This exceptionally rare and historically important broadside, by the librarian and writer Jean Chevret, resplendently details the author’s conception of a new Deist religious system for France, so as to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the Roman Catholic Church during the French Revolution. Upon being presented to the Assemblée Nationale, Chevet’s system became highly influential for about a year, between the summers of 1791 and 1792. In the highly unstable and fluid revolutionary environment Chevet’s conception dovetailed into the creation of radical religious Cults that held sway until the summer of 1794. While the influence of Chevet’s conception did not endure beyond the Revolutionary Era, it is nevertheless of great historical importance as it represents one of the first alternative religious systems to gain serious credibility in France during this critical period. The broadside, which Chevet viewed as the authoritative document describing his religious system, presents a fascinating glimpse into the author’s brilliant, vastly literate, yet eccentric mind, which brilliantly exemplified the moderate Revolutionary ethic. The broadside is extremely rare – we can locate only 4 institutional examples and only a single sales record of another example going back three decades.
Chevret’s conception of a new Deist religious system for France arose out of the collapse of the Ancien Régime in the wake of the Storming of Bastille (July 14, 1789), generally regarded as the opening act of the French Revolution. From that point onwards the King’s authority and the established socio-religious order of the country progressively collapsed, creating a vacuum that was filled by new ideas and systems.
Under the previous Ancien Régime, France was governed by a bewilderingly complex feudal system within a relatively strong central state, with the King paramount, ruling by divine right. The regime was underpinned by the precepts of the Roman Catholic Church, the official state religion, with it often being said that “la France est la fille aînée de l’église” (France is the eldest daughter of the Church). Immediately under the King was the First Estate, the Catholic clergy, who exercised not only complete authority over the spiritual realm, but was also imbued with immense political and economic power. Below that was the Second Estate, which consisted of the Nobility, invested with great inherent privileges. It is important to note that the clergy and the nobility were not distinct elements, but were usually comingled, often resulting in bureaucratic complexities and disputes. Even further down was the Third Estate, essentially consisting of everyone else, whose fate was subject to the whims of the higher echelons.
The Revolution progressively revealed King Louis XVI to be politically important, and certainly not a vehicle of divinely ordained power. The legitimacy of the Nobility was likewise undermined. Moreover, the Revolutionaries (especially those of a radical persuasion) considered not only the Clergy to be corrupt and illegitimate, but the Roman Catholic faith, and indeed Christianity in general, to be fraudulent. They called for the complete De-Christianization of France.
In the place of the old Catholic order many Revolutionaries, at least initially, advocated a new system based on the concept of Deism, an Enlightenment Era intellectual notion that explicitly rejected the traditional conception of religion that was predicated on revelation and authority. Rather Deists held that the spirit of the single divine creator of the Universe could be summoned only be the exercise of reason and the observation of the natural world.
Enter Jean Chevret and his ‘Tableau Central des Opinions’
Jean Chevret (1747 – 1820) hailed from Meulan, not far from Paris, and managed to gain an entry level positon at the Bibliothèque du Roi (the future Bibliothèque nationale de France) in 1765. He worked his way up to become a senior librarian, a prestigious posting, and became part of the circle of Paris’s liberal-minded Enlightenment intelligentsia. While a direct employee of King Louis XVI, Chevret was an ardent Revolutionary whose true inclinations were revealed shortly after the Storming of the Bastille in the Summer of 1789. He soon came out with a rather idealistic tome, Épître à l’humanité et à la patrie en particulier, sur le bon ordre et l’idée de la véritable liberté, suivi de la notice d’un manuscrit intitulé: L’Ami de la Vérité ou des véritables principes de l’ordre social et de la félicité publique (1789).
The follwing year, while retaining his job at the Library, Chevret threw himself headlong into developing a new religious system for France. He was a Deist, albeit a moderate one, who while anti-Clergy, was not against all Christian tenants. He also, at least for the time being, respected that the King was still technically the head of state (albeit with a much diminished socio-political role).
Chevret developed an elborate new religious system for France, that while Deist in its overall nature, combined elements of traditional Christian theology, history and astrology with principles of modern astromony and Englightment era philosophy. This system is carefully and resplendently depicted on the present Tableau Central, which was intended to be the main vehicle of communication for his conception.
