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Napoleon and the bee

Imperial Bee from the Coronation decorations in Notre Dame Cathedral (Abeille impériale de bronze doré ayant servi à la décoration de Notre-Dame lors du Sacre) 1804

After much consideration, Napoleon chose the bee as the emblem to represent his status as Emperor. It is a motif rich in meanings.

Due to its industrious habits the bee has come to symbolise hard work, diligence, industriousness and orderliness. Because it is also the producer of honey, the bee also symbolises sweetness and benevolence.

The bee had long been a symbol of the Christian Church and had been adopted by some saints (St Ambrose, for example, who likened the Church to a beehive) and was used in the seventeenth century by one of the leading Papal Dynasties in Rome, the Barberini family. For Christians those attributes of industriousness, diligence and good order were combined with the beneficence of the bees’ production of honey which symbolized both religious eloquence and the virtue and sweetness of God’s grace.

According to legend the bee never sleeps so it has also come to imply vigilance and zeal – both attributes Napoleon was happy to own. In seeking an appropriate emblem for himself, Napoleon looked to one of his great heroes and antecedents, the Emperor Charlemagne who had adopted the cicada as an emblematic device. Napoleon mistook its outline for that of the bee and, recognising the conventional symbolism associated with the bee found it suitable for his purposes.

Numerous versions of the bee were commissioned by Napoleon – from tiny sculptural representations, usually gilded and commonly attached to items such as snuff boxes, to the embroidered motifs on his coronation robe and printed or painted images on wallpaper.