Two Masters
M.R. James and the Times Correspondence

by Ron Weighell

(from Ghosts & Scholars 7.)

Also in the G&S Archive are the texts of the Times article and MRJ's reply; and the 1987 Haunted Library booklet, Angles of Coincidence: Rennes le Chateau and the Magdalen Mystery, in which Ron Weighell continued his discussion of the Aix-en-Provence Annunciation.
For a full colour reproduction of the painting, click here.

On the 21st of January, 1932, the Times published an article by an unnamed correspondent, claiming that a triptych of the Annunciation (from the chapel of an Aix-en-Provence church), then on display in Burlington House, contained "satanic" symbolism. Attention was drawn to the "sly minutiae" of the painting, particularly a carved monkey finial on the lectern, "bats and vampires in the groining", "horned devils" in the arches, owls' wings on the angel, the "evil herbs" basil, foxglove and belladonna in the lily pot, and a magical gesture made by the right hand of God. Tradition attributed the work to a demoniac artist, possibly a cleric, who it was suggested had subtly inverted Christian symbols to Satanic ends.

A dark chapel of a French church with a medieval painting around which evil legend clings... one might have expected M.R. James, of all people, to react with enthusiasm, or at least amusement, to what could well have been the opening to one of his own occult tales. However, on the 25th of January, he appeared in print with a distinctly tetchy refutation of these claims. He saw nothing sinister in the carved monkey, could discern no bats or vampires, asked if a botanist could verify the presence of venomous plants in the lily pot, denied that the hand gesture was unusual, identified the mysterious figures on the wings of the triptych as Isaiah and Jeremiah, and rounded off with an attack on those who would "blacken gratuitously" the name and work of a fine painter. It must have seemed a pretty thorough demolition.

This was not, however, the end of the matter. Another letter in the same issue confidently identified the only other plants in the pot (besides the lily) as blue columbine and a rose or poppy, denying that foxglove and belladonna were present. On the 27th of January, A.W. Hill of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew took up MRJ's request for the opinion of a botanist, and claimed that he too saw columbine, but then went on with equal certainty to add that he also saw a willow twig and three or four yellow catkins! M.A. Murray of the University of London (who I take to be the celebrated author of The Witch Cult in Western Europe, etc.) weighed in with an eloquent defence of paganism, pointing out that pre-Christian beliefs were not necessarily Satanic in intent, and offering some valuable observations on the hand of God, which was, she observed, curved into a gesture originally used to denote fertility. Only later did this become "a gesture of insult". Amulets in this form were, she said, still common in Southern Italy, Sicily and Malta. However, she too added to the confusion by taking the monkey on the lectern to be a living creature rather than a carved finial; a grotesque idea, if only on the basis of relative scale.

The last word lay with the original correspondent, who explained that his only intention had been to point out "an ensemble of suspicious details" which had caused Satanic motives to be attributed to the artist. He said that the hand gesture, in Provence, Languedoc and Catalonia, carried the sense of "vowing to the Devil" or "casting evil spell". As a past resident of Aix he had heard of the legends at first hand, and asked if it was not significant that the painter had chosen "un bestaire impur" to decorate the temple, adding a final comment we might consider again in due course - that while each separate detail might pass as innocent ornamentation, the accumulation of abnormal features, in connection with the traditions of the region, suggested otherwise.

The triptych returned to the chapel of Notre Dame de Grace in the Church of Sainte Marie Madeleine (originally a Dominican friary rebuilt and enlarged between 1669 and 1703), and its creator resumed his former anonymity as the Master of the Annunciation of Aix.

In 1973 Turnbill, in his travel book on Provence, referred vaguely to a "tradition of impious intent", inaccurately to a monkey "on a cornice", mentioned "evil herbs" and not surprisingly saw no justification for the legend regarding the triptych.(1) There the matter rested until Peter Haining reprinted two of the letters and the Times illustration in his M.R. James: Book of the Supernatural (Foulsham, 1979).

A re-examination of this singular mystery seems long overdue.