Chevret’s system assumes the overall form of the Solar System, with ‘Dieu’ (God) being at its centre (at the heart of the figurative Sun). In homage to traditional Christian orthodoxy, God is surrounded by the Trinity of ‘Pere’ (Father), ‘Fils’ (Son) and the ‘St. Esprit’ (Holy Ghost), which in turn lies within a Triangle. Shown revolving around the Divine Sun are the planets of the solar system, including Earth, while at the top of the diagram are the Zodiacal symbols for Gemini, Cancer and Leo appropriately (the broadside appeared in the late spring of 1791, so was debuted during the months of May, June and July). The entire scene is profusely annotated with descriptions of the connection between Human Reason, God and the Physical Universe. These annotations include quantitative data, moral expressions and concepts explicitly taken from the writing of figures such as Voltaire, Newton, Pascal and Descartes. The scene is extremely content rich, and even features the appearance of the famous Comet of 1680.
Importantly, anchoring this Spiritual Solar System are the foundations of Reason & Philosophy (roundel, lower left) and Religion (roundel, lower right), both of which are connected to the Trinity at the heart of the solar system by dotted lines.
The system’s uniquely French connection can be found along the borders. At the top left appears the broadside’s title: ‘Tableau Central des Opinions et de l’Education Publique.’; while in the top centre is written: ‘À la Gloire de l’Être Suprême.’ (To the Glory of the Supreme Being); while in the top right is written: ‘Hommage à l’Humanité, à la Nation, à la Loi, et au Roi’ (Hommage to Humanity, the Nation, the Law and to the King). Inhabiting the corners of the border are the written: ‘Philosophy’, ‘Religion’, ‘Déclaration des droits de l’Homme’ (‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’, referring to the Revolutionary Constitutional document of August 1789) and ‘Discours du Roi du 14 Fev. 1790’ (referring to the King’s acknowledgement of the Assemblée Nationale’s authority). Along the sides of the borders are roundels featuring the names and dates of key historical figures revered by the Revolutionaries, including philosophers, scientists, as well as religious and political figures. Curiously, the roundel featuring the King, bearing with the date of his ascension to the throne, labeled as ‘Louis XVI, Roi de Français de 10 Mai 1774’ is located at the very bottom-centre, suggesting that while the monarch had a place in Chevret’s system, it was only in a supporting role – in sharp contrast to the Ancien Régime conception (indeed, Louis XVI’s authority was progressively eroding day by day).
Chevret’s system, while quite fanciful, is complex and ingenious, and cannot be comprehensively explained here. The preceding synopsis is intended only to be a starting point for further investigation. Chevret seemed to been well aware of the complexity of his conception, as, separately issued from the broadside, he published a pamphlet explaingi the system depicted on the Tableau Central, entitled Explication du Tableau central des opinions et de l’éducation publique, ou Développement du spectacle de la nature, de l’unité et de la trinité de son principe, et l’accord de la philosophie avec la religion (Paris: N.H. Nyon, 1791).
Chevret issued the broadside in 3 states, of which the present example is of the second state. The latter two states were modified in the wake of current events. The first state seems to have been made in the late Spring of 1791, and is the same as the second (present) state, save that it does not feature the author’s imprint or the presentation line in the lower margin (example: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, RESERVE QB-370 (46)-FT 4).
The second state of the broadside was issued shortly after Chevret’s conception reached its apogee on July 18, 1791, when his broadside was formally present to the Assemblée Nationale. While the Assemblée stopped short of officially adopting Chevret’s system as the state religion, it did give its approbation to Chevret’s endeavour.
Subsequent to the Assemblée’s approval, Chevret had grand ambitions for the nation-wide public dissemination and display of his broadside.
He noted shortly after the presentation:
‘D’après l’invitation de plusieurs de MM. les députés ont faite à l’auteaur, de leur procureur son tableau Central pour être envoye dans leurs Départements…’ (Explication: 1791, p. 18). [Translation: According to the invitations that several of Members of the Assemblée Nationale have made to the Author, they have requested copies of the broadside so that they can be sent home to their Departments…]
Chevret later revealed his broader plan for the work:
‘Cet Ouvrage, destinée à être place dans le sein des familles, dans les Colleges, Maisons d’instruction & éducation publique, & dans les Assemblées particulaires & generals des Citroyens, a pour fine de les rappeler tous à la même source de lumière, a l’unité du même privilege, & en dédisant les justes conséquences, arrive tous au même terme se voulent & de Bonheur, qui sera celui de la Patrie, remplira les désirs de notre auguste Assemblée & comblera les voeux de notre vertueux monarque’. (Explication Succinte: 1797, p. 1) [Translation: This work, is to be displayed in family living spaces, in Colleges, houses of instruction & public education, and at particular and general meetings of Citizens, in order to remind them all of the same source of Enlightenment, an unity of the same conception, their just consequences, and with the same sense of Will & Happiness, which will be that of the Fatherland, and which will fulfill the desires of our august Assembly & will meet with the approbation of our righteous monarch.]
