by Terry Melanson, April 24th, 2012 (Update/Introduction Aug 11, 2015)
The impetus for this compilation of numismatic Masonic symbolism during the French Revolution stems from a single paragraph (and accompanying end notes) in James H. Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (pp. 93, 537-8):
In the early days of the revolution, Masonry provided much of the key symbolism and ritual—beginning with the Masonic welcome under a “vault of swords” of the king at the Hotel de Ville three days after the fall of the Bastille. To be sure, most French Masons prior to the revolution had been “not revolutionaries, not even reformers, nor even discontent”; and, even during the revolution, Masonry as such remained politically polymorphous: “Each social element and each political tendency could ‘go masonic’ as it wished.” But Masonry provided a rich and relatively nontraditional foraging ground for new national symbols (coins, songs, banners, seals), new forms of address (tu, frère, vivat!), and new models for civic organizations, particularly outside Paris.
[…]36. On the use of the voûte d’acier on Jul 17, see J. Palou, La Franc-maçonnerie, 1972, 187.
37. D. Mornet, Les Origines intellectuelles de la révolution française (1715–1787), 1954, 375; discussion 357–87; bibliography, 523–5; and outside of France, Billington, Icon, 712–4. A. Mellor, Les Mythes maçonniques, (1974) also minimizes Masonic influence, though vaguely acknowledging the influence of the occultist revival on the revolutionary movement.
38. Ligou, “Source,” 46, also 49.
39. This subject has never been comprehensively studied. For the best discussions in general terms, see O. Karmin, “L’Influence du symbolisme maçonnique sur le symbolisme révolutionnaire,”Revue Historique de la Révolution Française, 1910, I, 183–8 (particularly on numismatics); J. Brengues, “La Franc-maçonnerie et la fête révolutionnaire,” Humanisme, 1974, Jul–Aug, 31– 7; Palou, 181–215; R. Cotte, “De la Musique des loges maçonniques à celles des fêtes révolutionnaires,” Les Fêtes de la révolution, 1977, 565–74; and the more qualified assessment of Ligou, “Structures et symbolisme maçonniques sous la révolution,” Annales Historiques, 1969, Jul Sep, 511–23.
For the heavy reliance on Masonic structures in provincial civic rituals, see, for instance, F. Vermale, “La Franc maçonnerie savoisienne au début de la révolution et les dames de Bellegarde,” Annales Révolutionnaires, III, 1910, 375–94; and especially the monumental work for la Sarthe which lifts the level of research far above anything done for Paris: A. Bouton, Les Franc-maçons manceaux et la révolution française, 1741–1815, Le Mans, 1958. See also his successor volume Les Luttes ordentes des francs-maçons manceaux pour l’établissement de la république 1815–1914, Le Mans, 1966.
The Karmin article is the main source for what follows.
His methodology is simple: he mined a standard numismatic reference work and highlighted the examples of Masonic influence—minus illustrations, hence the need for my own treatment. The evidence is clear and seems deliberate, although one isn’t quite sure whether the artists involved were actually Masons themselves.
Before Karmin lists his numismatic findings, there’s a ten page introduction about Masonic influences in general. Rallying cries, songs, and distinct phrases suddenly appear in popular revolutionary discourse that can be traced back to Masonic lore. L’École de Mars is mentioned as well, whose uniforms were designed by the famous artist Jacques-Louis David, responsible for some of the most iconic images of the French Revolution. Karmin matter-of-factly calls him “le franc-maçon David,” but disagreement among historians persists (Professor Albert Boime, however, apparently provided evidence in the affirmative, during a 1989 conference titled “David contre David.”)
David had many students. The engraver Augustin Dupré was one of them. He was friends with Benjamin Franklin who commissioned him to engrave the famous Libertas Americana medal in 1782/3. Dupré is prominent in Karmin’s list, having been the engraver for numbers’ 39, 423, 608, 613, 748 and duplicates thereof.
Number 608 (1793) is quite interesting. It’s a coin depicting the August 10th, 1793 Fête de l’Unité et de l’Indivisibilité, featuring the “Fountain of Regeneration”—the Egyptian goddess Isis—on the ruins of the Bastille. David was responsible for the details of the festival, while his student Dupré commemorated it.
Historian Dan Edelstein provides some important perspective:
Instead of a new Augustus, this golden age was placed under the aegis of Astraea, goddess of justice, referred to hear through her zodiacal scales (“sous ta balance”). But it wasn’t only in poetry that this return to the golden age was suggested. The festival itself comprised numerous attempts to materialize, or perform, this restoration of a natural state. First among these was the statue of Nature herself. Here was no ordinary allegory, not one of those Cybele’s or Ceres’s that parade through revolutionary iconography, but the original nature goddess herself, Isis. “The ancients … called Nature … Is-is,” Nicolas de Bonneville reminded his readers in his 1792 treatise on religion and myth. One did not need an antiquarian’s erudition to note this identity: Kant, for instance, refers to Isis as “Mother Nature” in a famous footnote in the Critique of Judgment.
