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

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(For permission to use material from this blog, please contact the author: lightbearerofbeauty@gmail.com)

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/


“L’OEuvre d’amour s’achève”: Notes on a photograph from an exhibition of Jean Delville’s late work.

(Please observe the Copyright on this text and relevant images)
(For permission to use material from this blog, please contact the author below)
Photograph of Delville's late works. © The Delville Estate

Photograph of an exhibition of  Delville’s late works (no date). (c) The Delville Estate

A fascinating photograph was recently brought to light by Miriam Delville, the granddaughter of the artist Jean Delville, depicting a section of an exhibition held in Belgium around the mid-20th century. The main interest of the image is the representation of several of Delville’s late key-works. The photograph is an important document because it depicts paintings by Delville that have been long out of public view; all but one are in private collections, and have not been exhibited publicly after the painters death in 1953. It also reveals the arrangement of his works in a notable exhibition, which highlights connections in terms of their shared symbolism and iconography.

Works by Delville displayed in the photograph (in sequence: Click to view full image)
Left, L'Ascension Humaine (c. 1942-3, photograph © The Delvile Estate). Original: oil on canvas, 350 x 225 cm. Private collection 
Centre above: Régénération (c.1943), oil on canvas, 70 x 51. Private collection
Centre below: Les Fruits de nos entrailles (1918), oil on canvas, 99 x 81. Private collection
Right: La Roue du Monde (1940), oil on canvas, 298 x 231 cm. Antwerp: Museum of Fine Art.

The photograph lacks clear detail, but one can, nonetheless, identify most of Delville’s works recorded there. Most well-known is the large painting to the right, ‘la Roue du Monde’ which he painted in 1940 and is one amongst his last, significant large-scale narrative paintings that he created before giving up the brush in 1947. This important painting is currently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Art in Antwerp.

 La Roue du monde (1940)La Roue du monde (1940), oil on canvas, 298 x 231 cm. Antwerp: Royal Museum of Fine Art

Delville was a Theosophist, and this painting is an important testament of his long-held belief in the notion of Reincarnation and Karma. The wheel of life depicted here is the wheel of Karma and the cycles of birth, death and rebirth around which every human soul revolves in a repetitive rhythm through the cycle of life, suffering and death that is part of the constant evolution towards spiritual perfection. At the bottom of the wheel are represented various figures depicting the states of suffering in their worldly incarnation; undergoing the lowly human experiences of lust, murder and crime. But as one ascends the wheel other, more edifying experiences of the human condition are depicted such maternity and birth, love that is tender and true, as well as the development through the stages of life (infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood), and so forth. The figures at the top of the wheel are beginning to trail off into the empyrean beyond where they prepare for successive incarnations. Surrounding the wheel above and behind are figures of light – souls in the realm beyond death that have evolved spiritually or who are preparing to enter the cycle of incarnation in the material realm once again. The huge robed figure in the foreground, representing a type of ‘Lord of Karma’ stands impassively, contemplating mortality in the form of a human scull while he slowly turns the wheel of fate with his finger. The painting was finished twelve years before Delville’s death when the artist was 74 years old. It is a late meditation on the purpose and meaning of life, the cause and effect of our actions during our earthly incarnation, but it also reflects an optimism regarding the nature of existence in the afterlife through the depiction of the etheric and mysterious beauty of the metaphysical dimension beyond the gross and heavy materialism of the earthly world represented by the figures in the foreground. In his memoir written in 1944, Delville records that he started making sketches for the work in 1939 that was exhibited the following year at the Palais de Beaux-arts. Delville considered this to be one of his best works and he describes his main concept of the work in the following:

“La Roue, symbole du monde, tourne. C’est la Roue des renaissances et des recommencements. Dans le cours éternel des choses, les vies humaines sont comme enchaînée. C’est la Roue de l’enchaînement. Echapper à cet enchaînement des cycles des renaissances, tel est le but à atteindre. C’est la Roue qui sans cesse tourne en faisant de la vie et de la mort…”(p. 16).

(The Wheel, symbol of the world, turns. It is the Wheel of rebirths and new beginnings. Within the eternal course of things, all human life is enchained. It is the Wheel of enchainment. To escape from the enchainment of the cycle of rebirths, that is the goal to attain. It is the Wheel that ceaselessly turns, creating life and death)

Delville expressed his belief in Karma in an earlier poem titled ‘Le Grand Karma’, which was published in his 1922 Anthology, ‘Les Splendeurs Méconnues’ where the effect of war, crime and hatred are accumulated in the debt of Karma which governs the condition of human life during its earthly incarnation:

LE GRAND KARMA

Depuis que le soleil paraît chaque matin,
depuis que l’homme dur est sur la morne terre
avec tout son orgueil et toute sa misère,
il forme aveuglément le bloc de son destin.

Il entasse depuis crime; douleur et haine.
Et, à chaque moment, dans la nuit ou le jour,
l’invisible et grand bloc se fait toujours plus lourd,
au point d’en écraser toute la vie humaine.

De siècle en siècle, ainsi, s’est amassé le mal
à travers le torrent des morts et des naissances,
et sous l’effort mauvais des obscures puissances
le monde peut ployer sous le fardeau total.

La masse en est si lourde et terrible, et si sombre,
et le poids si pesant dans sa totalité,
que s’il tombait, d’un coup, dessus l’humanité,
il n’en resterait plus que du sang et de l’ombre.

Quelquefois, cependant, un peu de ce Karma,
dans le cours douloureux et tragique des âges,
fait de fléaux mortels et de vastes carnages,
laisse tomber sur nous l’horreur qui s’y forma

La guerre qui s’abat féroce, expiatrice,
le cataclysme fou, les bouleversements
de peuples et de rois, tous les mauvais ferments
qui paraissent partout et à l’heure propice,

ils sont la dette énorme du lointain passé,
le résultat fatal, le sort inéluctable
qui vient frapper toujours le vieux monde coupable
dans l’acte et la parole, dans ce qu’il a pensé.

O divine leçon ! O justice immanente !
Avec son contenu de causes et d’effets
la nature éternelle est pleine des reflets
où se meut sombrement l’éternelle tourmente.

C’est la Loi : toute erreur se transforme en douleur,
et chaque iniquité devient de la souffrance,
car ce que l’homme croit hasard ou malechance,
c’est le mal qui revient et dont il est l’auteur.

Ainsi, depuis les temps les plus obscurs du monde,
en vertu de la Loi que nul ne reconnait,
dans son vagissement tout être qui venait
apporte dans son corps sa détresse profonde.

Et c’est pourquoi toujours les crimes répétés
ont des crimes anciens à leur sanglante base,
et que l’humaine chair se débat et s’écrase
sous la masse et le poids des maux qu’elle a créés.

Great Karma

Ever since the sun appeared each morning,
ever since harsh man is upon the bleak earth
with all his pride and all his misery,
he blindly forms the lot of his destiny.

Since he accumulates, crime, pain and hatred.
And, at each point at night or day,
the mighty invisible block is always made heavier,
until it crushes all of human life.

From century to century, thus, evil accumulates
through the torrents of deaths and births,
and under the malicious effort of obscure powers
everybody can buckle under the complete burden.

