‘L’Allégorie de l’Enfer’ (c.1890) — or, Azrael and the Death of Solomon (?)

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Drawing was always at the heart of Delville’s artistic practice. His drawings were not all simply a means to an artistic end, in other words simply sketches and studies for finished paintings, but he was also capable of creating highly detailed drawings that served as finished works of art in themselves. In this regard he followed a long tradition of artistic practice – which goes back to Michelangelo and Durer – where drawings served as independent works of art.

Delville, was of course a highly skilled draftsman and demonstrated a prodigious talent from the very earliest point in his career when he enrolled as a full-time student at the Brussels Academy of Fine Art. As very young student he was awarded the top drawing prizes including those for ‘drawing after nature’ and ‘drawing after the antique’. Delville, in fact, placed special emphasis on drawing and the symbolic importance of line, which formed the philosophical foundation of his art, namely his <em>Esthétique Idéaliste</em>. He once wrote that: ‘Art began by Drawing, by line, and the Line is the soul of Equilibrium, it is the essence itself of Form. … Drawing is the most elevated part, the sole independent part of the pictorial technique where genius alone can prove itself’. For Delville line is the basic element in the expression of the higher metaphysical ideal towards which he strove in his art, and it is the artistic line that mediates between the material world and the Ideal or Divine world; he wrote further that: ‘Line, in things of Nature, is the signature of God. Line, let us never forget, is the symbolic expression of the primordial affinities which exist between Spirit and Matter. Line, or Form, is the mystery of the physical world, the mystery of Art, the mystery of Beauty’.[1]

Delville’s most well-known finished drawing is his finely detailed and highly articulate L’Idole de la Perversité (1891, pencil on paper, 98.5 x 56.5 cm, Private collection). This drawing expresses cogently the ambiguities between light and dark, eroticism and transcendence, the realms of the material and the spiritual – all captured in the image of a menacing, yet alluring and ambiguous female figure. Delville’s Idole is something of an avatar for all the anxieties, fears and desires of that era, but it also represents an important image that is connected to his hermetic world view and the role of the feminine in initiation and the spiritual evolution of the individual.[2]

During the 1890s Delville produced several other enigmatic finished drawings including his (perhaps incorrectly titled) Parsifal, which is a striking contemporary articulation of an Initiate. As far as can be determined, this work was never exhibited in public. It seems that many of these finished drawings – some only recently coming to light – were never intended for public display, but were produced for the interest of his own private circle of fellow artists who shared an interest in the esoteric and the hermetic traditions generally.

One of the most startling finished drawings by Delville – and perhaps one of his most articulate amongst these works of art – which has recently come up for sale is titled, L’Allégorie de l’Enfer‘ (‘Allegory of Hell’). There is no known record of this work in contemporary catalogues and no description of it amongst inventories of Delville’s known works of art. The title itself is probably (like so many of his works from this early period), applied in retrospect. The work is signed and dated, but the dating is not clear and could be from 1890 or 1893 – certainly the date of 1899 often ascribed to this work is incorrect.

Azrael

L’Allégorie de l’Enfer (c. 1890), pencil and black chalk on paper, 77.9 x 53.5 cm. Private Collection.

The subject of the drawing is enigmatic. My purpose here is to shed light on its content and to show that it actually relates directly to a poem Delville published in his first anthology, Les Horizons Hantés (1892), titled ‘Azraël’. In fact Delville’s drawing shares many iconographical motifs with the poem, and it is almost certain that the drawing is an illustration of the poem, or perhaps vice versa.

The drawing is dominated by a dazzling figure that entirely fills the central part of the drawing; this angelic figure rises above what appears to be a brazier with five tongues of fire lapping at the base of its robe. The figure blazes light in all directions, giving the impression that it is not a physical being, but rather and extraordinary creature from another order of reality; god-like and angelic at the same time. There is a minimal use of outline and shading to articulate the figure; instead its form is delineated through radiating bright white shard-like shapes, that appear out of the deep surrounding darkness. In fact, there is very little articulation of the figure – most of which is simply delineated by leaving the underlying white paper exposed, creating a white silhouette against the dark surrounding ground. The features of its head and face are lightly outlined with barely any modelling. The edges of its form fade into the surrounding to give an effect of transparency, lacking in other words, in any solidity and tangible volume. The overall effect is of a figure that consists entirely of blazing, incandescent light, which is emphasised by the contrasting dark and gloomy surroundings in which it is set.

