In honor of Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of the French (not Emperor of France, an important distinction and consequence of the French Revolution) on this day in 1804 I thought I would explore his adoption of bee symbolism in greater detail than my first attempt a few years ago. Napoleon had to pay tribute to tradition in order to legitimize what was essentially a military coup d’etat–and bees go way back, not as far back as the Roman laurels and eagles which he also adopted, but way back in French history. In my previous post, I identified Charlemagne as the source of Napoleon’s bees, but actually it was Childeric, a Frankish king who was the father of Clovis, who converted to Christianity and unified all the Frankish tribes under his sacred kingship after 496, the first of the Merovingian line. Childeric’s grave was accidentally discovered in Tournai in 1653, and inside his tomb was a treasure of coins, jewelry, iron, and 300 bees (sometimes referred to as “fleurons” or cicadas but they look like bees to me, and apparently also to Napoleon). The governor of the Spanish Netherlands commissioned his personal physician, Jean-Jacques Chifflet, to catalog and study the finds, which were published in one of the first archeological works in European history, Anastasis Childerici I Francorum regis, sive thesaurus sepulchralis Tornaci Neviorum effossus et commentario illustratus (1655). One hundred and fifty years later, when Napoleon was looking for a “French” symbol that was not a Bourbon Fleur-de-lis, the bee seemed to fit the bill, and it was lavishly utilized in his coronation–and after–essentially becoming the “Napoleonic bee”.
King Childeric in British Library MS. Royal 16 G VI f. 9; Childeric’s bees in Chifflet (1655); a Napoleonic bee from his 1804 coronation robe; tapestry portrait and detail of the coronation robe after a painting by Baron François Gérard, 1805, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Napoleon’s half-American nieces, “The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte”, sitting on a bee-upholstered couch, Jacques-Louis David, 1821, Getty Museum; the full Napoleonic regalia, bees and all, Sèvres plate, 19th century, Victoria & Albert Museum.