The mass is so heavy and terrible, and so dark from it,
and the weight so oppressive in its totality,
that if it falls, suddenly, above humanity,
nothing would remain apart from blood and shadow.

Sometimes, however, a little of this Karma,
within the sorrowful and tragic course of the ages,
made of mortal scourges and immense bloodshed,
the horror that it constitutes is dropped upon us:

The war that strikes us, ferocious, expiatory,
the mad cataclysm, the upheavals
of peoples and kings, all the malicious catalysts
that appeared everywhere and at the opportune hour,

they are the enormous debts of the distant past,
the fatal result, the unavoidable destiny
that comes always to strike the guilty earth
in the act and word, of what it thinks.

O divine lesson! O immanent justice!
With its contents of every cause and effect
eternal nature is full of reflections
where eternal torment darkly moves.

That is the Law: all sin is converted to pain,
and each iniquity becomes suffering,
for what man believes to be chance or bad luck,
is the return of evil of which he is the author.

Thus, from the world’s darkest times,
in virtue of the Law that no one recognises,
in their whimpering every being that comes
brings within his body their profound distress.

And that is why crimes that are always repeated
are ancient crimes with their bloody base,
and human flesh struggles and is crushed
beneath the mass and weight of every sin that it created.

Delville’s original conception of the work was of a much grander scale. He wanted to execute a work that was conceived as ‘ une immense fresque de 8 mètres sur 6’ (a vast fresco of 8 by 6 metres). However, at the time he was living in Mons and was constrained by the small size of his studio there, which forced him to reduce the scale of the work by half. The final work was three metres high and over two metres wide.

Delville often referred to his large-scale paintings as ‘une fresque’. Although the idea of fresco painting was really defined according to the use of the challenging technique mastered during the Renaissance, which he greatly admired, consisting of painting wet pigment into wet plaster, Delville’s use of oils is anything but fresco painting. However, what he is implying here is the emulation of the scale, style, look and feel of fresco painting typically seen in the works of Raphael and Michaelangelo. The technique does not allow highly detailed finishes and the chemical reaction between pigments and wet plaster often resulted in a necessary reduced palette of colours. The surface of fresco is not glossy, as is possible in oil painting, but mostly matte, having a dry, almost chalky appearance. It is mainly these characteristics that are evident in Delville’s monumental oils. These works are characterised by a general simplification in the articulation of form with motifs and subjects that are boldly linear executed in a reduced or limited palette that result in elegant colour harmonies. The result is that one’s attention is not distracted by extraneous detail and is sharply focused instead on the thematic content of the work. This style of painting is exemplified in the masterful works of Puvis de Chavanne (1824-1898) who Delville greatly admired. These stylistic features are shared with classical Renaissance frescoes and were widely emulated amongst the Classical non-realist revivalists of Delville’s generation (Maurice Denis is an excellent case in point) and are clearly evident in his early masterpiece in this style his l’Ecole de Platon (exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1898, next to the work of Puvis), and, of course, his La Roue du Monde.

Delville was always keen to have his major works displayed In public museums for the edification of all, and which were, in any case, far too large for the most part to be practicable for private collections. He provides a valuable memoir of how the work was finally acquired by the Fine Art museum in Antwerp:

“Comme toujours prévoyant qu’elle resterait roulée après son exposition, j’en fis don à l’Etat pour le musée d’Anvers. Le directeur des Beaux-Arts m’écrivit qu’il avait vu la toile au palais des B-A disant qu’il serait heureux de voir figurer « avec honneur au Musée d’Anvers, cette conception grandiose. » Après guerre, elle sera donc placée là, trop heureux de savoir qu’au moins elle ne pourrira pas dans un dépôt quelconque, car c’est ce sort qui attend la grande toile en Belgique !” (p.16)

(As ever, expecting that it would remain rolled up after its exhibition, I donated it to the state for the Museum in Antwerp. The Director of Fine Arts wrote to me that he saw the canvas at the Palais de Beaux-Arts that he would be happy to see featured ‘with honour in the Museum at Antwerp, this great conception’. After the War, it would be placed there, very happy to know that at least it would not rot in some or other storeroom, which is the fate of great Belgian paintings.)

An interesting feature of this work is that it includes ‘quotations’ from some of his other paintings. In other words, he incorporates motifs and compositional details from earlier works as a way, perhaps, to refer to their symbolism in order to add to the overall narrative scheme of the later painting. This is evident, most especially, in two details. The first is the arrangement of the the mother and child tucked beneath the spoke of the wheel to the bottom left of the axel. The mother presses her face close to her infant who clasps her around the shoulder. This exact arrangement is seen in an earlier work titled ‘Les Fruits de no entrailles’ which Delville painted around 1918 referring to the loss of innumerable men (i.e. the ‘fruits’ of their mothers’ wombs) in the Great War and is a poignant meditation on the senseless loss of innocent life as a result of war. Significantly, this work was also exhibited in the exhibition recoded in the photograph and discussed further below.

Left: Detail of La Roue du Monde. Right: Les Fruits de nos Entrailles.

The second notable ‘self-quotation’ can be seen at the ‘ten-‘o-clock’ position on the wheel representing two lovers with their heads close together, the woman snuggled in the neck of the male figure. This is a direct quotation, especially of the female figure, from his 1933 triptych titled ‘Le reve de l’amour’ representing two lovers floating in an etheric atmosphere within a cosmic setting not to disimilar in conception form his earlier L’Amour des ames’ (1900). In this instance, the work alludes to the notion of ideal love and the spiritual dimension underlying the attraction between lovers. By deliberately including these works in La Roue, Delville alludes to their themes as being fundamental to the Karmic cycle which he depicts here. Thus, Spiritual love is considered a higher experience on the Human Wheel than carnal love – represented further below the wheel by the two lovers in an erotic embrace, or the representation of several other male-and-female figures embracing each other in this work. This self-quoting device is seen in some of Delville’s other late paintings where he cross-references his own work for visual and intellectual effect, adding to a layered texture of meaning in his art.

Left: Detail of La Roue du Monde (rotated). Right Central panel of Le Rêve de l'Amour 
(click for full image)

Two lesser-known works are seen in the centre of the photograph. In the centre above is an obscure work, based on a well-known study titled ‘Régénération’ (1943) depicting a Satanic figure clutching the Globe situated above another Christ-like figure in the foreground with arms outstretched.

