We find in the Ami de la Religion of the 27th of.September, an interesting article, the substance of which we lay before our readers. It will exhibit to those who peruse it, the evidence that they who in our republics would be considered saints of the highest grade, have deeply imbibed the worst spirit of the worst infidels that tortured unhappy France in the days of her wildest anarchy. The Abbe Auger, parish priest of Saint Antoine at Compiegne, has lately published a history of the Carmelite convent which formerly existed at Compiegne, and which has been restored and re-established within the last year, chiefly by the exertions of this good man who writes its history. Alter giving the account of the supposed origin of the Carmelite order, he states its reformation by St. Theresa, its introduction into France, and then enters upon the history of the convent of the Annunciation at Compeigne. This monastery was founded in 1641’by Madame de Louvancourt, widow Trudaine, and furnished many bright examples of rare piety. Compeigne being a royal residence, the nuns were frequently visited by the princes and princesses of France, as well as by the principal nobility- During the preparation of the monastery, the colony occupied the royal castle: and several young ladies of the most distinguished houses in the realm, who preferred the austerities of a cloister to the pleasures of the world, retired within its peaceful precincts, where they uninterruptedly devoted themselves to the practice of the counsels of the gospel.

When the revolutionary tempest spread so much desolation on every side, and swept, the fragments of the church of France into the surrounding regions, this house could not escape ; on the 5th of September, 1792, the good nuns were driven from their abode.—  Obliged to disperse, they still lingered with sorrowing affliction in the vicinity of their beloved home, and were received with hospitality and tenderness into the families of several of their neighbours; they endeavored, as far as circumstances would permit, to observe their rule, trusting that at no distant day they would be permitted to reassemble; they lifted their pure hands, their ardent hearts, and frequent supplications to the Father of mercies for their scourged land and their persecuted religion. Though wicked tyrants, blaspheming the sacred name of liberty, rioted in licentiousness and in blood at the head of what was called a state, yet did those dear daughters love their country, and weep over its sufferings. But they too were claled [sic] upon to suffer more. They were denounced —On the 24th of June, the festival of St. John the Baptist, who was beheaded at the request of a dancing girl, to satiate the revenge of an incestuous adultress, they were sought alter and arrested. From the prisons of Compeigne, they were handed over to the revolutionary tribunal of Paris, and by that were consigned to the scafffold and the executioner. On the 17th of July, the crowd assembled round the guillotine at the barriere du Trone, heard at a distance the voices of the Sisterhood, as surrounded by their guards, they moved in solemn procession to the gates of death! It was not the wail of lamentation, it was not the cry of distress; it was not the shriek of terror; but it was the loud and sweet and full and swelling modulation of the holy chaunt, to which the infuriated multitude, now misled, had not been always insensible- Never—O never, did finer melody issue from the choir of that holy Sisterhood than the grand Te Deum now bursting from their lips; occasionally it was relieved by the more tender touching pathos of the Salve Regina and the inviting strain of the Veni Creator Spiritus. One after another did this lovely group of victims ascend with unfaultenng alacrity to the executioner; the diminished volume of sound continually making known the increasing ravage of the axe, until the dying note of the last victim was heard upon this earth, long after her sister spirits had united their enraptured praises to the triumphant chorus of the host of heaven. Their mutilated bodies were piled around their countenances were placid even in death as the beholders of the heap of heads testify; their monastery was extinguished in their blood. But France has rekindled the torch of her Faith, and she successively relumes those beacons which guide her children in (he path to holiness on earth and to happiness in Heaven. Robespierre, eleven days after this event, fell from his power, and he is now numbered with the execrated dead, and the desolated monastery of Compiegne again inhabited by Carmelite nuns, resounds with the praises of the Lord! Perhaps before the lapse of 43 years, Mount Benedict would again smile under the cultivation of the Ursulines! Perhaps Massachusetts would yet do justice, and make a tardy atonement!

Shepherd of the Valley, Volume 4, Number 21, 19 March 1836
Access the article at the Catholic News Archive



St. Nicasius was the first archbishop of Rheims. In that city about the year 400 he built a basilica in honor of Our Lady and transferred it to his episcopal seat. On the site today rises the glorious Gothic cathedral. Nicasius was the outstanding victim of the murderous sacking of Rheims by the Vandals and the Alans in 407.