If Isis was different from other allegories, it was because Egypt was different, or more specifically, because Egypt came first. “Greek myths [are only] an imitation of Egyptian ones,” Pernety asserted, echoing Plutarch’s claims in Isis and Osiris. And in the beginning, humanity worshipped nature: “Our fathers rendered a cult to nature whom they called … Isis.” A slew of antiquarian research favored this Egyptian primacy, associating Egypt with the “historical” land of the golden age. By choosing Isis over a Roman or Greek goddess, [Jacques-Louis] David, who planned the festival, was thus signaling that the Revolution took its mystical vocation seriously. Enigmatically seated where the process of French regeneration had begun four years before, Isis symbolized less the Enlightenment idea of nature qua observable “system” than an antiquarian idea of nature qua original order of the world, since lost. As E. H. Gombrich noted in his discussion of the fountain, “the novus ordo was somehow a return to the wisdom of the ancients.” (The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution, University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 184-185)
The President of the convention, Hérault de Séchelle addressed the 1793 gathering:
“Sovereign of the savage and of the enlightened nations, O Nature, this great people, gathered at the first beam of day before thee, is free! It is in thy bosom, it is in thy sacred sources, that it has recovered its rights, That it has regenerated itself after traversing so many ages of error and servitude: It must return to the simplicity of thy ways to rediscover liberty and equality. O Nature! receive the expression of the eternal attachment of the French people for thy laws; And may the teeming waters gushing from thy breasts, may this pure beverage which refreshed the first human beings, consecrate is this Cup of Fraternity and Equality the vows that France makes thee this day, — the most beautiful that the sun has illumined since it was suspended in the immensity of space.” (cf. Edelstein, op. cit., p.182)
This “regeneration” of France was marked by a sociopolitical philosophy of history, and a longing for a golden age utopia; in the palingenesis ideology of Charles Bonnet, and “Illuminists” such as Court de Gebelin, Fabre d’Olivet and Saint-Martin.
As I wrote in 2008:
Palingenesis is derived from the Greek palin- (again) and genesis (birth, becoming), meaning “continuous rebirth,” and is closely related (if not identical) to the doctrine of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the souls … Akin to a sort of materialistic pantheism, and infused with the quest for pansophia (universal knowledge) and pre-established harmony, “Bonnet’s philosophical palingenesis is a naturalistic explanation of resurrection”; representing a sequence “by which the chain rises toward biological complexity and spiritual perfection as ‘évolution.’” (Perfectibilists., pp. 192)
Fascist fervour sprung from the same fount, as has been pointed out by Roger Griffin:
From the very beginning the Revolutionaries understood they were ‘participating in what seemed to them to be the regeneration of the world’. … “[requiring] nothing less than a new man and new habits’, and that these could somehow be created by new symbols. The events in the East bloq in the bicentenary of the French Revolution provide eloquent testimony to the fact that liberalism in its extra-systemic, utopian aspect is still capable of acting as a populist form of palingenetic myth as fascism was in its day. (The Nature of Fascism, Routledge, 1993, pp. 193-4)
Main sources: Otto Karmin, “L’Influence du Symbolisme Maçonnique sur le Symbolisme Révolutionnaire,” Revue historique de la Révolution français, (avril-juin 1910); Hennin (Michel), Histoire numismatique de la Révolution Française, Paris, 1826.
“What was the influence of Freemasonry on the French Revolution? The clerical world has always maintained that the latter was the result of a conspiracy of the lodges; the Masonic world has always fought against this thesis. For political reasons, some Masonic authors have denied any, or mostly any, influence their society may have had on revolutionary events, [while] others – concerned with historical truth – have shown the important role played by the lodges, and particularly by their members, on the progress of the Revolution. […] To symbolize its principles and ideals, the Revolution drew upon two sources: the symbols and trappings of classical antiquity, and the rituals of Freemasonry. In the first category belong the goddesses of Liberty, Hercules, the Phrygian caps, fasces, clubs, vanquished hydras, etc.; the second borrowed the square, compass, level, trowel, the triangle with and without a radiant eye, the sun, moon, intertwined hands, knotted tassels, the mirror, the pelican, the eagle bearing its young, the beehive, circumference, etc.” (Karmin, pp. 3, 10)
N 15. Radiant Triangle
N 39. Election of Jean-Silvain Bailly (a Freemason) as Mayor of Paris; Goddess Liberty and Phrygian cap, fasces, compass, scroll, etc.