(Click on gallery to view full image)

The five-pointed star behind the nude Christ figure suggests that he is a representation of a ‘lightbearer’ in Delville’s mythology; a notion derived from Theosophy referring to enlightened beings who bring spiritual wisdom to humanity and who aid our spiritual evolution upon this planet and beyond. The startling dichotomy between this figure and the malevolent being who grasps, and by implication is in control of our planet, is stark. However the message of the work is optimistic in so far as it suggests that the light bearer, representing the forces of spiritual enlightenment, of renewal and spiritual rebirth appears at a time of the Earth’s darkest hour to redeem and rescue mankind from eternal darkness. In other words, he represents redemption and hope. This is another key theme that Delville derives from the Theosophical tradition. The darkness depicted here is ego-driven materialism, in all its forms including untempered Capitalism, consumerism, commodity culture, the exploitation of the natural world for profit and the careless subjugation of humanity for the sake of material gain. These are themes that the artist pursued in his poetry as well. Perhaps Delville foresaw the direction the world was taking, and its future course towards material destruction that is everywhere present on our planet today. Below this painting is another smaller work depicting a woman cradling an infant in her arms, and set in a battlefield strewn with corpses, while in the background a city burns amongst turbulent clouds of smoke and incendiary flames. The surrounding scene is one of total carnage, death and destruction. This painting is commonly titled ‘les Fruits de nos Entrailles’ (‘The Fruits of our wombs’, also referred to as ‘Mater Dolorosa‘, 1918, oil on canvas, 99 x 81 cm. Private collection).

Le Fruit de nos entrailles (1918)

Les Fruits de nos entrailles (1918)

This work is one of several protest works that Delville created, railing against the War, while he was exiled in London during WWI, and after. The loss of sons, from the perspective of their mothers implicit in this work, is a theme he returned to more cogently in his ‘Les Mères’ the following year (Les Mères, 1919, oil on canvas, 112 x 144 cm. Dinant: City collection, inv. 203) which depicts a group of shrouded and dignified women mourning the loss of their sons whose shredded, bloodied bodies are scattered everywhere about their feet.

Les Mères (1919)

Les Mères (1919)

Delville returned to these themes constantly in his poetry written at that time. However, he avoids a crude patriotic message in these works, or any vapid sentimentality, by simply focusing on the essential and undeniable waste of life that ensues from questionable motives that lead to War. As discussed above, Delville used the exact depiction and composition of this intimate depiction of a mother and child, depicted in Les Fruits, in his later masterpiece, La Roue du Monde where he places this maternal tableau diagonally bottom left of the axle of the wheel in that painting. The placement of this small work next to La Roue in the exhibition depicted in the photograph is probably not coincidental in this regard.

The theme of maternity and motherhood is a key motif in Delville’s art and poetry throughout his career. This painting was probably created around the time he wrote one of several poems highlighting the senseless waste and destruction of the Great War published in his third poetry anthology Les Splendeurs Méconnues (1922) whose theme is clearly implicit in one of his poems from this anthology, titled Mater Dolorosa:

Les femmes seulement, dans leur grand cœur de mères,
tout rempli d’un amour sublime et instinctif,
savent l’horreur immense et sanglante des guerres,
quand le glaive des Rois perce leur sein plaintif.

Du fond des temps obscurs, dès l’âge primitif,
depuis que l’on se bat pour des vaines chimères,
on les entend jeter au ciel inattentif,
tous leurs cris de révolte et leurs plaintes amères.

Mais Dieu, dans l’hymne noir des humaines douleurs,
n’entend-t-il pas leurs voix, leurs rages, leurs clameurs,
qui sont comme l’écho funèbre des batailles?

Où donc vont leurs sanglots qui se perdent dans l’air,
et que fait-il du fruit béni de leurs entrailles,
tout le sang de leur sang et la chair de leur chair?

(Only women, in their great maternal hearts filled entirely with sublime and instinctive love, know the immense and bloody horror of wars, when the sword of kings pierces their plaintive breast. From the depths of darkened times, from the primitive age, since they fought one another for pointless illusions, they were heard exclaiming to the inattentive sky all their cries of revolt and their bitter complaints. But God, in the black hymn of human sorrows, does He not hear their voices, their fury, their clamours, that are like the funereal echoes of every battle. Where then do their sobs go that are lost in the air, and what do they do with the fruits of their wombs, all the blood of their blood and the flesh of their flesh?)

The final work which can be clearly identified in this recently-revealed photograph as one by Delville is the large painting depicted on the left of the image. This is a little-known work that has not been seen in the public sphere for a long time and carries very little documentation concerning its content or details of its creation. Miriam Delville, who maintains the Delville Estate and Archives, has identified the work as a late creation titled ‘l’Ascension humaine’ (The Ascension of Man, c. 1942).

image

L’Ascension Humaine. (1942). (c) Delville Estate

The details of the work are indistinct in the photograph, but a portion of the work exists in a black and white photograph in the Delville Archives, which allows us to understand more of its content and message. The main focus of the painting is another serene Christ-like figure cradling a light in his hands held in front of his chest that illuminates his torso and face. Below this figure is a mass of nude men and women ascending a steep, rocky incline rising upwards toward the right. The ascent undertaken by these figures is steep as well as being arduous and difficult – as is indicated in the gestures and poses of the various nude men and women. This motif represents the spiritual ascent of humanity, from the lowly impulses and desires of human nature towards spiritual enlightenment. This is a path not to be undertaken lightly, but is overseen, nonetheless, by spiritual guides.

Sharper details of this work are recorded in a portion to the left of a photograph taken of Delville in his latter years where he is seen posing in front of another important late work ‘Le Secret de la Tombe’ (1931). The photograph gives a clear indication of the scale of L’Ascension humaine.

image

Jean Delville in front of his late work Le Secret de la Tombe. To the left is seen a segment of his l’Ascension Humain.

His l’Ascension humaine reprises the theme from La Roue du Monde, but from the opposite, more optimistic and less deterministic, perspective in that it emphasises the guidance of great Masters, or Great Initiates – lightbearers in other words – who are responsible for the spiritual evolution of mankind. In that sense this work is also connected thematically to his earlier Régénération discussed above.

The representation of an Initiate in this painting is based on a study often titled Le Porteur de la Lumière, but Delville modified the conventionally bearded Christ-like features of that work to depict a more youthful, androgynous type which was common to his works on the theme of initiates of the 1890s, notably his La Morte d’Orphée (1893) and l’Ecole de Platon (1898). What is noteworthy in his Porteur de la Lumière (reproduced below) is that the blazing halo depicted behind the figure is in the form of the five-pointed star, which he placed – more vividly – behind the head of the figure in the final version. The star is an important leitmotif in Delville’s later paintings inspired by his conversion to Theosophy and his avid Messianic belief in the immanent coming of a World Teacher.

image

Le Porteur de la Lumière (n.d.)

This theme of the immanence of a messianic saviour is vividly articulated in the final half of his long poem cited above, Le Grand Karma, which ends on an optimistic note of redemption through the appearance of messianic figures who redeem humanity’s Karmic debt through love:

Mais malgré tout le poids de la sombre substance,
où s’est accumulé le sort noir des humains,
des Anges pleins d’Amour, de leurs divines mains,
retiennent doucement la terrible puissance.O visages de Dieu brillant dans les éthers,
rosée ardente où luit le rêve des aurores,
astres de pureté, mystiques météores,
Vous êtes l’Espérance au cœur de l’univers !

Vous êtes des parfums de douceur et de grâce,
des souffles flamboyants d’ineffable bonté !
Vous êtes, dans l’hiver, le Printemps et l’Eté,
les roses de l’espoir souriant dans l’espace !

Vous êtes les Seigneurs, les Sauveurs, les Veilleurs,
dont le geste maintient l’ordre des destinées
au vaste tourbillon des âmes qui sont nées
en des corps plus parfaits et des cerveaux meilleurs !