Only the central panel of the triptych is authentic, the wings being copies from the originals whose exact locations remain debatable (Brussels, Rotterdam, The Louvre, London and Amsterdam are variously cited by commentators). Some see influences of Flemish or Burgundian scholars in the style, and the artist has been tentatively identified as Jean Chapus or Guillaume Dombert. Attempts by the present writer to elicit information from the Church in Aix have met with a stony silence, but coloured reproductions of the central panel figure in at least two books on Gothic art, and as their detail is much more distinct, it is upon these that I have based much of my examination.(2)

The question of the lily pot can be dealt with briefly. The evil herbs said to be there are all persistently connected in plant lore with witchcraft and devil worship. Belladonna is particularly inauspicious in the present context, for one of the traditional explanations in Europe for its name is that it was the means of killing a beautiful woman. In the magical tradition of medieval France, the witch or wise-woman was often referred to as the Good or Beautiful Lady, Bella Donna, a name also used in connection with faery legend. In this she was "the devil's bride" and "mistress of the incarnate evil one". This detail, in reproduction, is so small that certain identification is difficult. The contradictory observations of those who visited the exhibition suggest that the original was scarcely clearer, but one of the plants does closely resemble belladonna, and another could well be the broad leaves of basil. Certainly, there is room for doubt, and the only fair conclusion, in the absence of more detail, is that this point is unproven either way.

We have had comments from Margaret Murray and the original correspondent on the gesture made by the hand of God. Some observations might be added. The sculpted prophet on the left hand pillar is making the same gesture with his left hand; it does not correspond exactly to any of the accepted Christian manusigns, even those of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and there does seem to have been a tradition in France of an outwardly beneficent gesture with secret magical significance, which eventually found utterance in the works of the magus Eliphas Levi. His manuscript Clès Majeures et Clavicules de Solomon includes a drawing of a hand forming a blessing (inscribed Per Benedictiones), which casts the shadow of a goat's head (inscribed Maledictus Adumbratur).

A winged demon and a bat figure prominently within the cusping of the arch beneath which the angel stands. Carvers of the earlier Romanesque period, especially in France, had produced more monsters and demons than any others in the whole history of Christian art, occupying prominent positions such as door heads, corbels and porches. Indeed, they occasionally outnumbered the Christian images, and their use was condemned by St Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century. During the Gothic period they very gradually assumed minor positions, sinking at last to the level of mere parody. It has been observed that such carvings are almost antipathetic to Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and represent survivals of earlier pagan beliefs still dear to the people. The prominent place given to the demon in the picture is symbolic, as is its pairing with another satanic creature, the bat, which (like the owl) was singled out for unfavourable mention in the Old Testament. The devilish position of bats in European folklore is usually explained by their demonic faces and inverted life-style. (They live by night, appear to 'see' in the dark and hang upside down when they sleep.) The appearance of these two winged figures should be seen in the light of the absence of the one winged creature which should reasonably be expected to figure in an Annunciation of the period: the dove. Perhaps the artist was aware of this odd piece of transference, for instead of the more common dragonish pinions, which would have matched those of the bat and balanced the pair architecturally, he has given the demon feathered wings.

The cusping of the arch in which they are carved points down to the only other winged form in the picture, the angel. Local tradition attributes to him the wings of an owl. Many artists of the period seem to have taken advantage of Gabriel's supernatural nature to exploit the full imaginative possibilities of shape and colour, with the result that medieval angel wings often resembled those of a parrot or other exotic bird. Fortunately, there was also a growing tendency towards naturalism, delighting in the exact representation of birds and beasts, of which the mysterious Master of Aix furnishes a fine example. So accurate is his rendition that we can not only verify that the wings are those of an owl, but we can actually identify the genus! The shape, biscuit-coloured underside and dark brown markings tailing back from the leading edge (four nearer the wing-tip, and one broader two-thirds of the way towards the joint), distinguish the bird as Asio Flameus, the short-eared owl. Traditionally a symbol of doom, magic and death throughout Europe, the owl was persistently identified with Lilith and witchcraft, but as the bird of Athena, pagan goddess of Wisdom, it offers another interpretation, the significance of which will presently emerge.

This brings us, literally, to the central image of the painting: the lectern at which Mary kneels. This is a fine piece of high Gothic work resembling very closely a slightly less intricate lectern which appears in the drawing used as a frontispiece to The True Principles of Pointed Architecture by Augustus Pugin (though the setting is not a church, but the studio of a medieval artist). In only one major particular do the two differ. The Pugin lectern is surmounted by an angel, not a monkey.