Warned in a vision the holy prelate prepared his people for the impending calamity by arousing them to acts of penance. Even as the barbarian hordes were pouring into the doomed city, this shepherd, with thought only for his flock, hastened from door to door strengthening their constancy in the terrible hour When his men inquired of him if they should fight to the bitter end, he answered: “Let us abide in the mercy of God and pray for our enemies. I am ready to give myself for my people.” And so to save as many lives as possible Nicasius took his stand at the door of his cathedral, bravely exposing himself to the ruthless fury of the blood-lusting barbarians. A brutal swordsman struck off the head of the fearless bishop.

The martyr’s sister St. Eutropia, fearing that she herself had been spared for a more evil fate, fought her way to her brother’s corpse and there attacked his murderer so vehemently that the savage warrior cut her down with his bloody sword.

For many centuries the relics of the martyred brother and sister were venerated in the cathedral of Rheims, until they were lost in the sacrileges of the French Revolution.

Martin Harney, SJ, Brother and Sister Saints (1957)

At this time Morgagni was looked upon by all the medical world as probably the greatest of living medical scientists. Visitors who came to Italy who were at all interested in science, always considered that their journey had not been quite complete unless they had had an opportunity of meeting Morgagni. He had more personal friends among the scientists of all the countries of Europe than any other man of his time. The fact that this leader in science should be at the same time a great personal friend of the Popes of his time is the best possible evidence of the more than amicable relations which existed between the Church and medicine during this century. Morgagni’s life of nearly ninety years indeed, covers most of the eighteenth century, and is of itself, without more ado, an absolute proof that there was not only no friction between religion and medicine, but shows on the contrary that medical science encountered patronage and encouragement as far as ecclesiastics were concerned, while success in it brought honor and emolument. Morgagni’s personal relations to the Church are best brought out by the fact that, of his fifteen children, ten of whom lived to adult life, eight daughters became members of religious orders and one of his two surviving sons became a Jesuit. The great physician was very proud and very glad that his children should have chosen what he did not hesitate to call the better part.

After Morgagni’s time, the days of the French Revolution bring a cloud over the Papacy. There were political disturbances in Italy and the Popes were shorn of their temporal power. As a consequence their medical school loses in prestige and finally disappears. The Papal Physicians after this, while distinguished among their fellow members of the Roman medical profession, were no longer the world-known discoverers in medicine that had so often been the case before. So long as the Popes had the power and possessed the means, they used both to encourage medicine in every way, as the list of Papal Physicians shows better than anything else, and a study of this chapter of their history will undo all the false assertions with regard to the supposed opposition between the Church and science.

We have already said, and it seems to deserve repetition here, that during most of these centuries in which the Papal Physicians were among the most distinguished discoverers in medicine, the term medicine included within itself most of what we now know as physical science. Botany was studied as a branch of medicine, and as we have seen, one of the Papal Physicians, Simon Januensis, compiled a dictionary that a modern German Historian of Botany finds excellent. Astrology, under which term astronomy was included, was studied for the sake of the supposed influence of the stars on men’s constitutions.–Chemistry was a branch of medical study. Mineralogy was considered a science allied to medicine, and the use of antimony and other metals in medicine originated with physicians trying to extend the domain of knowledge to minerals. Comparative anatomy was founded by a Papal Physician. These were the principal physical sciences.

To talk of opposition between science and religion, then, with the most distinguished scientists of these centuries in friendly personal and official relations with the Popes, is to indulge in one of those absurdities common enough among those who must find matter for their condemnation of the Popes and the Church, but that every advance in modern history has pushed farther back into the rubbish chamber of outlived traditions.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Many people are accustomed to think that, after the spirit that came into the world with the French Revolution, men were less prone to listen to authority or cling to old-fashioned notions, and that liberalism of mind is to be found written large on many pages of nineteenth century scientific history. One of the great scientists of the first part of the last century was Dr. Thomas Young, to whom we owe so much with regard to the theory of light waves and the existence of the ether to carry them. Men absolutely refused to listen to this idea at all at the beginning, though now it is the  groundwork of most of our thinking and of nearly all of our mathematical demonstrations with regard to the movement of light. They not only refused, however, but they expressed their scorn of the man who invented such a cumbrous theory. Dr. George M. Gould, in one of the volumes of his Biographic Clinics, has told the story of Dr. Young’s career, and I prefer to present it in his words rather than my own.