O Vous, soyez bénis ! Dans ces vers où je chante
le secret de la Loi des grands Chocs en retour,
je veux dire comment, par votre immense Amour,
vous soulagez toujours l’humanité souffrante.

Mais parfois l’Un de vous, en suprême passant,
vient poser ici-bas Ses beaux pieds de lumière,
et c’est alors la paix dans la nature entière,
car la Compassion de Dieu même descend !

Il vient. Elle est Sa chair. Elle est aussi Son verbe,
puisqu’on entend la voix du monde dans Sa voix,
et l’on peut voir encor dans Ses grands bras en croix
tous les péchés qu’il prend comme une vaste gerbe,

et qu’il serre ardemment sur son sublime Cœur,
jusqu’à ce que le flux de tout le mal pénètre
au fond des profondeurs divines de Son être,
afin d’en absorber la multiple Douleur !

Vyasa, le Bouddha, ces lumières d’Asie,
Thotet et Zoroastre, et Orphée, et jésus,
quand sur la terre émue et triste ils sont venus,
c’était pour embaumer les routes de la vie ;

C’était pour se donner aux fouies sans espoirs,
à tous les possédés du mensonge et du vice,
afin que par leur saint et vivant sacrifice,
ils attirent sur Eux tous les grands désespoirs,

tous les efforts brisés, toutes les lassitudes
des pauvres et des fous, des coupables, des gueux;
c’était pour que jaillisse et retombe sur Eux
tout le grouillant égout des vaines turpitudes.

Eux seuls, par leur Amour, plus divin et plus fort
que le sort sous lequel l’âme obscure chancelle,
sont, parmi l’océan de l’âme universelle,
maîtres de la douleur et maîtres de la mort.

Et c’est encor l’Un d’Eux qui bientôt va paraître
dans le miracle ardent de sa divinité,
pour faire que, partout, se fasse la clarté,
et pour dire aux puissants ce que demain doit être.

Et c’est lui l’Attendu, l’Elu depuis longtemps,
celui qui va venir dans sa gloire mystique.
Comme une volonté claire et mathématique
son heure sonne au fond du mystère des temps.

Car c’est déjà depuis plus de deux mille années,
aux siècles orgueilleux des juifs et des romains,
que sa promesse luit sur les sombres chemins
où sont les temples morts des croyances ruinées.

Et maintenant les jours mauvais sont révolus.
Une aube radieuse et sacrée se lève.
Le Christ encor revient ! L’OEuvre d’amour s’achève,
malgré ceux d’aujourd’hui qui ne l’attendent plus !

But despite all the weight of the dark substance,
where the dark destiny of humans accumulated,
Angels full of Love, from their divine hands,
gently hold back the terrible power.O faces of God shining in the ethers,
fervent pink where the dream of dawns shine,
stars of purity, mystical meteors,
You are the Hope in the heart of the universe!

You are the scents of gentleness and grace,
the flaming breaths of ineffable goodness!
You are, in winter, Spring and Summer,
the roses of hope smiling in space!

You are the Lords, the Saviours, the Watchmen,
whose gesture maintains the order of destinies
in the immense whirlwind of souls that are born
in the most perfect bodies and the best minds!

O Thou, be blessed! In these verses where I sing
the secret of the Law of the mighty returning Shocks,
I mean how, by your immense Love,
you always relieve suffering humanity.

But at times, One of you, as the last passerby,
comes here below to set down His beautiful feet of light,
and then there is peace within the whole of nature,
for the Compassion of God itself descends!

He comes. She is His flesh. She is also His word,
when one hears the voice of the world in His voice,
and one sees it again in His might crossed arms
every sin that he takes like an immense sheaf,

and that he fervently grips upon his sublime Heart,
until the flow of every evil penetrates
deep down within the divine depths of His being,
finally to absorb from it the many Sorrows!

Vyasa, the Buddha, the lights form Asia,
Thot and Zoroaster, and Orpheus and Jesus,
when sad and stirred they came upon the Earth,
to fill the paths of life with perfume;

To give to the crowds without hope,
to all those possessed by lies and vice
through their holy and living sacrifice,
they drew upon themselves all the great despairs,

all the broken efforts, every weariness
of the poor and the mad, the guilty, the paupers;
so that every swarming cesspit of useless depravity
springs up and falls again upon Them.

They alone, by their Love, more divine and stronger
than destiny beneath which the dark soul falters,
are, within the ocean of the universal soul,
masters of sorrow and masters of death.

And it is again One of Them who will soon appear
in the fervent miracle of his divinity,
everywhere to make that clarity be done,
and to state to the strong what tomorrow must be.

And it is he, the Long-Awaited one, for a long time the Chosen-one,
he who will come in his mystical glory.
Like a clear and mathematical will
his hour rings from the depths of the mystery of time.

Since it is already more than two thousand years,
of proud centuries of Jews and Romans,
that his promise shines upon sombre paths
where are dead temples of ruined beliefs.

And now the bad days are passed.
A radiant and sacred dawn rises up.
Christ comes again! The Work of love is complete,
despite those who today no longer wait for him.

It is significant that all the works depicted in the photograph of this exhibition are connected thematically or visually. Their iconography and thematic content – that deal with all the evil that humanity perpetuates on this planet (towards each other and the world we live in) and our redemption through the intervention of figures that bring the message of spiritual love amongst humanity – overlap. This suggests that these works were selected deliberately in the way they are connected according to this theme – amongst all his other works created at that time. These paintings represent the artist’s main thematic preoccupations during the latter half of his career which are grounded in his Theosophical beliefs and particularly those concerning the spiritual evolution of mankind, the fate of Karma, the cycles of life through successive incarnations and the deliverance of humanity by Great Initiates, or light bearers, in other words messianic figures that serve as catalysts, through love, for the spiritual evolution of humanity. Delville adhered closely to these ideals throughout his life, and his art as a whole represents an important testament to his life-long optimistic belief in the spiritual potential of all of humanity.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

My thanks to Mme Miriam Delville for kind permission to reproduce images by Delville and material  housed in the Delville Archives.

BRENDAN COLE

Jean Delville’s ‘La Meduse’ (1893)

La Méduse (1893)

Jean Delville (1867-1953), La Méduse, 1893. Ink, blue pencil, pastel, watercolour on paper, 355 x 150 mm, signed and dated below left. Chicago Institute of Art

 

(Please observe the Copyright on this text and relevant images)
(For permission to use material from this blog, please contact the author below)

 

Jean Delville’s inscrutable La Méduse (1893) is a skilfully executed invention – a disturbing sphinx-like creation that is an outstanding example of contemporary anti-realist tendencies that valued the imagination and ideas as the primary source of artistic expression.

