Napoleonic freedom of worship in law and art

Levi Cooper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Napoleon's most famous innovation in his legendary military career was the use of the daunting Grande Armeé with an emphasis on speed, maneuverability, and maintaining the offensive. Yet Napoleon understood that while skirmishes were won or lost on the battlefield, the real war lay in public perception. To that end, Napoleon used art and cultural treasures as part of his arsenal in order to create the perception of victory, regardless of the outcome of any particular campaign. Examining contemporary French artistic representations of Napoleon granting freedom of worship to religious groups, this article analyzes artwork as a tool for fashioning and communicating legal narrative. Popular visual arts are mined for meaning, painting a portrait of the legal and cultural setting of these creative works. The partisan artwork demonstrates how Napoleon's artists depicted freedom of worship as the freedom-granted to all faiths-to worship Napoleon. It is noted that Jews feature disproportionately in the Empire period's depictions of freedom of worship. This is surprising, as the Jewish community was numerically insignificant and hardly influential in Napoleon's realm. This article argues that in addition to broadcasting religious tolerance, Napoleonic artwork used Jews and symbols like Moses and tablets of law to fashion a narrative of law that foregrounded the legal legitimacy of Napoleon's rule: Napoleon's regime is legally just; the enlightened ruler affords rights and liberties to all his subjects; divine Napoleon is the new lawgiver.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-41
Number of pages39
JournalJournal of Law and Religion
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.


  • Freedom of worship
  • Moses
  • Napoleon
  • legal narrative
  • liberté des cultes
  • tablets of law


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