How widely disseminated was Chevret’s broadside is today a matter of conjecture, although it does not seem that it succeeded in being a national mass-marketing phenomenon. Rather, it appears that Chevret’s conception enjoyed great influence amongst Revolutionary elites for a short, but critical period, from the summers of 1791 to 1792.
The present second state of the work was issued shortly after Chevret formally presented the broadside to the Assemblée National on July 18, 1791. The only changes from the first state are the additions in the lower margin of the presentation line ‘Présente à l’Assemblée Nationale le 18 juillet 1791.’ and the author’s imprint.
The third state of Chevret’s broadside was first issued to in the wake of King Louis XVI’s fall from grace, as it removes all traces of monarchical influence that were present on the first two states (example: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE D-13633). While many of the Revolutionaries harboured blatantly antimonarchical sentiments right from the beginning, until the end of the summer of 1792, the King was technically still the head of the French state. That being said, even by the time Chevret presented his broadside to the Assemblée Nationale in July 1791, the King was largely discredited amongst both the Revolutionaries and the French public in general, being essentially a prisoner of the former. During what was known as the Flight to Varennes (June 20-21, 1791), the King and his family had tried to flee the county to safety in the Austrian Netherlands, where they would have presumably (with Austrians aid) attempted to invade France and overthrow the Revolutionaries. However, the attempt was unsuccessful and the King was unceremoniously brought back to Paris and placed under house arrest in the Tuileries, from then on losing favour and power day by day. Louis XVI was stripped of his throne when France became a republic on September 22, 1792. The King was executed by the Revolutionaries on January 21, 1793.
In removing the monarchical elements, the third state of the broadside features paste-over printed slips that cover-up any references to the King, replacing them with Pro-Revolutionary content. Specifically, the line in the register in the upper-right part of the broadside that reads ‘Hommage à l’Humanité, à la Nation, à la Loi, et au Roi’ has the latter part pasted over in the place of ‘et au Roi’ (and to the King) to now read ‘et au Génie de la Liberté.’ (and to the Spirit of Liberty); the line of roundels making up the bottom of the border which previously contained the names of Louis XVI and other pre-Revolutionary rulers had been pasted over with a slip that starts out with the line ‘La Philosophie, par la raison, remontant des effets a la cause, reconnoit un Dieu, en descend de la cause aux effets, en établit la Foi.’ (Philosophy, by reason, so as the effects to the cause, acknowledges a God descending as to the cause to the effect, so establishing the Faith); and the bottom corners which previously features hearts within which read ‘Déclaration des droits de l’Homme’ (left) and ‘Discours du Roi du 14 Fev. 1790’ (right) have been replaced respectively with the words ‘Raison’ (Reason) and ‘Foi’ (Faith).
While the broadside was issued separately from all other works, Chevret explicitly noted that it should be considered in conjunction with one of his Revolutionary tomes, De l’Amour et de sa Puissance Supreme (Paris, 1791), which while not explaining the broadside touches on its themes.
Epilogue: The Revolutionary Cults
Importantly, there was never any universal agreement amongst the Revolutionary factions as to the nature of a new national religious / spiritual system for France. Moderates (such as Chevret) favoured a hybrid form of Deism that allowed for the inclusion of some Christian elements, even if it was avowedly anti-clerical. The moderate conceptions prevailed until summer of 1792, when more radical systems gained favour. It is critical to note, however, that these more radical systems were closely related to the moderate conceptions, such that the latter often dovetailed into the former.
