To bring God back to Earth, Robespierre engages the most gifted director, the painter David, who will soon plant the scene of other festivities, this time imperial…
Robespierre, himself, organizes the music for the ceremonies, and closely oversees the elaboration of the texts, given into the care of Marie-Joseph de Chenier, brother of the great poet, who had only two more months to live.
The gigantic works are hastily started. On the terrace of the Tuileries Palace, a colossal amphitheatre, whose floor completely covers the ornamental lake, begins to grow. Cyclopean statues rise above the formal French gardens, which have become the Jardin national. They symbolise Atheism, Ambition, Discord, Egoism, and will explode on the day of the ceremony… It is on 20 prairial, year II (8 June, 1794) that it will take place. Robespierre has chosen the Sunday which, according to the former Roman Catholic rites, was Pentecost.
On the Champs-de-Mars, the Holy Mountain is nearly finished. The People’s representatives will take place on it, along with the choirs, the orchestras and the banner-bearers. On its summit, a column fifty feet high overlooks the entrance to a deep cave, lit by giant candelabra. A river seeps from it, snaking between Etruscan tombs in the shade of an oak tree, and an antique altar, a pyramid, a sarcophage and a temple with twenty columns, complete this mythology. It takes only a month for a swarm of ditch-diggers, masons, carpenters and artists of all kinds, to finish this unusual church.
A map with all the details of the organization, which had to be strictly respected, was printed and distributed to the people of Paris. At the crossroads, the musicians who had composed the hymns, Gossec, Mehul and Cherubini, rehearsed and taught their chants to the assembled crowds.
Experts in solemn occasions, the Italians have come to help, and the great firework master of ceremonies, Ruggieri, has installed the mines which are to reduce to ashes the statues which symbolise the major vices of the old times, atheism in particular. Hardly any notice is taken, amongst all the hammering and sawing, of the rumbling of the carts which, on the other side of the Seine, are carrying hundreds of people to the guillotine.
And here, at last, is the astonishing day of 8 June 1794. Starting at five o’clock in the morning, the sound of pikes striking the pavement, the rattling of sabres, and the noise of a great troop marching, out-of-step and almost in silence, for a lot of these men do not have shoes, is to be heard. Robespierre sees, parading under his windows, in columns of twelve, some of the forty-eight Sections of the People who are hurrying towards the meeting places, followed by the Parisians who, already the day before, had discovered the altars of the Supreme Being.
For once, l’Incorruptible allows himself a bit of coquetry. In this early morning, he adjusts with care the uniform, whose view turns suspects icy cold: the sky blue jacket, the immaculate stockings, in the pre-Revolution fashion.
At nine o’clock, Paris is in place right down to the last man. It is not a good idea to be absent from the Grand-Mass in the parish of the terrifying curate who walks in front of his parishioners, carrying a sheaf of wheat ears.
On the Tuileries terrace, the Conventionnels, dressed in dark blue, are already assembled in the amphitheatre. On their hats, they wear tricoloured feathers, and they, too, brandish wheat ears, mixed with artificial cornflowers and poppies. The young men arrange themselves in a square around their Section flag, and mothers, who carry bouquets of roses, hold the hand of their daughters dressed in white tunics.
When l’Incorruptible appears, the orchestras start playing their symphonies accompanied by the rolling of drums. When he arrives at the highest part of the theatre, a salvo of artillery explodes. Pale, extatic, his body stiff, Robespierre takes a deep breath.
“At last it has arrived, the day forever fortunate that the People consecrate to the Supreme Being…”
His speech, which goes unheard by many, for his voice doesn’t carry well, is magnificent with lyricism and poetic elevation. The whole time that he takes to descend to the wooden floor over the lake, five hundred thousand Parisians give him an ovation. Then they see the statue of Atheism go up in flames, replaced by that of Wisdom. Unfortunately, this papier-mache allegory also has a singed forehead, and its head is crooked. When Robespierre regains his place, the Conventionnels, sure of making people laugh, cry out:
“Citizen, your wisdom has been obscured!”
Around him, people roar with laughter. And suddenly, for the High Priest of the new cult, the day darkens, heavy with fateful signs. Now, an immense procession forms which moves towards the Champ-de-Mars, preceded by cavalry and music squadrons
The Convention surrounds the Liberty float which disappears under an enormous tricoloured banner carried by Childhood decorated with violets. Virility follows, decorated with oak leaves, beside Adolescence, distinguished by myrtle. Old Age, decorated with grape-bearing vines, closes the procession. Behind them, comes the float of the blind, singing hymns to the divinity.
Within the procession, the Deputies look at their little bouquet and find themselves ridiculous. Luckily, Robespierre walks far up front, which allows the Conventionnels to relax. In spite of the music, the salvos, the cheering and the singing, he hears behind him cries of “dictator” and “charlatan”. A woman screams:
“You are a god, Robespierre!”
A Deputy yells to her:
“Cry “Vive la Republique” rather, madwoman!”
In spite of the heat, the face of the Incorruptible is deadly pale. He thought that today he would feel the spirit of the Supreme Being, but he feels hate around him instead. He can hear the Deputies openly insulting himself and his God…
To be continued.