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Symbolism in the French Revolution

Symbolism in the French Revolution was a device to distinguish and celebrate (or vilify) the main features of the French Revolution and ensure public identification and support. In order to effectively illustrate the differences between the new Republic and the old regime, the leaders needed to implement a new set of symbols to be celebrated instead of the old religious and monarchical symbolism. To this end, symbols were borrowed from historic cultures and redefined, while those of the old regime were either destroyed or reattributed acceptable characteristics. These revised symbols were used to instill in the public a new sense of tradition and reverence for the Enlightenment and the Republic.

Fasces, like many other symbols of the French Revolution, are Roman in origin. Fasces are a bundle of birch rods containing an axe. In Roman times, the fasces symbolized the power of magistrates, representing union and accord with the Roman Republic. The French Republic continued this Roman symbol to represent state power, justice, and unity.

During the Revolution, the fasces image was often used in conjunction with many other symbols. Though seen throughout the French Revolution, perhaps the most well known French reincarnation of the fasces is the Fasces surmounted by a Phrygian cap. This image has no display of an axe or a strong central state; rather, it symbolizes the power of the liberated people by placing the Liberty Cap on top of the classical symbol of power.

Cockades were widely worn by revolutionaries beginning in 1789. They now pinned the blue-and-red cockade of Paris onto the white cockade of the Ancien Régime - thus producing the original Tricolore cockade. Later, distinctive colours and styles of cockade would indicate the wearer's faction—although the meanings of the various styles were not entirely consistent, and varied somewhat by region and period.

The tricolour flag is derived from the cockades used in the 1790s. These were circular rosette-like emblems attached to the hat. Camille Desmoulins asked his followers to wear green cockades on 12 July 1789. The Paris militia, formed on 13 July, adopted a blue and red cockade. Blue and red are the traditional colours of Paris, and they are used on the city's coat of arms. Cockades with various colour schemes were used during the storming of the Bastille on 14 July. The blue and red cockade was presented to King Louis XVI at the Hôtel de Ville on 17 July. Lafayette argued for the addition of a white stripe to "nationalise" the design. On 27 July, a tricolour cockade was adopted as part of the uniform of the National Guard, the national police force that succeeded the militia.

Even the unique horror of the guillotine has been dwarfed by the gas chambers of the Holocaust, the organized brutality of the gulag, the mass intimidation of Mao's cultural revolution, or the killing fields of Cambodia.
  • Cage, E. Claire. "The Sartorial Self: Neoclassical Fashion and Gender Identity in France, 1797–1804." Eighteenth-Century Studies 42.2 (2009): 193-215.
  • Censer, Jack; Lynn Hunt (2001). Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press. ; cd-rom feature on "How to Read Images"
  • Cooper, William J., and John McCardell. "Liberty caps and liberty trees." Past and Present 146#1 (1995): 66-102. in JSTOR
  • Germani, Ian. "Staging Battles: Representations of War in the Theatre and Festivals of the French Revolution." European Review of History—Revue européenne d'Histoire (2006) 13#2 pp: 203-227.
  • Germer, Stefan. "Spheres in Post-Thermidor France." The Art Bulletin 74.1 (1992): 19-36. online
  • Harris, Jennifer. "The Red Cap of Liberty: A Study of Dress Worn by French Revolutionary Partisans 1789-94." Eighteenth Century Studies (1981): 283-312. in JSTOR
  • Henderson, Ernest F. Symbol and Satire in the French Revolution (1912), with 171 illustrations online free
  • Hunt, Lynn. "Hercules and the Radical Image in the French Revolution," Representations (1983) No. 2 pp. 95–117 in JSTOR
  • Hunt, Lynn. "The sacred and the French Revolution." Durkheimian sociology: Cultural studies (1988): 25-43.
  • Korshak, Yvonne. "The Liberty Cap as a Revolutionary Symbol in America and France." Smithsonian Studies in American Art (1987): 53-69.
  • Landes, Joan B. Visualizing the Nation: Gender, Representation, and Revolution in Eighteenth-Century France (2003)
  • Ozouf, Mona. Festivals and the French revolution (Harvard University Press, 1991)
  • Reichardt, Rolf, and Hubertus Kohle. Visualizing the Revolution: Politics and the Pictorial Arts in Late Eighteenth-century France (Reaktion Books, 2008); covering all the arts and including elite, religious, and folk traditions; 187 illustrations, 46 in color
  • Roberts, Warren. Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Louis Prieur, revolutionary artists: the public, the populace, and images of the French Revolution (SUNY Press, 2000)
  • Wrigley, Richard. The Politics of Appearances: Representations of Dress in Revolutionary France (Berg, 2002)


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