You’ll find the image of Marianne on official seals and postage stamps; sculpted busts of her adorn city halls and public buildings throughout the country. Every French person can easily recognise her, but no one can describe exactly what she looks like. Just what is the story of Marianne of France…
Goddess of Liberty, Marianne of France
Before Marianne became the symbol of the Republic, she was the goddess of Liberty and wore Roman clothing and held a red Phrygian cap on top of a spear. The Phrygian cap used to be worn in ancient Rome by freed slaves to show their liberated status. When the Revolution began in 1789, the French people looked to the goddess of liberty for inspiration in their struggle for liberty. Later, the Revolutionaries adopted her red cap and it became a symbol of their Revolution.
The French Republic
After the old order was overthrown, France needed a new form of government and the First French Republic was formed in 1792. Since there was no longer a king, this new government needed a symbol to replace his image on their official seal. They decided to employ the goddess of Liberty, to represent their Republic.
On the new State seal she was shown in traditional pose, wearing Roman attire and holding a red Phrygian cap of liberty atop a spike. On her left, there was a bundle of sticks with an axe attached, called a fasces, another emblem from Roman times. It was carried by the magistrate’s body guard and symbolised his power to carry out punishment, either by beating (with the sticks) or by beheading (with the axe). This was to prove all too relevant symbol for the bloody times to come.
Every image of the king was replaced by an image of the goddess of libert, the new face of France, and under her picture, the words, “French Republic”. Soon, the people started to call the image: Marianne, nobody knows why or how it started but the name stuck.
Reign of Terror: The First Republic got off to a very rocky start and was, almost immediately, thrown into the dreadful Reign of Terror. Because of political disagreements, an estimated 40,000 people were executed. Many went by way of the guillotine which some called the “national razor” of France.
Over time, the image of Marianne was transformed from the axe-wielding lady on the seal into a serene motherly figure, in hopes that it would calm and soothe her “children”. On the 1793 calendar, she was shown wearing a Phrygian liberty cap. The spear that used to hold it was gone, as were all weapons and she is depicted calmly reading a book surrounded by symbols of knowledge. She was by then, the model of a Republic longing for liberty, peace, and enlightenment.
The First Republic lasted only twelve years. It came to an end in 1804, when Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor. Since there was no longer a republic, Marianne was no longer needed as its symbol and went back to being simply a representation of Liberty. Eugène Delacroix featured her in one of the most iconic paintings of France La Liberté Guidant le Peuple (Liberty leading the people”.
Second Republic 1848-1852: After the third Revolution in 1848, Republic No. 2 was formed. The new government declared that “the image of liberty should replace everywhere the images of corruption and shame…” The status of Marianne as a symbol of the State was restored and now she represented Liberty, the Republic, and the Revolution.
When Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) was elected president of the Second Republic he made himself emperor, the Republic fell by the wayside.
Third Republic 1870-1940: When Napoleon III was captured by the Prussians in 1870, the Third Republic was formed and Marianne returned, this time for good.
Fourth and Fifth Republics 1946-present: The Fourth and Fifth Republics followed the liberation of France after World War II.
There has never been an official image of Marianne, so artists are free to imagine her as they wish. Likewise, mayors are free to choose the version that suits them to grace their town halls. Historically, representations of her were anonymous; she represented every daughter of the Republic. Over the years her face has taken the form of Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Inès de la Fressange, Laetitia Casta, and Sophie Marceau and many more.
Margo Lestz blogs as thecuriousrambler and is the author of French Holidays and Traditions and Curious Histories of Nice, France