This exceptional work is an unique re-interpretation of the theme of the frightful Gorgon of antiquity, whose glare petrifies all those who look upon her. She also embodies the archetypal, but complex, emblem of the fatal feminine, popular in contemporary Symbolist art. His treatment of the theme, however, is highly original. On the one hand he resorts to key iconographic elements derived from the traditional myth – notably the head of serpents – but then he also introduces features and motifs that are entirely original: such as the poppies, the saucers filled with indigo liquid and the motif of the veil. This results in a powerfully evocative work whose narrative is equivocal and mysterious, and not easy to interpret in a strictly reductive way. This attribute is a notable feature of Symbolist art generally, which is defined by its suggestive, allusive and ambiguous expressive tropes that invoke an order of reality lying beyond the surface appearances of the sensual world.

La Méduse is a key example of Delville’s sophisticated and expert draftsmanship. His refined linear technique and subtle modulation of form seen here is evidence of his disciplined academic training. He enrolled at an early age in the Belgian Academy of Fine Art and displayed, from the very beginning, a prodigious artistic skill, winning many of the prestigious prizes for drawing while still quite young. His adherence to the spirit of the Classical tradition in art remained with him throughout his life, but he continually updated this tradition, reinventing its principles in line with the vibrant new tendencies in art during the 1890s, as is evident in La Méduse. However, he used his classical technique principally as a vehicle to express more vividly his intellectual and artistic ideas, based on a belief that the transcendental world should be the goal of artistic expression. In other words, the emphasis on a disciplined linear technique employed here is deliberate and reflects Delville’s deeply felt belief that spiritual values are more clearly articulated through line. In this regard he was profoundly influenced by Quattrocento artists whose linear techniques he emulated – at times quite literally – as seen in his tempera masterpiece L’Amour des âmes of 1900 (Musée d’Ixelles, Brussels). In an article published a few years after creating La Méduse, he expressed a clearly mystical formulation in his approach to line: ‘L’Art a commencé par le Dessin, par le ligne et la Ligne, c’est l’âme de l’Equilibre, c’est l’essence même de la Plastique. … Le dessin est la partie la plus élevée, la seul indépendante de la technie picturale et où le génie seul peut se montrer…’ What Delville is suggesting here is that an intimate relationship exists between line and form and the expression of the Ideal in art. In other words, line is an analogic expression of the union of the material and the spiritual, of nature and the Absolute: ‘… La Ligne, dans les choses de la Nature, c’est la signature de Dieu. La Ligne, ne l’oublions jamais, est l’expression symbolique des affinités primordiales qui existent entre l’Esprit et la Matière. La Ligne, ou la Forme, est le mystère du monde physique, le mystère de l’Art, le mystère de la Beauté.’[i]

He places the Medusa in a highly simplified and largely indeterminate setting dominated by a menacing reddish-orange, almost apocalyptic, glow, which creates a lively tension in the work as it contrasts with the green-blue of the serpents and the blue liquid in the saucers as well as the blue of the veil that partly conceals the face of the Medusa. This colour also vaguely suggests the colour of blood – hinting towards the violent murder of the Gorgon described in Classical sources. The composition of this work is narrow and cropped, and he places the figure right up against the picture plane, truncated at the top and bottom. As a result, our attention is not only strongly focussed on the enigmatic and mysterious face of the Medusa, but this cropping also contributes to a tense, disquieting and claustrophobic atmosphere in the drawing as a whole. The Medusa’s delicately articulated, broad face, moreover, is expressionless apart from the very slightest hint of an enigmatic, almost seductive, smile. The lower part of her face is lit up while the remaining areas around her eyes are in darkness. This sets off her glowing, pale blue eyes that stare upwards behind the veil, suggesting that she is in a trance. The veil softens her facial features which are articulated in a subtle sfumato, concealing the details of her neck and shoulders. This gives the impression that the head is disembodied – a hint perhaps of her future fate. It is, however, worth noting that her facial features are those of a contemporary woman, and Delville has in no way tried to idealise her or to create a derivative from classical forms. This gives the image a presence and immediacy and forces one to confront her as a figure that belongs to contemporary reality, and not of the past. In other words she lacks any mediating guise derived from the classical tradition or the Antique. Contemporary viewers would therefore have seen her as someone belonging to their world, which would surely have resulted in a disquieting, if sensational, response.

Delville’s emphasis on the face and head is in fact a typical feature of many of his works as a whole. The head as a subject on its own is an ubiquitous subject of many of Delville’s paintings, especially during the 1890s, whether as a subject of conventional representation such as his many mysterious portraits in blue (the so-called bleuâtres; particularly his Tête de femme de profil of 1894) or represented in a more iconic mode as seen especially in his Mysteriosa (Portrait of Madame Stuart Merrill, 1892) and Parsifal (1890). One of the dominant themes in Delville’s paintings is the severed head, and most striking of these is his Orphée mort (1893) and La fin d’un règne (1893). The theme of the severed head was a key motif in non-realist iconography and predominates in representations of the theme of Salome[ii] and Orpheus.[iii]

The emphasis on the head can be traced to Delville’s hermetic writings where the head is seen to be the seat of the soul. For Delville, the soul animates thought itself through the brain.[iv] The seat of the brain, the head, has for Delville a particular significance: ‘La tête humaine est construite selon les rythmes des lois planétaires; elle est attractive et rayonnante, et c’est sur elle que l’influence astrale, d’ailleurs, se manifeste absolument. Il n’y a pas de différence entre les réseaux des attractions planétaires et les rayonnements des tissus nerveux.’[v] This probably explains why he often includes a radiant light around the head of his figures of hero-initiates and also why the illumination of the face is emphasised in most of his works.

Delville reduces his narrative to a few essential motifs concentrating on the veiled Medusa with her dense mass of serpentine hair; her hands holding bowls of fluid being consumed by the serpents; and surrounding her, four seemingly burnt-out poppy pods. His hieratic Medusa elevates, on either side of her head, the two saucers that contain an azure, blood-like liquid towards which the frenzied mass of serpents swarm – their mouths open as they greedily, energetically, and almost violently, consume the eerie fluid which slops menacingly over the edges of the saucers. The serpents appear to glow, ghost-like, in a green-blue haze. Their bodies are entwined and knotted in a complex writhing mass, which is a bravura demonstration of the artist’s inventive imagination and astonishing technical skill. In fact, the rendering of these serpents results in a finely articulated artistic passage that is highly memorable amongst his works of this period. This seething kinetic clot of serpents contrasts strongly with the static and contemplative face of the Gorgon. This contrast is further enhanced in the way she impassively nurtures her vampirish creatures that, in the original myth, replaced her beautiful locks of hair.

The group of four black poppy pods that surround the Medusa is enigmatic. Two pairs are placed symmetrically on either side of her, from which dark fume-like tendrils emanate resembling some funereal incense staining the morbid air surrounding the figure. This motif further enhances the stifling and claustrophobic atmosphere of this image. Delville condenses the idea of smoking opium – a practise common in European opium dens and popularised in contemporary art and literature – with its source, in depicting the intoxicating vapours emerging from the seed pods themselves, which of course has no basis in reality. Traditionally opium was obtained by scoring the immature seed pods and harvesting the latex which it emitted; this was then processed into the addictive narcotic and then ingested by mixing it with tobacco. Opium abuse was widespread during the nineteenth century and its use is celebrated in many literary texts including Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater of 1822 and Edgar Allen Poe’s story Ligeia   of 1838 – which was referred to by Baudelaire in his Paradis artificiels (IV: ‘L’Homme-Dieu’). In this work Baudelaire, who was admired by Delville, railed against the enslaving effect of opium abuse, referring to opium as, ‘le maître de l’horrible, le prince du mystère.’ His journey into altered worlds induced by narcotic substances, including opium, is well known and widely documented in his writings. The inclusion of this motif in this drawing is therefore a deliberate reference to this key aspect of fin-de-siècle culture.