N 42. Estates General; Otto: “Henning did not notice the Masonic inspiration of this piece; in fact you not only see the square and compass but the [Masonic ‘Jachin and Boaz’] ‘two column’ [motif] surmounted by the sun and moon. It is true that the latter is very skillfully represented by a bishop’s miter, placed somewhat obliquely.” (p. 11)
N 68. Henning: “An astronomical trophy consisting of a globe, a compass, a scale, a quarter circle, a square, a mirror and laurels. Above, the moon and sun.” Otto: “Henning was mistaken; the mirror he is talking about is the handle of a trowel. It is true that the mirror is also a Masonic symbol, introduced by the ‘Strict Observance’ in 1782.” (p.11)
N 124. Pelican. A common masonic symbol usually reserved for Rosicrucian degrees (compare with this Masonic medallion).
N 155. Radiant triangle.
N 172. Masonic imagery on both the obverse and reverse; in particular, notice the square and compass displayed in precisely the manner of Freemasonry. The upside-down triangles are a mystery; Otto speculates that it may have been an anti-Christian sentiment. Owl of Minerva is present as well.
N 184. Radiant triangle
N 282. ‘Chiffones d’Arles’ Medallion: Anti-revolutionary piece; Serpent eating its tail (Ouroboros).
Catalogue of the Mayer collection: “A society of Royalists, in the city of Arles, assembled every night, during the early part of the revolution, at the house of a man named Giffon. This name was ultimately corrupted into Chiffon, which, in the patois of Arles, signifies a siphon. In the Tresor Numismatique, plate xxxi., figure 9, is a medal with this figure of a siphon upon it, and the legend, CHIFFONNE D’ARLES. The society was dissolved by a decree of the Legislative Assembly, in 1792.”
N 305. Gold medallion, very rare. Philippe-Frédéric de Dietrich (mason and Illuminatus), the first mayor of Strasbourg; Minerva. Obverse: an eagle, bearing its young, soaring towards the sun.
N 370. Liberty cap; level.
N 374. Minerva seated, with level (on a cornerstone, perhaps).
Nearly identical with this masonic medal from the Lodge “Centre des Amis” in 1793, who’s Master was Illuminatus Roëttiers de Montaleau.
N 392. Beehive (Masonic symbol of industry utilized in the 3rd degree); radiant sun with a human face. Very similar to the medal struck in 1788 (below), commemorating the scientific society, Cercle des Philadelphes, whose founders and majority of its members, were Masons and anti-Mesmerists. Mesmer himself, ironically enough, was a member of the occult-Masonic Philadelphes de Narbonne.
N 398. Liberty holding level.
N 423, 424, 425. The Genius of France, holding the scepter of Reason (all-seeing eye at its extremity), etching the word Constitution on a tablet, flanked by Phrygian cap and triangle.
N 455, 458. Liberty, Phrygian cap, and triangle.
N 526. Same as 374.
N 565. Hope wearing a Liberty cap; exergue: the level.
N 566. Liberty standing; left, a broken column and a glowing eye.
N 573. School of Sorèze Medallion. Minerva; children playing around a tree of liberty; square and compass at their feet.
N 575. Triangle with all-seeing eye.
N 579. Pelican feeding young.
N 604. Minerva holding a level.
N 608. Nature, in the guise of the goddess Isis; exergue: the level.
N 611. Ark with constitution, supported by Egyptian looking females who in turn flank an Ouroboros; exergue: the level.
N 613, 614, 615, 616 same as 423, 424, 425.
N 629. Level.
N 630. Winged liberty holding level; all-seeing eye atop a mountain, referring to the Montagnards during the Terror — i.e., the panoptic totalitarianism of the Committee of Public Safety.
N 636. Convention, Robespierre and Cecile Renault. Level.
N 679. Republic of France. Level.
N 681. Council of Five Hundred. Level.
N 748. Hercules, Liberty and Equality (holding level).
N 789 and 790. Level and Ouroboros.
N 792. Cisalpine Republic. Level.
N 796. Not noticed by Karmin, the medallion is dedicated to the painter Nicolas Poussin. Compass in support of a pentagram (both masonic symbols).
N 799. Same as 748.
N 810. Level.
N 845, 846, like 789, 790.
N 866 like 748.
N 873. Level.
N 884, 886, like 889 890.
N 887. Spirit bearing a map in his right hand and the square and compass in his left hand.
N 899 like 873.
N 911. Liberty holding level.
N 913. Liberty holding level.
N 915 like 748.