Is revolution the same thing as reformation? This article discusses the French Revolution from the perspective of the art of this period, focusing on the artist Jacques-Louis David and his painting The Death of Marat.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1983. 4 pages.

Art and Revolution (1): Jacques-Louis David About: The Death of Marat

More than Meets the Eye🔗

Lovers of art are given great opportunities these days. Reproduction techniques bring beautiful works within easy access. Art galleries beckon visitors. School programs and courses are aimed at creating an interest in art, as part of an effort to improve the public's cultural awareness. Yet there is something remarkable about the public's interest: art produced in our time is not readily enjoyed by the people of this time. The onlooker is easily confused. But that does not mean that he remains aloof. He will probably begin to pick up a few pieces here and there, in the hope that he may land that real catch, the piece that is really beautiful and yet modern. And without getting too concerned about the underlying issues, he will wander through this labyrinth looking for what appears good to him.

But art is not merely decorative. Art is not just a matter of taste, involving a sense of beauty. Before anything else, art is a matter of values. The artist displays what he values. And he challenges others to evaluate his works. It is very fashionable these days to see in art a breakthrough of freedom. Bonds that for centuries hampered free growth have now been broken. A breath of fresh air is being enjoyed again. Freedom, equality, and brotherhood, the trademarks of the French Revolution, are the basic designs which many claim to recognize in today's art production. A proper perspective on the post-1789 development of art therefore requires a proper perception of the revolution.

Many Christians don't agree with this. Some believe that the best we can do is to observe art as uninvolved spectators. Others who just browse around a bit do get an impression from time to time that things are amiss, but believe that they can trust their extra sense, that little Reformed antenna, to tell them. They think they can feel it. It was Groen van Prinsterer who sounded a serious warning against such superstition. “Do not think,” he said, “that we can be saved from calling evil good and good evil by some form of Christian instinct.” To illustrate how dangerous such a trust is, Groen mentioned (by name) several genuine believers who yet heralded the beginning of the French Revolution as the dawning of the golden age. What caused them to lose their perspective in the general upheaval of their days? It was not a lack of faith; it was a lack of knowledge, said Groen, and he concluded:

Detailed study is mandatory in order to keep yourself unstained from the world. Holding onto the truth requires systematic examination.

Groen's warning should be heeded, because the revolution has a deceptive appearance. “Her appearance,” said Groen, “is almost Christian.”

We believe that there is only one world history which encompasses everything, art included. We also believe that this one history is dominated by the enmity between Christ and Satan. In this struggle the year 1789 is a very special milestone. The French Revolution was not just another rebellion. It was the beginning – in principle – of a complete overthrow of all things. Christian people lost their faith. And a point was made of confessing the resulting unbelief “honest to God.” Apostasy was brought into system and shaped along the model of … faith! It is therefore characteristic of revolution that it wants to be taken for reformation. And there is indeed similarity in appearance. Revolution and reformation could be compared with a positive and negative photograph. The image is the same, but the one is an inversion of the other. Both claim that life is one, that there is no neutral zone, not one inch. That also they have in common.

Discerning between revolution and reformation would not be all that difficult if revolution were to begin with the introduction of new terminology – new words for new concepts. But that is not done. The vocabulary of the church is put to new use and the church's claims are taken over. And so we are treated to the spectacle of the revolutionary who outdoes the Pharisee. He does not halt at the mint, the dill, and the cummin; no, he heads straight for the weightiest of the law: justice and mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23). But he does so upside down. Thus we find that the essence of revolution is not that people just turn away from the faith. Rather, they turn it over. A revolutionary is a reactionary! He lies the truth.

Light of Reason🔗

The eighteenth century was overloaded with philosophers. Most of them were busy mapping out the road to improvement of the world. That implied the recognition that the world is bad. But does that mean that they understood the depth of our misery from God's law and that we therefore must repent? No, according to their wisdom we are not evil. No, what is wrong with us is that we fall short of the measure. We must be taught to use our sound reason and so improve ourselves. Our human thinking must be purified; we must rid ourselves of inhibitions about God and His commandments. Pure thinking must begin with man himself. It must not depend on something outside or above man, something like faith or divine revelation. It needs no revealed Word for its enlightenment; it is a source of light within itself. And as in the past believers spoke of the Light of the world, so shall the world from now on be illuminated by the light of reason. The light of reason shines into the darkness – and the darkness has fully overcome it.