The next most important figure is placed in the foreground at bottom left. This male figure reclines at the top of a stairway, wears a pointed Oriental-style headpiece and holds a wand or staff. He is dressed in a white flowing robe and sports a dark, full pointed beard. He seems passive and withdrawn and his eyes are closed in an aspect of contemplative meditation, and he seems momentarily unperturbed by the dazzling vision of the Angel that appears at the entrance of the Hall. His dress and demeanour suggest that he is some kind of pontiff or King. He is surrounded by figures in white robes whose gestures strongly suggest that they are in a state of grief with their hands clasping their heads, the one bending down as if in agony.

Near the feet of this pontiff are five cat-like creatures. One stares at the viewer with white glowing eyes, the other howls with his eyes closed, the remaining three gaze into the Hall before them towards the crowd below. Immediately next to the cats is a bowl supported on tall tapering legs with a plume of smoke drifting towards the viewer. This object is most certainly a tripod, familiar to ancient cultures and used in divination, much like the tripod found in Classical mythology. Delville would depict a similar object in his Women of Eleusis[3].

Immediately below the cats one sees an indistinctly articulated crowd of people surrounding a fountain. Only those closest to the pontiff can be made out, and one sees veiled women and a group of bearded men talking amongst each other. Behind this group, in a clearing, one sees several serpents crossing the floor.

The scene is set in a vast interior lined with thin figurative columns on either side that then rise towards the arched ceiling. The entrance – largely blocked by the blazing angel – is marked by a high arched open portal supported on either side by three columns. At the base of these columns, just outside, one can make out the silhouettes of two sphinxes facing each other. Beyond that one can detect the feint traces of a domed structure and a hilly landscape that disappears into the distance.

(Click on images below to enter gallery for high resolution details of the work)

On the face of it one cannot readily interpret the narrative of this drawing. The relationship between the incandescent angel and the indifferent, supine pontiff appears incongruent; one would expect surprise or shock, but certainly not indifference at the appearance of such an apparition. The only clue offered here is in the figures surrounding the pontiff who are clearly in states of agony or grief. The closed eyes of the pontiff might then suggest that he is dead or dying. However, there seems little that is ‘allegorical’ in this work, which instead, strongly suggests a specific narrative.

In fact there is an extremely close correlation between the motifs in this drawing and Delville’s poem ‘Azraël’, mentioned earlier, and an understanding of this work has to rely on some familiarity with that poem.

Azraël is the Angel of Death. Delville’s poem describes the arrival of Azraël in the court of the wise and powerful King Solomon at the hour of his death. Solomon is willing to die, and in his understanding of the higher orders of reality, in his capacity as Magus, he perceives death as a mystical transfiguration into the metaphysical dimension. The poem opens with the evocative lines describing the King’s anticipation of death: ‘C’était par un soir de symbole et de fatalité / où les hauts firmaments hallucinaient la terre, / tandis que le Roi-Mage, pâli dans sa prière, / entrevoyait son Âme en immortalité.’ (‘It was a symbolic evening of destiny/ where high vaults of heaven envisioned the Earth, / while the Magus-King, pale in prayer, / glimpsed his soul’s immortality.’ ).

Delville then sets the scene for the arrival of the radiant and dazzling Angel of Death, Azraël, and in the process includes the description of many of the features of the drawing, not only of the Angel itself so vividly evoked in terms that resemble identically the figure in the drawing, but also including incidental details such as the lynxes besides the tripod and the sphinxes at the doorway[4] – details (amongst others) that connect incontrovertibly the drawing with the poem:

L’infini des sommeils plane sur l’acropole
comme aux nuits primitives le sommeil de la vie.
– Mais, là-bas, en l’effroi de la nuit envahie,
un Être fabuleux vibre en son auréole!

Le Roi l’a vu surgir des horizons bibliques
et venir comme un souffle occulte que reluit
et grandir en l’espace et grandir en la nuit
dans une épouvante d’ailes prophétiques!

Aux grands Palais magiques d’or et de cristal
réfléchissant en eux les lumières du monde,
voici qui transparait à la voûte profonde
l’Archange de la Mort au signe sacerdotal!

