. It seems probable that when these works were seen in the museum, torn out of their cultural context, they were regarded only as “art”; their significance as tokens, symbols, or mana had been drained away because of their placement in an artificial situation, a strange milieu.
A member of the Monuments Commission recommended that a scepter from one of the tombs at St. Denis be preserved for the museum “not as a scepter, but as an example of fourteenth-century goldsmith work.” (If this seems unusual or improbable, the reader might recall that, in our age, the content of a work of art in a museum is seldom objected to; on the other hand, murals in post-offices or in the Rockefeller Center have become public issues.) Regarded in this light, the public museum may be said to have originated as both an instrument of and a result of iconoclasm.
Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)