“A practicing physician, Young, as early as 1801, hit upon the true theory of the luminiferous ether, and of light and color, which nearly a century before had been discovered by Robert Hooke. But his scientific contemporaries would not see it, and to avoid persecution and deprivation of practice, Dr. Young was compelled to publish his grand discoveries and papers anonymously. Published finally by the Royal Society (one can imagine the editor’s smile of superior wisdom over such trash), they were as utterly ignored as were those of Mitchell, Thompson and Martin as to eyestrain, two or three generations later. Arago finally championed Dr. Young’s theory in the French Academy, but the leaders, LaPlace, Poissin, Biot, etc., denounced and conquered, and not until 1823 would the Academy allow the publication of Fresnel’s papers on the subject; in about twenty-five years the silencers were themselves silenced. But Young had been silenced too; his disgust was so great that he resigned from the Royal Society, and devoted himself to his poor medical practice and to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.”

(In which, by the way, as might be expected I suppose, he made a distinguished name for himself.)

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

In concluding this chapter it has seemed worth while to trace the origin of the misinterpretation of Pope Boniface’s decretal, which makes it forbid dissection for anatomical purposes as well as the cutting up and boiling of bodies in order to facilitate their removal for long distances for burial. Prof. White quotes with great confidence in the matter the Benedictine Literary History of France as his authority, which he declares to be a Catholic authority. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be quite sufficient to establish the fact that such a misinterpretation must have taken place, for the Benedictines were extremely careful in such matters and were not likely to admit an assertion of this kind, unless they had good foundation for it. The quotation on which Prof. White depends for his declarations in the matter is found in the Sixteenth Volume of the Histoire Litteraire de la France, which runs as follows:

“But what was to retard still more (than the prohibition of surgery to the clergy mentioned in the preceding paragraph) was the very ancient prejudice which opposed anatomical dissection as sacrilegious. By a decree inserted in Le Sexte, Boniface VIII. forbade the boiling of bodies in order to obtain skeletons. Anatomists were obliged to go back to Galen for information, and could not study the human body directly, and consequently could not advance the human science of bodily health and therapeutics.”

Had this been written by the Benedictines, there would have been every reason to think that though Boniface’s decretal itself did not forbid dissection it had unfortunately been so misinterpreted. While the Histoire Litteraire de la France, however, was begun by the Benedictine Congregation of St. Maur, their work, like many another magnificent undertaking of the monks, was interrupted by the French Revolution. What they had accomplished up to this time showed the necessity for such work, and accordingly in the early part of the nineteenth century a continuation of it was undertaken by the members of the Institute of France. The Sixteenth Volume from which the quotation just cited comes was mainly written by Pierre Claude François Daunou, the French historian and politician. His life had not been such as to make him a sympathetic student of the Middle Ages. He had been a deputy to the Convention, 1792-1795, was elected the first President of the Council of 500 in this latter year, and became a member of the Tribunate in 1800. His contributions to history were made near the close of his life. While he is usually considered an authority in the political details of these centuries, it is easy to understand that he was not favorably situated for familiarity with the medical history of these times.

Once it is understood that the paragraph in question was written by M. Daunou and not by the Benedictines, its adventitious prestige as a Catholic historical authority, to which we shall see presently it has absolutely no right, vanishes…Everything that M. Daunou has to say with regard to the Popes is tinged by his political and Gallican  prejudices. This is why he states so definitely in the Histoire Litteraire de la France that the bull of Pope Boniface VIII., if it did not actually forbid dissection, at least was responsible for hampering the practice for two centuries. That M. Daunou’s expressions on this subject have been taken so seriously, however, is to me at least a never-ending source of surprise. He himself must have known nothing at all of the history of dissection, while those who accepted his opinion must have carefully avoided consulting authorities on the history of anatomy, for it is actually just after this bull that the history of public dissection begins. It is clear to me, then, that this absurd assertion of M. Daunou never would have been swallowed so readily only that writers were over-anxious to find material to use against the Popes and the Church.