On eût dit son corps de tous les astres pénétré!
Les rayons, jaillissant des cils et des regards,
absorbent les joyaux et rendent les ors blafards
sous leur rayonnement effroyable et sacré!

On eût dit son front, fait d’éclats de foudre ardente,
et des aurores d’or flamboyer en ses cheveux,
et des splendeurs de glace et des splendeurs de feux
fulgurer dans le vol de se robe éclatante!

L’éclat de sa présence était si surhumain
que les sphinx des portails en avaient le vertige;
les trésors de Sçéba ont perdu leur prestige,
au seul geste magnétique et divin de sa main!

Les lynx prostrés sous les trépieds kabbalistiques
répercutent, parmi les vestibules vermeils
les épouvantements soudains de leurs réveils,
car un Éclair fatal brûle leurs yeux mystiques!

En les bassins les eaux lustrales se sont tues,
et les colonnes d’or ont tressailli d’effroi;
le dieu a éteint tous les luxes du Roi
et les flambeaux de myrrhe aux bras d’or des statues.

Nul diamant solitaire ne flamboie encor
parmi les ombres pâles de la Maison royale;
Salomon est là, dressant dans la haute Salle
les mille pierreries de sa tiare d’or.

Un frisson d’Au-delà pénètre au cœur du Mage
qui comprend que c’est l’heure divine de mourir,
car la céleste vision va entr’ouvrir
le sépulcre radieux destiné au Sage.

Sleep’s infinity glides above the acropolis
like the sleep of life in nights more primitive.
But, down below, in the dread of the overwhelming night,
a spectacular Being resonates in his radiance!

The King saw him suddenly appear from biblical horizons
and arrive like a shining secret breath
and growing bigger in space and in the night
in a terror of prophetic wings!

In the great magical Palaces of crystal and gold
Wherein the light of the world is reflected,
this is who appeared through the deep vault
The Archangel of Death with the sacerdotal sign.

It seemed his body penetrated every star!
With rays spurting lashes and eyes,
absorbing every jewel and rendering dull the gold
beneath their frightening and sacred radiance!

It seemed that his brow was made of intense flashes of lightning,
and that a golden daybreak blazed in his hair,
and the splendours of fire and ice
flashes in the flight of his dazzling robe!

The brightness of his presence was so superhuman
that the sphinxes at the gateway were with vertigo overcome;
the treasures of Sheba lost their prestige
in the single magnetic and divine gesture of his hand!

Lynxes prostrated beneath the Kabbalistic tripods
reverberating, amongst the gilded halls
the sudden terrors of their awakening,
for a fatal Thunderbolt burnt their mystical eyes.

The Lustral Waters were silenced in their bowls
and the golden columns trembled with fear;
the god extinguished all the King’s luxuries
so too the torches of myrrh with gilded statue’s arms.

No solitary diamond would ever blaze up again
among the pale shadows of the Royal House;
Behold Solomon, laying out in the high Hall
the thousand precious stones of his golden tiara.

A shudder of the Beyond penetrated the Initiate’s heart
who understood that it was the divine hour to die
since the celestial vision would partially open
the radiant sepulchre destined for the Sage.

 

In the poem, Solomon eagerly anticipates death. He is weary of his world crowded, as it is, with the glories of his material wealth. But he is also the ‘Magus-King’ who knows of the mysteries of the beyond and willingly anticipates entering this more glorious realm in the afterlife: ‘Chercheur d’Absolu en une gloire de hauts rêves / qu’aux soirs d’infini et de magie éblouissants, / je faisais jaillir sous mes sceptres puissants, / – je veux dormir loin des hommes et leurs glaives.’ (Quester for the Absolute in a glory of high dreams / of night’s infinity and dazzling magic, / that I have spouted beneath my powerful sceptres, / – I wish to sleep far from men and their swords.).

Solomon reminisces about his earthly achievements, his mystical Canticles that ‘ont dit que la chair est devine / pour que le corps soit pur et que l’amour devine, / que le désir humain doit se diviniser.’ (my Canticles spoke of the flesh as divine / for the body is pure, and love divine, / and that human love is made divine.) He also recalls the temple he built, the ‘ Maison de Dieu avec les pierres du Ciel, / et vois comme pâlissent ces dômes en leurs fastes’ (this House of God with Heavenly stones, / and see now how these domes pale in their splendour.)