Interestingly, the trailing smoke from the poppies in Delville’s drawing, as well as the poppy pods themselves, are treated in an abstract, decorative and linear manner. In other words, they are reduced to a series of parallel meandering contour lines that echo the curvilinear interlaced serpents. It is worth noting how this stylised treatment of the smoke drifting from the poppy pods contrasts distinctly with the finely rendered figural treatment of the Medusa herself. This combination of decorative abstraction and naturalistic representation reinforces the ideographic fiction of the drawing and the subject it portrays. This decorative linear element is, moreover, a significant formal feature, often seen in the woodcuts of Toorop, which prefigures the stylistic conventions of Art Nouveau. The beauty of this serpentine line as a formal device to express an altered reality was emphasised by Baudelaire in his Paradis Artificiels when describing the effect of opiates on the imagination. He wrote: ‘La sinuosité des lignes est un langage définitivement clair où vous lisez l’agitation et le désir des âmes. Cependant se développe cet état mystérieux et temporaire de l’esprit, où la profondeur de la vie, hérissée de ses problèmes multiples, se révèle tout entière dans le spectacle, si naturel et si trivial qu’il soit, qu’on a sous les yeux, – où le premier objet venu devient symbole parlant’ (IV: ‘L’Homme-Dieu’). This idea, as already seen, is fundamental to Delville’s aesthetic and he would later use abstracted sinuous linear forms to great effect in works such as L’Amour des Ames (1900) and L’Homme-Dieu (1901-1903, Bruges: Groeninge Museum).

Finally, one is reminded of the fact that these flowers are not commonly associated with the Medusa theme in Classical sources, but are, however, commonly linked to sleep and death. The narcotic fumes enveloping the Medusa could suggest that she is enacting some kind of trance-induced, chthonic ritual – as though she were some sort of sorceress. In this regard she could also be associated with the Classical Sibyls whose prophetic utterings were often induced after inhaling earth-borne fumes. In the visual arts one is reminded of Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (c.1867-70), where the conflation of the image of the poppy and the feminine, with an overriding suggestion of sleep and death, is powerfully invoked. The association between the femme fatale and the poppy is also present in Rossetti’s sonnet Lilith which accompanied his painting Lady Lilith (1863, Delaware: Delaware Art Museum) in the lines: ‘The rose and poppy are her flower; for where/ Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent/ And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?’ The emblem of the poppy in relation to the idea of sleep and death is also frequently invoked in the work of Fernand Khnopff, most notably in his I Lock My Door upon Myself (1895) and Une Recluse (1909), where it is linked directly with Hypnos, the god of sleep and dreams. The black desiccated poppy pods in Delville’s image probably serve as a reminder of death, an attribute closely associated, of course, with Medusa herself.

The balance of heightened, dramatic energy in the articulation of the serpents and the passive, controlled expression of the Medusa creates an unsettling tension in Delville’s drawing. Compositionally, however, he manages to achieve a sense of balance through the relationship between the narrow horizontal format of the work and the rigidly symmetrical placing, around the centrally positioned head, of the vertical pillar-like arms carrying the two saucers. The placing of the poppy pods on either side further enhances this symmetry and the concomitant sense of regularity and balance seen elsewhere. Moreover the vertical thrust of the arms and veil are offset by the horizontal undulating (and chaotic) mass of serpents and the meandering fumes emerging from the poppies – especially the two lugubrious plumes cutting across the figure in the foreground – all of which enhance the sense of movement and repose that sustains the underlying logic of this image. It might be worth noting that an absolute symmetry is avoided in the difference in the number of smoke plumes on the left and right hand side: he arranges these in a non-parallel placing of six pods on the left and five on the right.

One ought also to comment very briefly on the obvious number symbolism implicit in these poppy pods depicted in the work. Three smoky streams emanate from three of the pods, while from the fourth – to the extreme right – only two emerge. Added together there are, in other words, ten smoke streams. This configuration therefore results in the representation of the numbers two, three, four, nine and eleven. Delville stated explicitly throughout his writings that number plays a significant role in artistic expression, and his interest in the occult would have drawn him to the works of contemporaries who wrote extensively on the significance of number symbolism such as Gerard Encausse (better knows as Papus), whose writings such as Traité élémentaire de Science Occulte, Traité Méthodique de Magie Pratique and La Science des Nombres, deals exhaustively with this aspect of the hermetic world view to which Delville subscribed. The significance of the numbers represented in La Méduse is dealt with extensively in the writings of Papus.

Delville left very few written accounts of his art and only a small number of his personal letters survive, which means that we have few definitive starting points when attempting to interpret his drawing and paintings. This is ironic – given that he was a prodigious author of many books, articles, and essays on art; but perhaps it was also deliberate as it forces one to confront his paintings in an unmediated way in order to recreate their meaning as one would a symbol. The theme does, however, have strong contemporary resonances and it is worth noting that the image of the Medusa was very popular amongst his contemporaries. It should therefore be emphasised that this drawing is one of the earliest expressions of this motif in Symbolist art – Khnopff’s more iconic Blood of the Medusa, would follow much later in 1898, and his allusive Sleeping Medusa in 1909. Precursors to Delville’s work include Arnold Boecklin’s late-Romantic interpretation of the theme evident in his Medusa of 1878 – depicting a face that is resigned and dying, an effect enhanced by the flaccid serpents sagging around her. But Delville’s interpretation of the theme does not focus on the more canonical episode of the decapitation of Medusa and the use of the head by Perseus as a weapon. A dramatic early example of this kind expressing the anguish of the Gorgon is evident in Caravaggio’s Medusa (1597, Uffizi) and Rubens’s Head of Medusa (1615, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The writhing mass of snakes in the former share the same energy and dynamism seen in Delville’s image. A variation of this theme is also evident in Burne-Jones’s The Baleful Head (1886-7, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart) with which Delville was most probably familiar, given his enthusiasm for Burne-Jones and other pre-Raphaelites. But the suffering of the Medusa is absent in Delville’s treatment of the theme. She is passive, in control and, in fact, a nurturing figure; an image that is far removed from the gruesome, bleeding and disembodied head commonly found in artistic images representing this Gorgon.

