The coronation of Napoleon: a useless exercise?


Napoleon always understood the importance of public opinion and the means by which it might be shaped and manipulated. The “Coronation of Napoleon” by Jacques-Louis David (1807),

which depicts the new “emperor of the French” standing in magnificent coronation robes and about to crown empress Josephine, was conceived as a work of propaganda, to further establish his political legitimacy in the eyes of the French public and, incidentally, the monarchs of Europe. In that, both the painting and the ceremony failed utterly.

This is of no fault of David, the very same David who sketched Queen Marie-Antoinette on her way to the scaffold, “one of the greatest cowards but also one of the greatest painters of his day” (Stefan Zweig), the same David who spewed his venom at aristocrats during the Revolution but who quickly attached himself to “the rising fortunes of the new dictator.”

His masterpiece, for which he was granted the title of baron, now in display at the Louvre in Paris, endures. The painting’s political legacy, not so much!

The restoration of a hereditary monarchy in France did not take place on 2 December 1814, as David’s masterpiece leads us to believe, but seven months earlier, by a vote of the French Senate, ratified within weeks by plebiscite. The Revolution having decreed that Louis XVI would be “the last of kings,” Napoleon chose the title of “emperor,” a useful reference to Charlemagne (742-814). His empire had been a short-lived affair, barely surviving his founder’s demise and disappearing entirely within the next decades, however its impact had proven profound.

Napoleon also insisted on a lavish coronation ceremony, to take place in Paris, with the Pope in attendance. Not everyone was enthralled by the idea. Many, amongst his close advisors, worried a coronation would be perceived as a return of the old monarchy. But Napoleon was adamant. The new dynasty could simply not rely on the consent of the people and its representatives (the Senate). Besides, he argued, a constitutional oath was to conclude the ceremony. As for the Pope, his presence would only add “luster” to the Coronation.

Pope Pius VII agreed, albeit reluctantly, to travel to Paris and attend the Coronation. He even agreed that Napoleon should crown himself, a decision that enraged the opposition. “The crimes of an Alexander VI are less revolting than this hideous apostasy on the part of his feeble successor,” wrote a royalist. By agreeing that Napoleon would crown himself, the Pope only legitimized and sanctified the Revolution.

What emblems for the new French empire? The eagle, the lion, or the rooster? Napoleon dismissed the rooster, a barnyard animal who “scratches manure” and chose the eagle, like Charlemagne, “his illustrious predecessor.” As for his personal emblem, the new emperor chose the bee, an insect living and working within a strict organization under a chief.


Napoleon’s Coronation could not resemble the ceremonies held for the kings of France until 1775. If the ceremony were to borrow from old traditions, for example the presence of twelve dignitaries surrounding the emperor (like the twelve peers who laid their hands on the royal crown symbolically as the Archbishop of Rheims placed it on the king’s forehead), and ancient symbols of power, the scepter, the sword, and the hand of justice, new insignias were thrown into the mix. The hand of justice included five fingers instead of three, to avoid any reference to the Holy Trinity. A globe was added, a clear reference to the coronation of emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, an ancient European institution dating back to 962, an institution Napoleon viewed as archaic. The message was clear, not only a complete political reorganization of Central Europe was to be expected, but he was to be acknowledged as the equal of the Holy Roman Emperor, a Habsburg since the 15th century.

Napoleon was to enter Notre-Dame already wearing a small crown and his coronation robes, and not wearing a simple white tunic like the long-standing tradition prescribed. No doves would take to the sky and the emperor would not touch the diseased. That said, the painting representing General Bonaparte visiting plague-stricken soldiers in Jaffa, Syria by Antoine-Jean Gros, a romantic and idealized version of Napoleon touching soldiers suffering from the plague during his Egyptian campaign in 1799, was presented to the public at the Paris Salon days before the Coronation. Napoleon is represented touching the sores of one of the plague victims, despite the fear of contagion.


Napoleon would have loved to wear the heavy crown of Charlemagne, studded with rubies and emeralds, unfortunately it had been melted during the Revolution. A new crown had to be made for the occasion.

Following months of careful planning, the ceremony took place on 2 December, a Sunday. It was a frigid day. Crowds of onlookers witnessed the display of pomp without much enthusiasm. Inside Notre Dame, Pope Pius VII had to wait an hour before Napoleon and his retinue entered the cathedral. “His small size melted under an enormous ermine cloak, a simple laurel wreath on his forehead,” wrote Claire de Rémusat, one of Josephine’s ladies. “He was extremely pale, profoundly moved…” Minutes before, he is believed to have whispered to his brother Joseph’s ear: “if only our father could see us now.”

All went well but without any display of enthusiasm from the audience, in other words “seriously, nobly and coldly,” observed Frederic Masson, a 19th century French historian. At the end of the ceremony, Napoleon pledged the constitutional oath and that was that.

In truth, the lavish ceremony impressed nobody. The Catholics were upset that the Pope was relegated to the humiliating role of a mere extra.

The anticlerical revolutionaries were upset that the Pope was there to begin with! The Parisian crowds mocked the whole thing and criticized its cost, at a time when France was hit by a severe economic crisis. As for the monarchs of Europe, they ignored the ceremony altogether and only bothered to send an ambassador. Napoleon’s Coronation was decidedly not worth their time. A few German princes made the trip, but they had forged alliances with Napoleon.

In the end, Napoleon, the great expert in propaganda, gained nothing out of his coronation. The ceremony fell flat and added nothing to his legitimacy, as the events leading to his first abdication in April 1814 would demonstrate. The Coronation proved a useless exercise and Napoleon never mentioned it again…






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