All was ready. The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, consecrated in 1182, over six hundred years before, had witnessed many national events within its walls. Here Philip the Fair had opened the very first States General. Here royal marriages had taken place. During the recent Revolution, the old building had been desecrated with a "Feast of Reason." But in 1802, the Catholic church got its cathedral back. Now, on November 2, 1804, Notre Dame would witness the crowning of Napoleon as Emperor of France.
Precious stones, arranged with care for the occasion, glittered in candlelight. Yes, candlelight. The idea was to stress antiquity: to tie Napoleon's present dictatorship to the reign of Charles the Great (Charlemagne) which had preceded it by almost a thousand years.
But whereas Charlemagne rode to Rome to be crowned, Napoleon summoned Pope Pius VII to Paris. When the pope neared the city, Napoleon met him; but he did not kneel for a blessing nor kiss the pope's hand, traditional attitudes of submission to the church. Nonetheless, Napoleon yielded when the pope insisted that he and his wife Josephine receive a church wedding. Pius said he would not crown him otherwise. With that formality quietly gotten out of the way, the coronation proceeded.
Napoleon arrived for the occasion dressed in a mantle such as Charlemagne might have worn. His scepter was modeled on Charlemagne's, too. Organ music pealed. Napoleon and Josephine stepped toward the altar. Pope Pius sat beside it, surrounded by cardinals.
The moment came for Napoleon to kneel before the pope and receive the crown. But to do so, would be to admit that all authority came from God. The proud general could not accept the implications. The man who once exclaimed, "Circumstances--I make circumstances!" made his own now. Seizing the crown in his hands and standing rather than kneeling, he crowned himself in front of the altar.
Pius had learned of Napoleon's intention at the last moment. He hesitated at the moment when firmness was called for. Instead of leaving, he anointed and blessed the emperor and Josephine.
For all his arrogance, Napoleon recognized that he was powerless compared to Christ. He observed, "I know men; and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I have founded empires. But upon what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him."
A year to the day after crowning himself, Napoleon defeated Austria and Russia at Austerlitz. His wilful career reddened all Europe with blood.
- Cross, F. L. and Livingstone, E. A., editors. "Notre Dame." Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Ludwig, Emil. Napoleon. (New York: Pocket Books, 1953).
- Mead, Frank S. 12,000 Religious Quotations. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989.
- "Notre Dame." The Paris Pages. (www.paris.org/Monuments/NDame/)