Maximilian Robespierre was the leader of the French Revolution, which promised to free France from the tyranny of despots. For centuries, the French people had lived under a system where the peasants carried the burden of the tax load. And while the monarchy did provide structure, it had its wild excesses, symbolized by the Palace of Versailles. Being on the tail end of the Enlightenment, the citizenry felt emboldened in their attempts to overthrow that old order and to replace it with one they deemed more rational and just. Robespierre, coming from a family that had lost its fortune, identified with the common man and made it his life mission to procure him with more dignity. He was a lawyer from a small provincial town who made little money. Using his wit and brilliant political mind, Robespierre rose to become the face of the revolution. Once at the helm he brought capital punishment to the forefront of his revolution via the now infamous guillotine.
The guillotine has become one of the most infamous symbols of the French Revolution. Many likely do not know the name of Robespierre, cannot picture his face if they do, and can even less identify any of the countless Jacobins that helped lobby him to power. That is to say that some of the longest lasting imagery from that bygone era is of that the guillotine, a mechanism of death. Through this symbol, contemporary Westerners can relate to the French who lived through that Revolution which ultimately morphed into the Terror – where almost twenty-thousand men, women, and even some children lost their lives. In the end, the entire country was gripped by the paranoid fear of having to kneel down into a revolutionary death.
For better or worse, Robespierre willingly became the face of that Revolution. Though he was slight in stature, pale and frail, he nonetheless stood tall when he felt his countrymen needed him. Having studied at one of France’s most prestigious secondary schools, Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Robespierre was well versed in history and its functions. He knew all along that he would live or die in accordance with the success of the Revolution. He wished for nothing more than to return home to Arras to spend time with his dear sister Charlotte, but he knew better. He knew the decision to play revolutionary was a permanent one. Thus towards the final days of his life, lonelier than ever before, he was crippled with fear, anxiety, and near certainty that he soon would be dead. For he was no longer the beloved hero of the Revolution, but the feared tyrant of the Terror.
In a remarkably simple turn of fate, the lopping off of Robespierre’s head by the very guillotine that he had used to rule and terrorize France symbolized the ending punctuation on the reign of fear, and a great undertaking of poetic justice. However, the most poignant symbolism, as well as the most useful and relevant of analysis, lies within the little talked about details surrounding the final day of Robespierre’s life.
Less than twenty-four hours before his rapid arrest and execution, Robespierre had come to learn that he was a wanted man. One of the many revolutionary committees at the time had issued a warrant for the arrests of him and his closest allies. They decided to hide out in a gorgeous, centuries old town hall called the Hôtel de Ville. It was there that Robespierre and his men would be captured, but not before absolute mayhem would ensue. Many men died in very fantastical and absurd ways during the operation to arrest him. During this chaos, Robespierre had most of his jaw shot off.
In this, the violent removal of a crucially useful body part, the analysis of symbolism can begin. Robespierre, “The Incorruptible” as he had become known, was no longer whole; he was physically fractured. And if he was broken into pieces, so was the Revolution. The fracturing of the revolution could have been symbolized by a broken leg or arm, but the wheels of divine justice resulted in his jaw being exploded. If there had been one aspect of his entire being that accounted for his swift ascension into the heights of power, it was certainly his oratory skills. The proverbial mouthpiece of the Revolution had been shut permanently by way of its physical mouth being destroyed.
In what was likely immense pain, Robespierre failed to escape his attackers and was arrested on the spot. It was in government custody that the next piece of symbolism would be born. A doctor was called in to look after Robespierre. First, several teeth were removed, symbolizing the defanging of a dangerous beast. Then a lily-white bandage was wrapped around his jaw.
To understand this next piece of symbolism one should ask: why do we bandage and cover up wounds?
We cover up wounds for more reasons than one might first think. Perhaps the biggest reason is to hide an ugly, deformed part of us from the eyes of the world. Another is in hope of keeping the body pure, clean, and free from the invasion of outside germs. The lily-white color of the bandages represented purity as well. In the simplest sense covering a wound symbolizes our humanity. They knew Robespierre would be killed in a matter of hours, so they had no reason to fear infection. Also, he had become a monstrous figure. Would presenting him with half a jaw not be presenting him as he truly was? Or perhaps those who ordered his face to be bandaged knew what would come next.
Either way, as Robespierre walked out onto the elevated platform donning a sky blue jacket, the audience may have seen the color representative of a summer sky untouched by untimely storms. Yet another symbolism of purity. The executioner removed his jacket and garishly ripped the lily-white bandages from Robespierre’s disfigured face. This vulgar and violent removal ultimately symbolizes a revelation, revealing to the crowd that the pure and angelic figure they had held in their hearts for the better part of a decade had become a disfigured monster; a shadow of his former self. The removal of the jacket and the bandages was the removal of the cloaks of purity that hid the true ugliness within.
In the backdrop behind the execution stage sat the house where Louis XVI was held for the hours leading up to his execution for conspiring with foreign powers in 1793. Now, only a year later, just before Robespierre had been led out, some rapscallion had splashed a bucket of animal blood onto the front door. This, of course, is reminiscent of the Passover story in which blood on the door symbolizes, to God, proper sacrifice as well as the righteousness of those who inhabit the marked dwelling. There can be no doubt that the revolutionaries saw themselves as righteous in fighting against oppression just like the Jews in Egypt. Perhaps marking the door with blood just as the Jews had done was a plea to God to pass over them in his judgement.
When the bandage was ripped from his face he roared a primal roar of pain. As Robespierre biographer Ruth Scurr put it:
“Just before they strapped Robespierre to the plank, the executioner decided to rip off the bandage that was holding his face together. Perhaps the executioner—so experienced by now—thought the bandage was thick enough to get in the way of the descending blade; perhaps he wanted to be cruel. Robespierre let out a scream. It was the deep, sharp cry of a man in excruciating pain that you hear sometimes in hospitals—the violent protest of a wounded human animal that, however brave or bent on self-control, cannot stop the voice of torment. The scream was the last act of the man who had tried as no one else did to embody the Revolution. It was the point of severance, when Robespierre’s precious vision of a democratic republic, pure and founded on virtue, must have finally left him.” 1
I believe Ruth Scurr when she says the moment that bandage was removed was the moment Robespierre was removed from his highest ideal. The loss of self control, too, seems to be poignantly observed. If he was the embodiment of the Revolution, that ritual removal of the bandages revealed the true nature of the Revolution: ugly and deformed; truly the stuff of nightmares.
For Robespierre, the scream uttered from his shattered mandible was blurted in antithesis to how he had carried himself for his entire political career – if not his entire life. He was a calm, quiet, and often mildly reserved politician who spoke with a level of precision seldom seen. He represented in many ways the highest level of cultural refinement. It would only be fitting, then, that his final moments manifested in a primal, animal screech of pain that was ripped from him like tornadoes rip oak trees from the ground. It was not calculated. It was not premeditated. That screech embodied everything Robespierre was not, at least exteriorly. That visceral scream symbolized his complete loss of self and the complete loss of control over the Revolution.
Robespierre was executed by guillotine, and with him died the Terror that had gripped France for two years. “The Incorruptible” was gone from the earth. His fall from grace was one of the farthest and most severe in all of Western history, and was a story steeped in poetic, often unbelievable, symbolism.
- Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity, at 805-806. Holt Paperbacks, April, 2007.