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)

Despite the new decrees, and the founding of museums, the Conventionnels failed in their efforts to control iconoclasm before 1795. They had sowed the wind, and they reaped the usual unwelcome harvest. As reports of the destruction mounted, the Committee of Public Instruction had one of its members (on July 8, 1794, some weeks before Thermidor) collate these reports and make known his findings. Henri Gregoire was the man assigned to the task, and he made not one but three lengthy reports from the tribune of the Convention in the last half of 1794. In these speeches, he placed the blame for the destruction upon “English spies,” “counterrevolutionaries,” and “terrorists,” although only a few months before Thermidor Gregoire himself had praised the “wise law” ordaining “the destruction of all that carries the imprint of royalty and feudalism.”

Not only did Gregoire blame the destruction upon the enemies of the Revolution; he also described this activity as “vandalism,” i.e., “willful and ignorant destruction,” and so added a word to our language, for the noun vandalism was of his coining. By the use of this term, Gregoire evidently hoped to clear the fair name of the Revolution; in this hope he not only failed but made available a term of reprobation which has served as a polemical weapon in revolutionary studies ever since. Historians have taken Gregoire’s “vandalism” at its face value, and have either denied it ever happened, or claimed that every mutilated or badly weathered statue in France is the work of “revolutionary vandalism.”

It has been shown here that the activity described by Gregoire was not “vandalism” but iconoclasm, i.e., premeditated destruction of visual symbols because of their specific emotional or ideological content. In short, the issue of “revolutionary vandalism” is a false one. The real issue involves a revolutionary dilemma in terms of iconoclasm versus the preservation of an artistic heritage; while a great deal of premeditated destruction was wrought, an attempt to preserve the arts persisted. In one sense, the problem posed by Diderot, “. . . if we love truth more than the fine arts, let us pray God for some iconoclasts,” was never resolved. It could be argued, however, that the revolutionaries did solve the dilemma in two ways. First, they encouraged iconoclasm and then called it the vandalism of their enemies. If this be a solution, it is neither creditable nor original. Second, they created a public institution called a “museum”; immure a political symbol in a museum and it becomes merely art – iconoclasm is thus achieved without destruction. This solution was quite original; it is one that Diderot never dreamed of, and it probably would have received his high praise.

Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)

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)

The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was abolished by government fiat in August, 1793, and was almost immediately replaced by an official group (dominated by David and his students) called the “Commune of Arts.” At first it seemed that the Commune of Arts would be merely a more egalitarian version of the old Royal Academy, while it carried on the academy’s teaching and judging functions. But the hostile pressure upon a group of men who had so obviously “prostituted” themselves so short a time ago was too great, particularly when injury was added to insult by suggestions that art of any kind  was useless or evil. By January of 1794, the members of the Commune of Arts decided that “any conflict between the God of genius and the God of patriotism must cease.” The hotheads in the Commune planned a ceremony in which a portrait of the dauphin was to be dragged to the foot of a liberty tree, mutilated by each member of the Commune and then burned. Those in the Commune who opposed such activity were assumed to be infected with “moderantisme” or “counterrevolutionary” tendencies.

In the spring of 1794, the Commune of Arts began to take action against contemporary painters and engravers whose works contained “obscenities which revolted republican morals,” and they planned to bring a list of proscribed works to the Committee of Public Safety. Within a week of this action, the well-known painter, L. L. Boilly, appeared before the Commune to “abjure his former errors” as a painter of subjects of doubtful morality. Boilly asked for mercy on the ground that he was first to denounce his own conduct. He assured his rapt listeners that in the future he would use his brush “in a more worthy manner.” What more could virtuous republicans ask?

Notwithstanding all these iconoclastic plans, legislation, and activity, the dilemma remained in force, even though it never seemed to be recognized explicitly by the revolutionaries. The dialectic, the tension, between iconoclasm and the need to preserve the heritage of the arts (to say nothing of the need to provide an environment in which artists would feel encouraged to create republican symbols without fear of reprisal at the next shift in the republican credo) remained a fact even during the most destructive periods during 1793-94. Attempts were made to draw a line between “luxury” and “art”; questions were raised concerning the necessary cause-and-effect relationship between the morals of society and its art, and some courageous Frenchmen began to hint that the primrose path of iconoclasm lead to the hell of barbarism.

Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)

Prominent in the winds of doctrine that blew over eighteenth- century France was the notion that the arts were a result of luxury and vice, that they flourished only in decadent, over-civilized societies and provided opiates for the subjects of tyrannical rulers. Disputes over the truth or falsity of such ideas before the Revolution remained largely academic, but the implications of such a philosophy of art obviously would be disastrous if Frenchmen ever decided to create a republican regime which prided itself upon a Reign of Virtue, a return to simplicity, and to nature. Such a regime was the dream of many revolutionaries in 1793-94. Its adherents sometimes refused to distinguish between “royal” and “republican” art: they would abolish the arts altogether.

In a discourse before the Convention in October, 1793, Michel-Edme Petit succinctly expressed the new vogue. He claimed that any inclusion of the fine arts in the education of children would “corrupt morals” and he pointed to the lax morals of artists as proof. Any enjoyment from the fine arts, he contended, “would enervate the spirit, render it incapable of courage, of enduring privations; it would make men insensible to the charms of moderate means and simplicity which are so indispensable in a republic.” Soon after Petit’s speech, a deputation from Sevres visited the Convention complaining of ornate church decorations and priestly vestments because such display was not in keeping with “the simplicity and modesty of the sans-culotte Jesus.” In November, 1793, the Committee of Public Instruction received word from the citizens of Rochefort that all “monuments of superstition” as well as all religious books in the city had been devoured in a bonfire lasting twenty-two hours. On the same day that the committee heard from Rochefort, they also received a letter from the librarian of the city of Marseilles asking for advice (or consolation); the librarian had been told by his townsmen to burn all his books because they were either “useless or evil.” And one anonymous pamphleteer pointed out that the epochs most favorable to the arts had been those of the emperor Augustus, Pope Leo X, and Louis XIV; on the other hand, the Spartans had “banished all luxury.” What must a good republican conclude?

Almost inevitably, the reaction against the art of the pre-revolutionary era reflected upon those artists still alive during the Revolution who had formerly produced paintings or sculpture glorifying royal or religious patrons. The Conventionnel A.C. Thibaudeau reproached French artists because they had not memorialized the great events of the Revolution. Most artists, he said, had “centuries of baseness and adulation” on their record, for during a despotic regime they “had hastened to deify despotism and present it to the people in its most seductive forms.” Such insinuations had been in the air since the first years of the Revolution. Perhaps as a consequence, we find that no group seemed more anxious to join the iconoclastic crusade than the artists themselves.

Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)

While this destruction went forward, many complaints were voiced in the Convention that the destruction of symbols glorifying the past was not being accomplished with sufficient rapidity or thoroughness. A decree of September 14, 1793, threatened dismissal to municipal officers who failed to perform their duty as prescribed by the first law for the destruction of monuments. In October, 1793, it was required that all symbols of the ancien regime were to be destroyed within eight days, upon pain of confiscation of the property where such symbols still existed. In the same month, the council of the Paris, Commune ordained that all “religious effigies” in the city be immediately destroyed; no statue other than that of “Sommeil” would be allowed to stand in the cemeteries, and all other sculptured representations would be delivered to the hammer.

In face of such legislative pressure, the Monuments Commission (which had been organized in 1790) was almost helpless. They were still responsible for the preservation of works of art, but the thirty-three members of the group were all residents of Paris; they served without pay; their official status was ambiguous, and, in any event, they could not possibly roam the face of France directing municipal officers to stop doing what the central government had instructed these municipal officers to do upon pain of loss of their civic positions. Indeed, the Committee of Public Safety actually called upon the Monuments Commission to destroy a part of what the commission had so carefully labored to preserve – the royal tombs at St. Denis. “These monuments of idolatry still nourished the superstition of some Frenchmen,” and within a month of the directive from the Committee of Public Safety some fifty of the tombs were destroyed under the direction of the Monuments Commission itself.

Stanley J. Idzerda, “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution” (1954)