But all the gilded splendour of his palace pales in the radiant light of the Angel of Death and the glorious afterlife he promises. Solomon is impatient for death to come:

 

Ma pensée est claire telle un grand clair de lune,
et les yeux de mon âme sont des mondes transparents;
je sens fluer en moi tes regards de firmaments
tels des mers de clartés. – innombrables et Une.

„Oh ! mourir sous tes regards comme meurent les choses
et s’infiniser en les lumières du néant!
Tes regards sont pareils à un soleil béant,
absorbeurs de la Vie en leurs apothéoses!

„O toi, la plus infinie des âmes infinies,
glaçant sur les sommeils les mirages de la Mort,
éternise mon rêve en le Rêve où tu m’endors
ô précurseur surnaturel des agonies!„

“My thought is as clear as bright moonlight,
and my soul’s eyes are transparent worlds;
I sense your celestial gaze flowing in me
such oceans of clarity. – innumerable and One.

“Oh! To die beneath your gaze as all things must die
and to become infinite in the wisdom of nothingness!
Your looks are like a cavernous sun,
absorbing life into their apotheosis!

“Oh thou, the most infinite of infinite souls,
freezing in sleep the mirage of Death,
draw out my dream in the Dream where you will send me to sleep
Oh spiritual precursor of the throes of death!”

 

In the remainder of the poem Azraël conjures the afterlife for Solomon with a voice lighting up the darkness with its, ‘ineffables promesses d’éternité’ (ineffable promises of eternity). Azraël promises Solomon an afterlife that is more resplendent that his earthly life of power and luxury: ‘Je viens dire à ton Ame d’entrer dans la Lumière! / Et à ta chair de refleurir aux Edens futurs, / car la Mort t’a élu pour des règnes plus purs / que les Lys immaculés de l’Aube-Première! (I come to instruct your Soul to enter the Light! / And your flesh to bloom again in Edens of the future, / for Death has elected you for reigns purer / than the immaculate Lily of the First Dawn!). He assures Solomon that his life on earth was not in vain and that his achievements were celebrated in heaven; the Seraphim themselves transcribed his verses that exalted their praise, and conjures a paradise that will take him far from his weariness in this world: ‘Tes yeux mourants verront sous mes flambeaux en fleur / s’éclairer par delà les temps et les espaces, / les univers d’extase où sommeillent des races / que ne hantent jamais le Mal, ni la Douleur’ (Your dying eyes will see beneath my flowering torch / illuminated beyond all time and space, / a world of ecstasy where all races slumber / which is never haunted by Evil nor by Sorrow.) In death, Solomon will be mightier than he was on earth and his influence will extend across all peoples that he leaves behind: The Angel of Death assures Solomon that his soul will make the world sublime (l’Ame de Salomon sublimisa le Monde!)[5].

Tristan et Yseult (1887)

Tristan et Yseult (1887)

Both the poem and the drawing are enigmatic. The poem conjures a mystical event set in ancient times in poetic language that is passionate and powerful. It evokes many of the themes that found their way into his paintings and other works of art at the time while he was in the early stages of forging an more transcendental aesthetic as he strove to move away from the strictures of contemporary realism that dominated avant-garde practise; themes including the notion of the mysticism of death, transcendence, spiritual evolution and initiation, the evocation of the transcendental dimension and the realm of the Ideal; and, finally, the theme of the Magus or Initiate. Incidentally, this poem also demonstrates, rather cogently, Delville’s gift for narrative poetry, in other words evoking a fictional episode based on historical facts to narrate a story in a compelling poetical format. This is one instance of several throughout his anthologies that demonstrates his gift for long-format narrative poetry, and an aspect of his artistic achievement, as a writer, that deserves more attention.

It is further worth noting that the central theme of transfiguration through death in his poem Azrael, is evident in his early great drawing, Tristan et Yseult (1887), based on the Liebestod of Wagner’s eponymous opera. There the fated lovers collapse together in an arching pile as the hint of their souls ascending to a transcendent heaven are conjured visually in the flight of butterflies at their feet. Solomon’s transcendence is more direct, more forceful and a purer escape from the spiritual limitations of earthly reality. He is a Magus, an initiate in other words; someone whose earthly powers are equal to his spiritual capabilities that will come into their own after death. Delville probably had Joséphin Péladan in mind when he envisioned the figure of Solomon in the drawing – with whom he bears some physical resemblance if only in the striking Assyrian beard that was a hallmark of Péladan’s self-styled persona as ‘Sâr’ or Magus.

