Thursday, February 19, 2009
Napoleon and the bees
Napoleon by Ingres
For a while now I’ve known that bees were the symbol of Napoleon, thanks to my mother who is the source of everything I know of the decorative arts, architectural history, defenestration, fenestration and the knots in rugs. Whenever possible she sends me postcards of Napoleon, in which he is sporting his red velvet cloak studded with golden bees.
And naturally I assumed that Napoleon chose bees as his symbol because of their industriousness and community spirit. But it turns out to be more complicated – and political – than that. The Bourbons had the fleur-de-lys - and we know what happened to the some of the Bourbons in 1793. Napoleon sought an emblem with more of the “fraternité” spirit. Bees were the symbol of Childeric, the 5th century Merovingian king. More than a thousand years after Childeric's death, a mason was doing repairs in the church of Saint Brice in Tournai (now in Belgium; Dad used to go their to buy cotton linters) and he stumbled upon Childeric’s grave. It contained all sorts of treasure, but of the greatest significance were three hundred golden bees.
I read somewhere else (in the vast cyber world) that it was Dagobert II of the Franks who had the golden bee-studded cape, and that these bees were rudely removed from his tomb by the about-to-be-crowned Napoleon.
But I am going with the Childeric version of events. (And not only because the Dagobert version was full of egregious misspellings.)
Though if you are wondering where you might see these golden bees, sadly you cannot. One dark and rainy night in 1831 nefarious thieves (Jacques and Pepin) entered the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and stole the treasure of Childeric, and melted the bees down for gold. All that is left is this drawing.
And of course the lovely paintings of the humble Napoleon.