The Saint-Denis Basilica during the Revolution

The Saint-Denis Basilica during the Revolution and the creation of the French Monuments Museum

Hubert Robert, The Violation of the Cellars of the Kings in the Basilica of Saint-Denis in October 1793, ca. 1793, oil on canvas, 54 x 64cm, Musée Carnavalet, Paris © Wikimedia Commons

With the Revolution, many symbols of the Ancien Régime were destroyed, such as the royal tombs at Saint-Denis. This vandalism would later contribute to the awareness of the importance of historical heritage and the need for its conservation, which was a prerequisite for the creation of the first museums.

The events that took place in France in 1789 precipitated the fall of the monarchy on August 10, 1792. This brought with it the fall of the symbols and places of power as well as the sale of part of the clergy's property.
The Committee of Public Salvation, a body created by the National Convention on April 6, 1793 with the mission of controlling ministers and restoring the authority of the government, decided to commemorate the first anniversary of the fall of the monarchy by destroying the mausoleums of the kings of France. An act that was later to be taxed as vandalism. Thus Saint-Denis and its royal necropolis did not escape this program. The funerary monuments were either destroyed or sold, some of them to Alexandre Lenoir who stored them in his depot of the Petits-Augustins in Paris, which he would later try to transform into a museum (future Museum of French Monuments).
This program seeks to recover monuments from the basilica in order to put them in safety. By making this repository of the Petits-Augustins a museum, it is understood that an opening to the public is desired and that there is a desire to make these monuments of French History known to the people.

With the inauguration of this museum on October 21, 1795, Lenoir, in five years, accomplished a considerable, albeit imperfect work (limitations: errors of attribution, vandalism, particular scenography, choices more aesthetic than didactic). He nevertheless managed to interest the government and public opinion in the fate of French monuments despite strong criticism. Initially concerned with preserving the monuments of the Ancien Régime, Lenoir gradually turned the sculptures collected from the Petits-Augustins (notably the tombs of Saint-Denis) into the basis of a historical discourse aimed at reconstructing "the scale of the centuries.

In this way, the works become witnesses to the history of France, which they embody and whose dramas they replay. The history of the centuries thus unfolds before the eyes of the spectator. The museum's monuments refer to an ideal of glory where a new sense of the perpetuation of a heritage and a memory are desired and applied thereafter. Moreover, one can speak of a taking of liberty in relation to the reality of historical events with a desire to stick perfectly to the vision of the past that one has (which is not necessarily true since one is conditioned by one's own time - a vision of the past that is one's own). Lenoir thus offers its own vision of the past to the visitor even if it is not rigorous and scientific. The museum was closed in 1814 but it served as a model for a whole generation of painters. Following its closure, the monuments were transferred to the Louvre or to religious establishments.

Visual: Hubert Robert, The Violation of the Kings' Cellars in the Basilica of Saint-Denis in October 1793, ca. 1793, oil on canvas, 54 x 64cm, Musée Carnavalet, Paris © Wikimedia Commons