There is nothing unusual in the mere appearance of a monkey in church carving. Examples could be cited from the obscure corners of our own churches of a monkey riding a horse, examining a bottle after the manner of a doctor prognosticatus, and even using a cat as bagpipes by biting its tail! The spandrels of the panelling behind the seats in Winchester Cathedral offer many such conceits. A monkey as the dominating figure on a church lectern, however, is another matter. This place is usually occupied by some divine or clerical figure, by the eagle (as Logos), or by the Pelican-in-her-Piety. To replace any of these by a monkey is unseemly symbolism to say the least. Strangely, it would make more sense in a pagan rather than a Christian context. The dog-headed ape or cynocephalus was a form of Thoth, the Egyptian god of reading and writing (as well as magic). This may be a far-fetched piece of symbolism, but the cynocephalus does occur in church architecture and there is at least one representation of Saint Christopher - at St Keverne in Cornwall - where an allusion to the legend that he was originally "dog headed", "of the race of cynocephali", has been tentatively identified.(3)

From the specifically Christian point of view, however, the monkey typified fraud and indecorum. The Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend has it as a symbol of copulation, voyeurism and prostitution; the creature said to have offered Eve the apple.(4) Satan assumes this shape to snare souls, using the owl as a decoy. A woman who would not have sexual relations with her husband was doomed to be violated by apes in Hell. There is troubling resonance here, too, of the tradition that the coupling of women with monkeys could produce a 'divine' being worshipped as a god.

The real question, however, is not whether such a lectern exists, but what might be the intention of an artist in choosing it, rather than the more acceptable versions, for an Annunciation painting - placing it in so central a position and raising the figure of the monkey so that it stands between the face of Mary and the face of God. MRJ's comment here is interesting. He says that the rays from God do not fall upon, but merely pass over, the monkey. In coloured reproduction, however, the greater detail reveals a wider spread of the rays, showing clearly that the monkey stands completely within their compass, and suggesting that, on this point at least, MRJ was going on the Times reproduction alone in his conclusion. I wonder, too, why James was not reminded of the observation of Cardinal Berulle in the Traicté des Energumènes, that it is because Satan is the ape of God that it delights him to incarnate himself in humanity "in mimicry and mockery of Christ".(5) One other point not previously mentioned might also be considered. The underside of the lectern top reproduces perfectly in miniature the curve and cusping of the arch that contains the demon and the bat.

This might be a good point at which to deal with some details not revealed by the Times reproduction. One of them would be sufficient, in the absence of all other features, to mark this out as an unusual Annunciation painting - I refer to the presence of onlookers. Behind Mary's shoulder, among the pillars, two figures in doublet and hose, their hands close together, watch the scene. On the other side of the panel, in the corresponding position behind the angel's shoulder, the top of the doorway is decorated by two stone heads, close together and facing one another. The face that can be seen resembles the bearded and horned Cernunnos, a feature of Gothic church decoration identified by Christians with the Devil, and made a model for the Antichrist.

The choice of Isaiah and Jeremiah on the wings of the triptych seems at first glance inconclusive evidence of the artist's intentions. To both prophets are attributed utterances subsequently held to be Messianic prophecies, and Jeremiah's life distinguished him as an ante-type of Christ, but conversely both are 'Hell Fire' prophets, whose writings are replete with references to "offerings of incense to other gods", blood of bulls and goats, holocausts of rams, sorcerers and idols. However, there is, just possibly, further significance to the choice of these two figures, in the light of Apocryphal writings with which James must have been familiar. The rays that descend upon Mary carry a small figure of the Christ-Child, a symbol of the incarnation that the Church sought long to suppress (it was finally banned by Pope Benedict XIV), for it suggested the heretical belief that the body of Jesus was not formed in the Virgin's womb. Apocryphal works such as the Ascension of Isaiah denied that Mary gave birth in any natural way; the Child appeared before her. Other writings in the same vein describe the Child as materialising out of light. This influenced the Marian cult, a Matrist movement outside the mainstream of the Church, who also saw in the writings of Jeremiah, prophecies that Mary cancelled the 'inferiority' of women. The cult identified Mary with the Gnostic Lady Wisdom, and proclaimed that she had manifested as several women called Mary, including the Magdalen. Here we enter a complex web of symbolism which may throw some light on the secret meaning of the Aix Annunciation.