A more extreme conception, but one closely related to Chevret’s system was the ‘Cult of Reason’ which gained a wide following between the summer of 1792 and the spring of 1794. This anthropocentric model rejected the existence of God and was avowedly anti-Christian, and held as its objectives the attainment of Truth and Liberty, which could only be reached through Reason. One of its main proponents explained that according to the Cult, “Liberty, reason, truth are only abstract beings. They are not gods, for properly speaking, they are part of ourselves”. The Cult was likely directly influenced by Chevret’s conception, and the two systems shared many similarities in both style and content. Notably, both celebrated the concepts of Human Reason and Philosophy as being the guiding principles to enlightenment.
The Cult of Reason reached it apogee during the Fête de la Raison (November 10, 1793), a nationwide celebration that was officially-sanctioned by the Assemblée Nationale and the Constitutional Convention (although it was not supported by all of its leading members). Churches all across the republic were transformed into ‘Temples of Reason’, with the former Christian altar within the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris being changed into an ‘Altar to Liberty’, bearing the inscription “To Philosophy”. It was at this point the Cult briefly became the de facto state ‘religion’ of France, although this designation was never formally given.
The Cult of Reason’s time in the sun came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1794, during the Reign of Terror. Maximilien Robespierre, the fanatic who by this time was the preeminent power in the Revolutionary Republic, ferociously turned against the Cult of Reason and its protagonists. A prudish man, Robespierre was personally offended by the reports of lurid and lascivious occurrences that were said to regularly accompany the Cult’s ceremonies. Also, while Robespierre was a political extremist and anti-Christian, he was not an atheist, and considered the Cult’s godless system to be immoral. To boot, many of the Cult of Reason’s protagonists were his political rivals. At Robespierre’s instigation most of the Cult’s leadership was guillotined on March 24, 1793. With that, so died the Cult of Reason.
Robespierre then sought to establish a new state religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being (Culte de l’Être suprême) an avowedly anti-Christian form of Deism, that could be described as more extreme version of Chevret’s system (note Chevret’s use of the term l’Être suprême on the present broadside). Robespierre announced the creation of his new cult before the National Convention on May 7, 1794.
Robespierre’s cult was centred on a Godhead, the Supreme Being, and held that Reason was the only means to a singular end, Virtue. The soul was said to be immortal, and its salvation in virtue could only be obtained by strict devotion to liberty and democracy (and implicitly Robespierre’s authority!).
However, it was in the Cult of the Supreme Being that the demagogic Robespierre met his undoing. To inaugurate his new ‘religion’, Robespierre declared that June 8, 1794 would be the Festival of the Supreme Being. The elaborate spectacle was planned by the famous artist Jacques-Louis David and was to take place at the foot of a mountain of iconographic decoration constructed on Paris’s Champ de Mars. During the festival, Robespierre seemed to present himself as the human embodiment of the Supreme Being (although he never explicitly claimed such).
This all proved a step too far, even for the most fanatical and eccentric Revolutionaries, who were offended by any notion of a Man-God, in addition to being turned off by the tasteless kitsch surrounding the Cult. Robespierre was guillotined on July 28, 1794, and with him died the Revolutionary Cults, if not the Revolution itself
As for Chevret, he somehow manged to avoid being caught up in the dangers of the Revolutionary turmoil. He kept his post at the Bibliothèque Nationale and continued to write (by today’s standards totally unreadable) philosophical tomes. Curiously, a few years after
France had moved beyond the Revolutionary Cults, Chevret was still promoting the Tableau Central, publishing a small pamphlet expounding its virtues, Explication Succinte du Tableau Central des Opinions et de l’éducation publique (Paris, n.p. 1797).
Upon the ascension of the regime of Napoleon Bonaparte, Roman Catholicism was re-established as the state religion and all Revolutionary spiritual conceptions were supressed. All Cults were officially banned by the Law on Cults of April 8, 1802, and were never to be revived.
Chevret continued quietly in the employ of the Bibliothèque, becoming known for his designs for the ‘ideal library,’ until his death in 1820.
The present Tableau Central broadside is extremely rare – we can locate only 4 institutional examples in any of the states (Bibliothèque nationale de France, 3 examples (1 of each state); and a single example at the British Library). Beyond that, we have been able to locate only a single sales record of another example from the three decades.
References: (Re: the present 2nd state) Bibliothèque nationale de France; Les archives de la Révolution française; 12.1141; James A. Leith, Symbols in Life and Art (Montreal, 1987), Fig. 15.