The great achievement of Delville’s work lies in the fact that he creates an allusive and ambiguous motif existing in its own iconographic and pictorial reality – an autonomous visual emblem not uncommon to Symbolist art. The ambiguity of his Medusa lies in the fact that she is at once gentle and nurturing, but at the same time expressing an understated and subtle cruelty and malevolence. The sense of menace in this work is implicit in the eerily luminous eyes gleaming through the surrounding darkness. It gives her a surreal and inhuman character, as if she were a creature of prey whose eyes glow in the dark, or a vampirish figure of the dead. The effect is mesmerising and haunting and reinforces her chilling allure. Delville actually repeats this motif from his earlier evocation of a lubricious, malevolent and ambivalent fatal female depicted in his L’Idole de la Perversité of 1891, which shares many features seen in La Méduse – including an aureole of luminous serpents and the fact that she wears a veil. When conjuring this motif Delville might have had in mind a passage from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, especially the lines from ‘L’Irrémédiable’ describing the descent of the damned soul into darkness while surrounded by ‘des monstres visqueux/ Dont les larges yeux de phosphore/ Font une nuit plus noire encore’.

The eyes are turned upwards, highly reminiscent of his treatment of the head in Madame Stuart Merrill – Mysteriosa (Musées des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), which he created the previous year in 1892. This motif is also included in the expression of the young boy in his Ange des Splendeurs (1894, Musées des Beaux-Arts, Brussels). This trance-like attitude is significant and suggests that the Medusa is a more ambivalent figure than one initially suspects. A reference to this expression can be sourced in the writings of Eliphas Lévi, whose works were influential in Delville’s occult circle of writers and poets with whom he was closely associated. In a cogent passage from his Histoire de la Magie, Eliphas Lévi described exactly this ecstatic visionary attitude, with its rolled-back eyes, as a condition induced through a concentration of astral light – and it would be entirely relevant to read this motif in La Méduse in exactly this sense; suggesting that Delville’s sphinx-like Medusa is experiencing an hallucinatory episode – a moment of introspective, perhaps even visionary – clairvoyance: ‘Quand le cerveau se congestionne ou se surcharge de lumière astrale, il se produit un phénomène particulier. Les yeux, au lieu de voir en dehors, voient en dedans; la nuit se fait à l’extérieur dans le monde réel et la clarté fantastique rayonne seule dans le monde des rêves. L’œil alors semble retourné et souvent, en effet, il se convulse légèrement et semble rentrer en tournant sous la paupière. … Là est la source de toutes les apparitions, de toutes les visions extraordinaires et de tous les phénomènes intuitifs qui sont propres à la folie ou à l’extase.’[vi] In this regard, the motif suggests that his Medusa is a figure that alludes to the world of the occult and the transformative magical practises associated with that tradition with which Delville was familiar. Like Mme Merrill – with her iconic hermetic book – this Medusa is more of a clairvoyant sorceress of the Mysteries, than a malevolent monster derived directly from classical mythology. Delville’s Medusa is, in other words, a highly textured symbol relating to contemporary ideas, and less a literal representation derived from classical sources.

This hermetic aspect of La Méduse is further reinforced by the addition of a non-canonical veil draped in front of her. The veil motif is used extensively during the period. The connotations of the veil are numerous and one is immediately reminded of the veils of Salome – temptress supreme – a figure, as Huysmans put it, ‘with a haunting fascination for artists and poets’ of the fin-de-siècle.[vii] The theme of Salome was represented obsessively during the period, notably in Aubrey Beardsley’s The Dancer’s Reward (1894) and Franz von Stuck’s Salome (1906). Other typical examples include Félicien Rops’ Modernité – a contemporary transformation of the theme, and Lucien Levy-Dhurmer’s Salome Kissing the head of John the Baptist (1896). The veil, however, also suggests the notion of the Bride. There are several notable examples of the theme of the Bride during the fin de siècle. Significantly most of these are contemporary with Delville’s Medusa, for example: Jan Thorn Prikker’s The Bride (1893), Jan Toorop’s The Three Brides (1893), or works created later such as Alfred Kubin’s The Bride of Death (1900). But the image of a woman concealed behind a veil was, of course, already present in the work of Delville’s compatriot, Fernand Khnopff, notably his funereal The Veil (c. 1890), which might have been a starting point for this motif in Delville’s drawing.[viii] Delville used, however, this motif of the veil in his earlier Idole de la perversité.

The sense of mystery conjured by the veil is emblematic of the notion of concealment, of arcane or mystical secrets revealed to initiates in the hermetic and esoteric tradition. It is often associated with the tradition of a mysterious figure that is the source of higher knowledge, found especially in Romantic poetry in the figure of the inspirational muse, for example, in the novellas of the German Romantic author Novalis and especially his The Pupil of Saïs and Heinrich of Ofterdinge. In the context of the occult tradition, the veil also suggests the figure of Isis whose veil conceals the mysteries of esoteric wisdom and initiation, ‘the thick veil which conceals the invisible wonders from the eyes of men’.[ix] Plutarch records an inscription at the shrine of Isis at Sais, frequently quoted in esoteric literature, which states: ‘I am all that hath been, and is, and shall be; and my veil no mortal has hitherto raised.’[x] The veil of mystery was an important image in Theosophical writings. Blavatsky refers to this in the title of her first theosophical work Isis Unveiled. A Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Theology. Lifting the veil was frequently referred to by theosophists (Delville became an ardent Theosophist) as a metaphor for revealing the mystery of the secret doctrine of occultism or the attainment of spiritual enlightenment, or initiation.[xi]

The image of Isis is a central symbol in mythology and esoteric thought representing the principle of the ‘Eternal Feminine’. She commands the cycles of birth and death in her role as goddess of nature, not only the cycles of physical birth and death but the symbolic birth and death experienced in the ancient rites of initiation. The analogy between death and the awakening to occult knowledge, signified through ‘lifting the veil’, is clearly suggested in de Nerval’s incantation to Isis: ‘O nature! ô mère éternelle! était-ce là vraiment le sort réservé au dernier de tes fils célestes? Les mortels en sont-ils venus à repousser toute espérance et tout prestige, et, levant ton voile sacré, déesse de Saïs! le plus hardi de tes adeptes s’est-il donc trouvé face à face avec l’image de la Mort?’ [xii]

The significance of the image of Isis, as the embodiment of the esoteric power, would have been familiar to the artists of the fin de siècle from various obvious sources, most notably in the writings of Edouard Schuré’s (a friend of Delville), and particularly his The Great Initiates. Schuré explains that Isis has three different meanings: ‘Literally she personifies Woman, and from this the universal feminine gender. Comparatively, she personifies the fullness of terrestrial nature, with all its reproductive powers. In the superlative, she symbolises celestial and invisible nature, itself the element of souls and spirits, spiritual light, intelligible in itself, which initiation alone confers.’[xiii] Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, with whom Delville was acquainted, invoked the Egyptian goddess in his occult novel Isis of 1862 as the protagonist, the enigmatic Tullia Fabriana, meditates on the enigma of the Sphinx:

Sphinx !… ô toi, le plus ancien des dieux! … murmura la belle vierge prométhéenne, je sais que ton royaume est semblable à des steppes arides et qu’il faut longtemps marcher dans le désert pour arriver jusqu’à toi. L’ardente abstraction ne saurait m’effrayer ; j’essaierai. Les prêtres, dans les temples d’Egypte, plaçaient, auprès de ton image, la statue voilée d’Isis, la figure de la Création; sur le socle, ils avaient inscrit ces paroles: « Je suis ce qui est, ce qui fut, ce qui sera: personne n’a soulevé le voile qui me couvre.» Sous la transparence du voile, dont les couleurs éclatantes suffisaient aux yeux de la foule, les initiés pouvaient seuls pressentir la forme de l’énigme de pierre, et, par intervalles, ils le surchargeaient encore de plis diaprés et mystérieux pour mettre de plus en plus le regard des hommes dans l’impuissance de la profaner. Mais les siècles ont passé sur le voile tombé en poussière ; je franchirai l’enceinte sacrée et j’essaierai de regarder le problème fixement.[xiv]