Simon Magus, the Gnostic magician, believed sufficiently in the concept of the 'Avatars of Wisdom' to consort with a prostitute whom he identified, as the Marys had been identified, with Lady Wisdom. In the Coptic literature, The Discourse on Mary (ascribed to Cyril of Jerusalem) includes a 'revelation' that the Virgin was also Mary of Cleopa and Mary Magdalen - that they were, in effect, a female trinity reminiscent of the Pagan Triune Goddess and therefore a threat to the male Trinity, and its Patrist hegemony. The Apocryphal works contain many accounts of Mary as the Magdalen, and interestingly when we recall that tradition of the ape as Eve's tempter, of Mary as 'the second Eve'. The Marian cult, with its dangerous potential for the orthodox church, was very popular, and by the fourteenth century was gaining quite a few male converts. Significantly, Robert Graves in The White Goddess records that in Provence the cult of the goddess as a triad of mothers, known as "The Three Maries", has survived to the present time. When we consider the close connections between Aix-en-Provence and Mary Magdalen; the fact that the church in which the triptych hangs is dedicated to her, the presence of Jeremiah and Isaiah, and the pagan tone of much of the internal symbolism of the painting - including Wisdom and the owl - a case could be made for the triptych as an image of the cult. It certainly seems a remarkable chain of coincidences.

The rules guiding the imagery of medieval church art were strict, for it represented one of the few mediums of theological teaching for the illiterate majority, and the Master of Aix was painting a subject which had a long and well-established iconographic tradition. Unequivocal symbolism should not have been difficult. If I may clumsily paraphrase Wilde's Lady Bracknell: to include one such dubious feature might be construed as unfortunate, to include so many looks like more than carelessness. The question of intention remains. As Margaret Murray pointed out, ante-Christian is not always anti-Christian. Recent, academically acclaimed studies have given ample proof of pagan magical practices within the Medieval Church,(6) and the use of Greek and Egyptian mystery symbolism in the work of great artists, including Michelangelo and Botticelli.(7) In the light of such studies, the claims of the correspondent may seem a little less fantastic. And we should not close our minds altogether to the possibility of more sinister intent. The fifteenth century treatise, Dives and Pauper, inveighed against the inversion of Christian symbols and rituals in such practices as the Death Mass, in a way which clearly indicated that the clergy were themselves implicated.

This brings us, finally, to the other mystery of the Times correspondence. Reading this brief and inadequate essay, the reader will conclude that the definitive analysis could only be undertaken by someone who combined a profound knowledge of ecclesiology, medieval church history, iconography, Coptic, apocrypha, magic and folklore, and was familiar with French churches. In short, the man uniquely qualified to carry out such an analysis was M.R. James, yet this he refused to do. Opinions as to why this should be will differ widely. Some will point out that he was 69 years old at the time, and that only four short years of failing health remained to him, or that he was prejudiced against the correspondent from the outset by the latter's vague use of irrelevant architectural descriptions, annoying to a careful ecclesiologist. Others may suggest that James never relished controversy in any form, or that he saw, in the artist's mingling of orthodox Christianity and a penchant for the magical and macabre, an echo of his own character, and shied away from what was, in effect, self analysis. The explanation that appeals to me most, however, is that he saw all too well the similarity of the mystery to one of his own tales, and that his letter was something of 'a warning to the curious'. I note that he makes light of that carved monkey, and identifies one of the figures on the wings of the triptych as Jeremiah, as though that alone were sufficient to disprove sinister intent! Was he writing to dissuade further investigation by some mild, unsuspecting but inquisitive antiquarian?

For who could know better than the author of "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" and "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" what dangers might lurk in a grotesque finial of oak, and that even pious figures like "Jeremias Propheta" might have their deadly secrets?


(1) P. Turnbull, Discovering Provence (Batsford, 1973).
(2) H. Hofstatter, Art of the Late Middle Ages (Abrams, 1968).
(3) M. Anderson, History and Imagery of British Churches (Murray, 1971).
(4) J.C.J. Metford, Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend (Thames & Hudson, 1983).
(5) R. Cavendish, Powers of Evil (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975).
(6) K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin, 1973).
(7) E. Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (OUP, 1980).

Copyright © 1985 Ron Weighell
Artwork Copyright © 1985 Nick Maloret

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