From the preceding discussion it is evident that the correlation between Delville’s poem ‘Azrael’ and the drawing which is currently titled ‘L’Allegory d’Enfer’ is compelling. This is evident not only in the incidental details that they share, such as the enigmatic lynxes in the foreground, the sphinxes at the entrance to the great hall, and the serpents, but also in the description of the two main figures in both works, as well as the relationship between this luminous and dazzling Angel and the introspective, dying King-Mage. There is much to argue for, in other words, the case that the representation of the supine figure below left in the drawing must be that of Solomon, following the poem. His oriental features and clothing suggest as much, and he carries a staff or wand, symbol of earthly and divine power. His eyes are closed as if he is in meditation or a dream, entirely unperturbed by the presence of the impressive Angelic figure. His posture and demeanour suggests at the same time the notion that Solomon is dying as well as the idea that he perhaps sees the Angel in his mind’s eye – it is a personal, interior vision of the Angel of Death. Moreover, the technically skilful way in which Delville drew the incandescent angel with his bright, luminous features that lack solidity and appear to consist entirely of light is, without doubt, one of the most original visual inventions in his oeuvre. The description of the Angel Azrael in the poem is perfectly re-envisioned in the drawing, in almost every detail, which certainly strengthens the argument here that these two works are closely related to each other.

It is worth observing that the figure of the Mage or Initiate, occurs widely in Delville’s poetry and paintings during the 1890s and there is little surprise that he should invoke this theme in this enigmatic drawing. His representation of initiatory figures can also be seen in his Orphée aux enfers and the central figure in l’Ecole de Platon. His interest in the notion of the Initiate stems from his growing association with esoteric groups during that time. Throughout his life Delville directed his art and writings to the idea of the spiritual evolution of the individual and the reality of a higher, hidden, dimension that directs one’s life on earth, in other words the path of the Initiate. The expression if this Ideal dimension, of light and Beauty was a fundamental goal in his art and writings throughout his life.

The drawing and poem also evoke a central theme to Delville’s later writings and art concerning the importance of death. Many of his poems throughout his four published anthologies are meditations on the nature of death. In most of these, Delville takes a positive and optimistic attitude towards death – not as a final extinction of being, but rather as the beginning of a fulfilled spiritual life.

It should be emphasised, finally, that it is highly unusual in the oeuvre of Delville to find such a close correlation between his poems and paintings. There are, of course, instances where one finds an overlap in the theme or specific imagery, which is expected. However there is no other known instance in his work where such a close correlation exists between and work of art and one of his poems. This does raise questions regarding Delville’s practise as a poet and as an artist – something he regarded as distinct throughout his life. But it also suggests that the themes he deals with in these respective works were important to him, and that the impact of the narrative of these works was powerful and deeply felt.

Regarding the title of the work one could make a strong suggestion, in the light of the above discussion, that it needs to be retitled; there is no ‘allegory’ here and the theme is certainly the opposite of anything to do with ‘hell’. The work concerns the spiritual transfiguration of an initiate in death. Perhaps the drawing should simply be re-titled, ‘Azrael’, or ‘The Death of Solomon’.

[1] Quoted in ‘Le Discours de Jean Delville Prononcé à sa réception dans la salle de l’Académie comme Lauréat du Prix de Rome’, <em>La Ligue Artistique</em>, 22 (November 1895), p. 4.
[2] See Brendan Cole, Jean Delville. Art Between Nature and the Absolute, (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), pp. 245-267, for a highly detailed analysis of this work.
[3] Les Femmes d’Eleusis, (1931), oil on canvas, 110 x 140 cm. Tournai: Musée des Beaux-arts.
[4] The sphinxes were noted by Miriam Delville, private correspondence.
[5] The poem in its entirety is reproduced in this website. See under the ‘Poetry’ Menu: https://lightbearerofbeauty.wordpress.com/poetry/

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