The painting style in the era that led up to the French Revolution betrays an influence of this view. Baroque has lost its solid seriousness. The palette becomes lighter, the style more flighty, the subjects more lighthearted. Rococo is born, blonde and feathery. Nothing has weight anymore. People do not walk; they float in the air. Progress, enlightenment – it is a happy shallow world, where lovely carefree women flutter around like butterflies in the garden. But something of the basic darkness shines through all this vibrant happiness: beneath the texture of all the fair skin and behind the laughter of this merry world there is a twitch of uncertainty. There is tension and a threat of sombre foreboding. Dark clouds overshadow that happy world more than once. Piranesi in Italy portrays dungeons of cosmic proportions. Frightening. Then there are the Tiepolo pictures with their bewitching sorcerers. Distressing. These opposing powers clash – initially in the unseen world, behind the veil of uncertain allusions. But then they collide more noticeably and openly, until finally the conflict is unleashed in its full strength, at the same time that the French Revolution breaks out without anything to hold it back.

Two Styles, Two Extremes🔗

It is in those years that two styles of painting developed virtually simultaneously. In Rome the Frenchman J.T. David worked on Neoclassicism, while in Spain Francisco Goya came up with Romanticism. These styles are each others antipodes. Neoclassicism is the style of reason. It is orderly, well-kempt, like a French Garden. Romanticism is wild, the style of uninhibited naturalness. These two styles had a complex mutual influence on each other as each other's counterparts. The one affirms what the other denies, and vice versa. They are the two poles that mark the one field of tension. It is a tension fed by the revolutionary dynamo. This period is essential to the entire following era. Understanding its basic tenets is the key to understanding the art of the twentieth century.

Both styles are, in fact, a bending around of the Baroque style of the late Renaissance. The characteristics of those Renaissance styles was a stage-like vertical buildup of values and interdependencies. Neoclassicism and Romanticism tore this apart into extremes. David turns the Renaissance design of space into emptiness, its classical balance into a lifeless severity. Goya breaks with the intellectual tradition and arrives at chaos. David's style became dictatorship; Goya's, anarchy.


In the early summer of 1789 the Revolution broke through the dikes of established authority and justice like a tidal wave. By spring 1792 the storm had reached hurricane-like strength. The revolutionary movement was then in the control of the Jacobine party, whose leadership included men like Danton, Marat, Robespierre and his friend, artist David. In this critical period Robespierre controlled the political scene and David had charge of the artistic field. David was known as the Robespierre-of-the-palette.

One of the most important tasks leaders of revolution see for themselves is to get the people, the man in the street, to become committed to their cause. One of the masters of this difficult art, undoubtedly, was Marat. He called himself “the people's friend” and published a paper under that name: L'Ami du Peuple. Burning with a zealous hatred against anything or anyone who had rank or status, he was a master in unleashing the baser emotions of the masses. But he was not purely negative. He was a great believer – in his own revolutionary way. The Revolution, he said, is completely according to the gospel. Jesus is our master. That is how he turned thy gospel upside down and deceived the masses. Then, in the summer of year one (new order), Marat was murdered. He was stabbed to death by a young woman while he was sitting in his bath. The news of his murder caused great indignation among the people. They were enraged. Dedication to a living Marat turned into adoration of the dead man. Marat was honored with a new title: “Martyr of the Revolution.” David, the master painter, recently elected president of the National Convention, was commissioned to create a painting in honor of the slain hero. Upon its completion it was displayed for six weeks in the inner court of the Louvre.


People who came to look were struck by the direct confrontation with the dead man. It was almost life-size. There is a harsh directness, emphasized by the strongly drawn lines of the composition. One would be inclined to think of the Renaissance, were it not that the rules had been applied here as ironclad laws. Horizontals and verticals which set boundaries to the flat planes dominate the composition. Even the top part has been treated as a flat space. But in stark contrast there is the powerful realism of the dead body. It contrasts strongly with both sides of the painting and even more sharply with the darkness above, which gives more of an impression of emptiness than of space. More than half the surface of the painting is vacant, although the logical development of the theme would not have demanded that. After all, the bathtub accommodates laying down, a fact that would have invited a horizontal composition. By intentionally cutting through that line and choosing for a vertical format, David gives the emptiness of the upper part a compelling presence. It brings about a heaviness, a sense of leaden emptiness that charges the painting with the tension of a symbolic message.