It would not be too far fetched to suppose the Delville’s Medusa embodies qualities of the Sphinx as well – an iconic symbol of the period and that she therefore embodies the qualities of an initiatory figure, which populated his art generally. Although he never created literal representations of Sphinxes (apart from his poster designs for the Salons d’Art Idéaliste), many of his female creations express implicitly qualities commonly associated with the sphinx, i.e., the mysterious feminine with her air of mystery and wisdom as well as her ambiguous relationship between the material and transcendental orders of reality. Delville invoked these aspects of the motif in his poem ‘Sphinge Blanche’ from his anthology Les Horizon Hantés:

En son profil sacre d’archange hiératique
ravi dans sa mysticité d’un marbre divin,
comme un lys transparait l’idéal féminin
qui séraphise son blanc visage extatique
L’infini de ses yeux s’illumine aux splendeurs
sereines, flammes de l’azur élégiaque,
et, vierge immaculée et paradisiaque
vestalement rêve son âme d’albes candeurs
Sphinge, sa lèvre énigmatique renie
le verbe impur et profane de la vie
– et nul songe humain n’a hante son front astral
ce saint front d’idole, ce pur front d’élite
en la spiritualité duquel palpite
la suprême ferveur d’un culte sidéral.

There are some notable passages in this poem which describe very well the enigmatic figure in Delville’s La Méduse; especially the description of ‘l’infini de ses yeux’, their ‘flammes de l’azur élégiaque’, her ‘lèvres énigmatique’ and the hieratic nature of this astral ‘idéal féminin’ with her ‘profil sacre’ and ‘visage extatique’.
Delville has created in his La Méduse a complex image that is allusive and highly suggestive. She feeds her frenzied brood of serpents in a trance-like demeanour, which is mesmerising – combining a sense of horror and beauty at the same time. The work tantalises with its reference to the classical source of the fatal Gorgon, but in adding motifs that do not belong to the original source he reworks the narrative, updating it, and giving it a contemporary gloss. She is a creature of mystery, familiar yet at the same time unknown, resulting in a classic reworking of the theme of the archetypal feminine. She is a synthesis of sphinx, sorceress and mythic monster combined to create a powerful evocation of the eternal feminine. The image is, in short, an ideal testament to Delville’s extraordinary power of invention, which is a hallmark of his work during the1890s.

The work also expresses vividly key aspects of his aesthetic that he was developing at this early stage of his career, particularly his tendency to synthesise the traditional and the modern, using an expert technique to articulate his imagination in order to accomplish this. His development of the importance of line, derived from the Classical tradition and used here with such brilliance, is a key formal element of his style to which he adhered throughout his career.

In the spirit of the Renaissance invenzione, he has bodied forth the form of things unknown, bringing to life this creature of his imagination in a work of art that is startlingly persuasive. Idea, form and technique are perfectly balanced in this drawing to achieve a faultless and compelling realisation of his Idealist aesthetic. It is well to remember that Delville’s artistic goal was to initiate a school of painting that would pursue a form of hermetic Idealism. In other words, an aesthetic that is fundamentally intellectual in approach and concerned with spiritual ideas that are expressed through ideal forms and articulated in a polished classical-idealist technique. He formulated his aesthetic as a threefold system bringing together his notions of la Beauté spirituelle (idea), la Beauté plastique (form) and la Beauté technique (execution). This triple schema – with its emphasis on the expression of Ideal Beauty through the perfection of idea, form and technique – he termed l’Esthétique Idéaliste. He never wavered from this goal, and La Méduse is an impressive realization of its core principles.

[i] Delville, ‘Le Discours de Jean Delville Prononcé à sa réception dans la salle de l’Académie comme Lauréat du Prix de Rome.’ La Ligue Artistique. No. 22, November 1895, p. 4.

[ii] See also Moreau’s The Apparition 1876, Franz von Stuck’s Salome (1906), Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer’s Salome embracing the severed head of John the Baptist (1896), and Odilon Redon’s Head of a Martyr (n.d) are notable examples.

[iii] Vide Maria Luisa Frongia. Il Mito di Orfeo nella pittura simbolista francese. Università Degli Studi di Cagliari. Estratto de Annali delle Facoltà di Lettere-Filosofia e Magistero. Vol. XXXVI 1973. Gallizzi-Sassari 1974.

[iv] Vide. Delville, Dialogue entre Nous. Argumentation Kabbalistique, Occultiste, Idéaliste, Bruges, Daveluy Frères, 1895, pp. 11-15, 16.

[v] Delville, Dialogue entre Nous. Ibid., p. 17.

[vi] Eliphas Lévi, Histoire de la Magie. Avec une Exposition Glaire et Précise de ses Procèdes, de ses Rites et de ses Mystères. Paris : Germer Bailliére, Libraire-Éditeur, 1860, pp. 20-21.

[vii] Huysmans, Against Nature. A new translation by Robert Baldick, Penguin Modern Classics, Penguin, Great Britain, 1959, p. 65.

[viii] Other notable examples by Khnopff include: Tête d’une femme (1898), Un Voile bleu (c. 1909) and Un Rideau bleu (1909).

[ix] Edouard Schuré. The Great Initiates, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1961

[x] Plutarch, De Iside, 9, 354C. A hymn addressed to Isis-Net expresses this idea of the Veil Of Nature which hides the mystery of truth from human eyes:
Hail, mother great, not hath been uncovered thy birth!
Hail goddess great, within the underworld which is doubly
hidden thou unknown one!
Hail thou divine one great, not hath been unloosed!
O unloose thy garment [veil].
Hail [Hidden One], not is given by way of entrance to her…

  1. A. Wallis Budge, The Gods of the Egyptians, volume I, London, 1904, p. 459, cited in M Esther Harding, Woman’s Mysteries, Ancient and Modern, Shambhala, Boston and Shaftesbury, 1990, p. 182.

[xi] The inscription is quoted by G R S Mead in ‘Theosophy and Occultism’ published Lucifer: A Theosophical Magazine, eds. Helena Petrova Blavatsky and Annie Wood Besant, September 1891 to February 1892, p. 112.

[xii] Gérard de Nerval, Isis. In, Nerval le rêve et la vie, Hachette, Paris, 1955, p. 166.

[xiii] Schuré, The Great Initiates, p. 191-192.

[xiv] Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Isis. Paris: Librairie Internationale, 1862, pp. 131-132. This mystery of the veil is vividly articulated in a late work by Khnopff, The Blue Veil, (1909).


New Book on Jean Delville: “Jean Delville. Art Between Nature and the Absolute”

ISBN 101443870471-frontcover

A new study on the painter, Jean Delville was published this year by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.