On a Satanist Picture

This article by "a Correspondent", about the Annunciation painting at Aix-en-Provence, was published in The Times, January 21st, 1932. The writer's theory that the picture showed evidence of black magic and Satanism prompted M.R. James to respond in the January 25th edition. It was one of many letters which he wrote to The Times. The article and MRJ's letter were reprinted for the first (and until now - as far as I know - only) time in Peter Haining's M.R. James: Book of the Supernatural (Foulsham, 1979).

The letter is copyright (c) 1932 N.J.R. James, and is reprinted here by kind permission.

See the end of the article/reply for links to related pages in the Ghosts & Scholars Archive. For a full colour reproduction of the painting, click here.

None of the notices of the French Art Exhibition at Burlington House has mentioned the peculiar and sinister fame of the 'Annunciation' from Aix-en-Provence. Locally it is acknowledged to be the work of a Satanist painter, probably an ecclesiastic, and has so been a subject of study by French archaeologists.

Aix, which has so many other tricks up its sleeve, has placed side by side at the corner of the Square the Lycée de Jeunes Filles and the Church of the Madeleine. The Magdalen, as every one from Marseilles to Avignon knows, acquired her rights of Provençal nationality by landing in Camarque with St Lazare and St Maximin, the other two Maries and Sarah of Syria, their servant, patroness of fairies, witches and gypsies. The church has only one beauty, its colour, fair as the hair of Mary Magdalen, in the sunshine. For the rest, its lines and ornaments, in very ordinary baroque style, do not in any way presage an interior mystery. Here, however, in a dark chapel, usually hangs the 'Annunciation' which, if firmly rooted tradition may be credited, dedicates the Church of the Madeleine to the flight of bad angels and works of the devil. Whence comes the picture? Nobody knows: experts no more than old women. It has always been there. Who painted it? A Satanist who, fearful of the Inquisition and torture, preferred to hide his name. Did the picture enter the church under the auspices of that Robert Mauvoisin, Archbishop of Aix who, accused of sorcery and convicted of having celebrated Black Masses with the blood of little children, was condemned at Avignon by Pope John XXII? Or was it offered to the parish by Rodrigue de Lune, nephew of the Antipope Benedict XIII, who vowed himself to the devil in order to win Nerto, the most unfortunate of Mistral's heroines?

This is quite conceivable, for "the slender vaulting in trefoil festoonery, the wealth of fantastic arabesques, the twisted pillars writhing and rearing like serpents and the little devils peeping from the whirling capitals," as Mistral writes, are indeed in the style of a demoniacal painter living at the Papal Court at the time of the Great Schism. But the dress of the Virgin and Angel are much more recent than the architecture and fix this mysterious piece of devilry in the fifteenth century. Then is it not possible that it was surreptitiously hung in its niche by the Abbé Gaufridi who, during the minority of Louis XIII, was burnt alive in the Place des Prêcheurs for having convoked a whole Convent of Ursulines to Witches' Sabbaths?

A few years ago no one except the inhabitants of Aix knew the picture. "The devil lived quietly in his holy water stoup," as they say in French, satisfied with local escapades and minute enterprises. But lately he has grown ambitious and has put upon the track of the beautiful Provençal witch in Madonna's clothing the fancy of archaeologists and of critics. Originally shown as a single panel, the 'Annunciation' is today a triptych to which the Galleries of Amsterdam and Brussels and the collection of Sir Herbert Cook have contributed the missing parts; and from her provincial chapel the enchantress, who last year went to cast a few spells in Paris, has crossed the Channel and arrived in London. So visitors to Burlington House will be able, among other themes of medieval inspiration, to get acquainted with the devil who, after all, is not the least of them. They will see the sly minutiae with which the artist, in malefic endeavour, has inverted the object's Christian symbolism reserved for attributes of the divine, and his skill in insinuating hell into every detail while preserving the pious appearance of the picture, as much for his own perverse pleasure as from an instinct of self-preservation.

This 'Annunciation', had he known it, would have captivated Huysmans, for it is a perfect example of one of those aesthetic 'A Rebours' which, if one may believe the great demonologist writer, give to the initiated the ne plus ultra of forbidden pleasures, by mingling the bestial and spiritual and marrying the infernal and divine. Here the announcing angel has owl's wings; the ray of light emanating from God to Father, before reaching Mary, falls on a monkey crouching on the edge of a lectern. In the groining, instead of doves and larks, flutter bats and vampires. From the trefoils of the arches horned devils peep. In the vase beside the lily stand three evil herbs, basil, foxglove, and belladonna, and, indubitable sign of Satanic consecration, both God the Father and the angel, instead of raising fingers in the orthodox attitude of benediction, advance the thumb between the third and middle fingers according to the obscene and malefic gesture which Spanish wizards termed hace figa, and with which, according to medieval demonologists, the devil often opened Sabbaths.

In the shutters of the triptych two pious figures are standing beneath shelves laden with books. These will keep their secret, and we shall never know their titles. Let us wager, however, that they spell Cabal and that the priest and deacon keeping vigil in this singular sanctuary were reading, not the Breviary but the Malleus Maleficarum, the Daemonomania, or the Livre des charmes, sorcelages et enchantements.


M.R. James's response:

Sir, May I question the accuracy of your correspondent of 21 January on the subject of "A Satanist Picture"?

Did Mistral really speak of trefoil festoonery, writhing pillars and whirling capitals? And, if so, what did he mean? What is the conclusion as to the date of the picture? We have mention of a demoniacal painter at the Court of Avignon (how many such were there?), and of two "conceivable" donors, of the fourteenth century; then we are told that the costumes of Virgin and Angel fix the work to the fifteenth century; then the reign of Louis XIII (1610) is hinted at. The rays on which the figure of the Divine Child is conveyed do not do more than pass over the lectern of which the finial is a monkey; he does not crouch on the edge of it. Where are the bats and vampires that flutter in the groining? I see none, and do not know how a vampire is portrayed. The word properly means an animated corpse, and is used as the nickname of a bat found only in America.

Will a botanist assure us of the presence of venomous plants in the lilypot? The thumb of the Father is not "advanced between his third and middle fingers"; it is in fact scarcely seen; nor is that of the Angel, who is not blessing at all. The "two pious figures" on the wings whose titles "we shall never know" are two prophets. The name of one, Jeremias propheta, is legibly inscribed below him. Isaiah's happens to have been cut off. May we have a reference to the medieval demonologists who state that the Devil appeared at Sabbaths with a certain gesture?

More might be said: but I reflect that persons who busy themselves about the subject of Satanism and Black Magic are rarely to be depended upon for accuracy of statement. They should not, however, be allowed without protest, to blacken gratuitously the name and work of a fine painter.

Yours, etc.
M.R. James


Further discussion of the painting and MRJ's comments on it can be found elsewhere in the Ghosts & Scholars Archive:
"Two Masters: M.R. James and the Times Correspondence" by Ron Weighell (Ghosts & Scholars 7, 1985).
Angles of Coincidence: Rennes le Chateau and the Magdalen Mystery by Ron Weighell (Haunted Library, 1987).

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