For millennia, King Mob has targeted societies’ icons with varied goals and to varied ends, and few things are more foreboding than his desecration of civic art. Just as the targets have ranged from rulers to clergy, from tyrants to helpless, and from the guilty to the innocent, the outcomes have ranged from victory to defeat depending on the society’s strength and will. The promise of bloodshed coming alongside or following shortly after, however, is an historic certainty. The symbols of a people never satisfy: People themselves must always come next.
In 1790, mobs looted and pillaged Paris’s treasured Notre Dame. To the revolutionaries, the cathedral symbolized everything that was wrong with France’s history and society — a history of kings, tradition and religion, and a society beset by royal injustice and systemic inequality.
Over the next three years, the 12th-century church’s riches and artifacts were stripped, stolen, and destroyed, their remnants hidden by the faithful and sold off by the faithless. Statues of the Virgin Mary were removed and statues to the Goddess of Liberty took their place on desecrated altars.
At nearby Sainte-Chapelle, the revolution pulled the apostles from the pedestals where they had stood watch over Christ’s Crown of Thorns. The 12 statues were vandalized and buried — half so badly they are still undergoing attempts at restoration. As the destruction of religious art unfurled, priests who did not swear allegiance to the new order and those who aided them were sentenced to death.
Back at the cathedral, the revolutionary government mistook the 28 statues of the kings of ancient Judah for French kings (rich old men and all), dragging them into the public square for decapitation. Their buried heads were not rediscovered for nearly 200 years.
In the Place de Louis XV, the large statue of the square’s namesake was torn down and the plaza renamed Place de la Revolution. A guillotine was raised, and the “liberated” space would see the execution of more than 1,200 prisoners, from King Louis XVI and his wife to the executions’ ringleader himself, Maximilien Robespierre.