Frontispiece & Explication


The Frontispiece of the Encyclopédie was engraved in 1772 by Bonaventure-Louis Prévost (1747-1804?) and was based on an original sketch by Charles-Nicolas Cochin (1715-1790) executed in 1764 and shown for the first time at the Salon de 1765. In his Salon de 1765, Diderot describes Cochin's drawing:

This is a very ingeniously composed piece. One sees on high Truth between Reason and Imagination: Reason who tries to tear away her veil, Imagination who prepares to adorn it. Below this group, a crowd of speculative philosophers; lower down the troupe of artists. The philosophers have their eyes fixed on Truth; proud Metaphysics seeks less to see than to divine her; Theology turns her back on her and waits for the light from on high. There is certainly in this composition a great variety of characters and expressions, but the planes don't advance or withdraw enough; the highest ought to be lost in the shadows; the next comes a bit forward, the third is right there. If the engraving succeeds in correcting these errors, the piece will be perfect. [French original]

The completed engraving was sent to all of the Encyclopédie subscribers beginning in 1772 and was included in most of the subsequent editions of the work.


Accompanying the frontispiece is an explanation of the image. Here is a a translation of the "Explication du frontispice de l'Encyclopédie," which was written by Diderot:
Beneath an Ionic Temple, the Sanctuary of Truth, one sees Truth enveloped in a veil and radiating light which parts the clouds and disperses them. To the right, Reason and Philosophy are busy, one in raising the veil from Truth, the other in tearing it away. At her feet, Theology, on her knees, receives the light from on high. In following this chain of figures, one finds on the same side Memory, Ancient and Modern History; History records the pomp and ceremony, and Time serves as its support. Below them are grouped Geometry, Astronomy, and Physics. The figures below this group represent Optics, Botany, Chemistry, and Agriculture. At the bottom are several Arts and Professions which derive from the Sciences. At the left of Truth one sees Imagination, who positions herself to adorn and crown Truth. Below Imagination, the artist has placed the different genres of Poetry: Epic, Dramatic, Satire, and Pastoral. After that come the other Arts of Imitation: Music, Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.

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