The Revolution and the Church in 1791

The Revolution and the Church in 1791

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Title: Camus, Talleyrand, Rabaut-Saint-Etienne, Religion.

Creation date : 1791

Date shown: 1791

Dimensions: Height 12.1 - Width 15.5

Technique and other indications: Colored aquatint (cropped proof). Published by Webert. Vinck inventory ref: 3032.

Storage location: National Library of France (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo National Library of France

Picture reference: Prints, Coll. de Vinck, volume 18, fol. 51

Camus, Talleyrand, Rabaut-Saint-Etienne, Religion.

© Photo National Library of France

Publication date: December 2005


The Revolution and the Church in 1791


Historical context

The collapse of the situation of the Church

At the start of the Revolution, Catholicism appeared as the national religion; everywhere religious ceremonies accompany with enthusiasm the establishment of the new order. The abolition of the tithe and the transformation of Church property into national property did not deeply disturb the relationship of Church and State in 1789.

On the other hand, in 1790, the adoption of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy by the Constituent Assembly caused the Church to lose its autonomy as an institution and raised concerns. In addition, the Church can no longer appoint her ministers: they are now elected by the same electorate as the local administrations. The revolutionary state thus sets up a new constitutional Church which will exist only through it.

Of those ministers who receive a salary from the state, he demands an oath to the Civil Constitution of the clergy. Two churches soon clash, one Roman, traditional and faithful to the Pope, and the other, constitutional.

The new Legislative Assembly confronted with this situation adopted a rigorous decree on November 29, 1791: refractory clergymen were declared suspect and deprived of their pensions; the buildings, which they still had the right to use, will henceforth be used only for worship paid by the state. This decree against refractory priests has serious consequences: the king opposes his veto and it causes a dramatic and irremediable rupture in public opinion.

Image Analysis

Religion sold

Religion is delivered like a slave, in exchange for money, by Talleyrand, the former bishop of Autun, in episcopal costume, and by pastor Rabaut Saint-Etienne, in ministerial dress, to Camus, the active archivist of the Assembly. This anonymous colored aquatint is a counter-revolutionary caricature, published in December 1791, shortly after the decree on refractory priests.

From Talleyrand's mouth come the words that Judas once uttered to deliver Jesus Christ. Because the resigning bishop - who threw his emblems to the ground - twice betrayed his order: he proposed to the Assembly to put the goods of the clergy at the disposal of the nation, in 1789, and consecrated the first bishops constitutional, in 1791, thus creating a schismatic church. Rabaut Saint-Etienne snatches the censer from the hands of the trembling Religion and prepares to finish it with a stab as soon as this cynical deal is concluded. Camus proposes the “effective grace” of assignats: the caricature reminds us that this staunch supporter of paper money was a member of the Jansenist “party”, and a former lawyer for the clergy. At the end of 1791, the religious situation seemed to be at odds with its reassuring declaration to the Constituent, for the vote of the Civil Constitution, in 1790: "We are a national convention, we certainly have the power to destroy Religion but we won't. ".

Religion, like an animated sculpture, in the stripped down antique style dear to the end of the 18th century, appears utterly helpless. Her hair untied under her veil, holding a large bare cross and the attributes of worship, she pleasantly evokes the purity and youth of the origins of Christianity.


The Church of France threatened to disappear

The rapid and total collapse of the Church's temporal power and the loss of her spiritual autonomy made contemporaries suspect an occult understanding. The cartoon denounces as guilty of this organized destruction two members and one close to the clergy. The monarchist Jacques-Marie Boyer of Nîmes, explains in his History of the caricature of the French revolt, from 1792, that the three characters symbolize the three doctrines united to overthrow the throne and the altar: Jansenism: Camus, “philosophism”, that is to say the incredulity of the Enlightenment: Talleyrand, and Protestantism: Rabaut Saint-Etienne.

This young and moving Religion evokes another dimension of the destruction of the Church in France. The stake of the market concerns the goods of the Church which one sells and its temporal power which one cuts down, but the image suggests that something else will be destroyed: the religious feeling itself, in its spontaneous impetus and sincere.

  • Constituent Assembly
  • Catholicism
  • Clergy
  • Talleyrand-Périgord (Charles-Maurice de)
  • allegory
  • Church property
  • national property
  • Boyer of Nîmes (Jacques-Marie Boyer-Brun)
  • Civil Constitution of the Clergy
  • Jansenism
  • Lights
  • Protestantism


J.M. [Boyer Brun, known as] BOYER DE NIMES, The story of the caricature of the French revolt, Paris, Impr. from the Journal du Peuple, 1792, 2 vol.Claude LANGLOIS,The counter-revolutionary caricature,Paris, Presses du CNRS, 1988.Bernard PLONGERON,The challenges of modernity 1750-1840, in History of Christianity,t.X.Paris, Desclée, 1997. Jean TULARD, Jean-François FAYARD and Alfred FIERRO,History and dictionary of the French Revolution 1789-1799,Paris, Robert Laffont, 1988.

To cite this article

Luce-Marie ALBIGÈS, "The Revolution and the Church in 1791"

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