David made much of the fact that he had visited Marat the day before his murder. He acts as an eyewitness, not in the sense of a reporter, but rather as an apostle, as the messenger bringing the tidings of a new world order. Thus he dated the painting “I'an deux,” the second year of the new order, the Revolution. Above that he painted “a Marat,” dedicated to Marat by David.

He placed a quill pen in the dead man's hand and made room on the table for an inkwell and some paper. Probably Marat, who had a skin disease, often worked like that. “That is how I want to paint him,” said David, “writing for the good of the people until he died.” That sums it up: Marat, the bringer of salvation. Although David's painting is exact and factual, he does not create a mere news report – sensationalism even less. David is able to embody his ideals in the representation of the facts, both his ideal of regulated beauty as well as his religious political ideal.

In its entirety the painting is symbolical; it transcends the factuality' of a news report. This is not the staging of a murder. It certainly does not suggest the act of killing itself as was usual on the prints of those days. Marat is revealed here, as the martyr of the Revolution. That is the reason why art critics can draw attention to the impression of a sacred moment in the painting. In devotion it exceeds the images of ordinary martyrs. The posture of the dead man resembles the body of the Christ as longstanding tradition has shown him in his death. Head sideways, arms banging down, the red wound against white cloths – they are the regular features of a pietà, a mourning of the dead Savior. Marat, the man of suffering … As if that were not enough, Sedlmayr mentions that the painting was displayed on … an altar! It is all very fitting in the new order.


I said, the painting exceeds the traditional devotion for the martyrs. From a revolutionary point of view, that is true. However, in fact, it sinks far below that. Images of martyrs must be rejected; the adoration of deceased saints is forbidden. Yet, this dangerous exaltation of man usually contains at least one point of truth: even a martyr does not stand in his own strength. That dependence is often visualized. The heavens open up and angels come down to support the saint. The image of such martyrs directs one to a different world. It desires to emphasize the relationship between heaven and earth. But David has abruptly cut such a connection. Instead of an open heaven, there is not even a sky. Instead of space, there is emptiness. The contrast between the body and the background symbolizes that the thread of life has been cut irrevocably. That is how the critic Alpatow sees it too. He notes that the bathtub has been transformed into a tomb. This aspect he projects against the Christian tradition of the past.

Since the Middle Ages we were shown how the dead arise from their graves when the trumpet sounds. In these paintings the background allowed a window-view into the hereafter: According to Alpatow, the extremely skillful David has also in this respect turned everything around to the fullest extent. We could say that the final judgment and eternity are replaced by the judgment of people and “eternal” fame. The dead Marat, in his open grave; shows no intention of arising from the dead, or at least of folding his hands; His body hangs down to demonstrate a total loss of strength. “This is the end,” the painting states, “dead is dead.” He who stands in this new faith, stands alone. He who falls in this faith, falls alone. Heaven is shut. Heaven is shut out.


The revolutionary nature of this work was well-understood. When the tide turned, David had to save the painting from his foes by covering it with a thick layer of white paint. It was publicly accepted in a museum collection only in 1893, a year after its creation in the time that there was only interest in Beauty, the new idol.

The painting is highly regarded these days. And, so is its message. In ecclesiastical circles there is a trend to justify revolutionary uprisings as a consequence of Christ's arising. This is called the theology of revolution. Via the World Council of Churches the forgiveness of sins is replaced by the call to social-political liberation. Liberation movements, the overthrow of the existing order – these are the things the Christ is said to demand. That is even supposed to be the continuation of the work of deliverance begun by Him. Thus the same salutary meaning is attributed to the death of a guerilla fighter as to the offering of the body and blood of Christ. We think here of the beast that John describes in the revelation of Christ. It looked exactly like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon (Revelations 13:11).

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.