Making the invisible visible: Péladan's vision of ensouled art

by Sasha Chaitow

Portrait of Péladan, Alexandre Séon, 1891, musée des beaux-arts de Lyon.

In the Spring of 1892, the Paris  gendarmerie were perplexed at the sight of a flood of crowds and carriages on their way to the Galeries Durand-Ruel, where they were met by a curious bearded man wearing purple velvet robes and answering to the name of a Babylonian Mage.

The exhibition catalogue welcomed them with the lines:

Artist, you are a priest: Art is the great mystery and, if your effort results in a masterpiece, a ray of divinity will descend as on an altar. Artist, you are a king: Art is the true empire, if your hand draws a perfect line, the cherubim themselves will descend to revel in their reflection...  They may one day close the Church, but [what about] the Museum? If Notre-Dame is profaned, the Louvre will officiate… Humanity, oh citizens, will always go to mass, when the priest will be Bach, Beethoven, Palestrina: one cannot make the sublime organ into an atheist! Brothers in all the arts, I am sounding a battle cry: let us form a holy militia for the salvation of idealism....we will build the Temple of Beauty ...for the artist is a priest, a king, a mage, for art is a mystery, the only true empire, the great miracle…[1]

The visionary author and occultist who masterminded the Salons de la Rose + Croix was Joséphin Péladan (1858-1918). He would proceed to organise a further five Salons between 1893 and 1897, under the auspices of his organisation, The Order of the Rose + Croix of the Temple and the Grail. His purpose was to expose the general public to a form of Symbolic art that would “rip Love out of the Western soul and replace it with the love of Beauty, the love of the Ideal, the love of Mystery.” His grand vision was no less than a spiritual revolution with beauty as his supreme weapon and art as the coup de grace  against the ‘disenchantment of the world’ so prevalent as first the scientific world-view and then the industrial revolution completed their conquest of the Western mind, in an age he regarded as characterized by rampant materialism and futile decadence.

For the organisation of this first, spectacular Salon, he had issued a call to artists some months earlier, with the aim of contravening the academically accepted art of his time, which he despised and frequently railed against in his articles in the French press. The invitation to artists to send their work for consideration for the first Salon de la Rose+Croix had the tone of a manifesto:

The Order forbids any contemporary representations, rustic, military, flowers, animals, genres such as history, and portraits or landscapes. But it welcomes all allegories, legends, mysticism and myth, as well as expressive faces if they are noble, or nude studies if they are beautiful. Because you must make BEAUTY to enter the Rose+Croix Salon.[2]

Poster for the first Rose+Croix Salon, 1892, designed by Carlos Schwabe. 

Frontispiece of Salon Catalogue, designed by Alexandre Séon.

The result was an immense impact on the Parisian art world, and eventually, on the whole Symbolist movement. The first Salon welcomed over fifty thousand visitors, intrigued by the curious poster depicting three women at various stages of initiatory revelation that had covered the walls of Paris a few weeks earlier, as well as by regular articles, announcements, and controversies printed in Le Figaro over the preceding year. The Salons included musical and theatrical performances alongside the exhibitions, giving an unparalleled impetus and unity to the Symbolist movement. Yet, the Salons and their instigator were as notorious as they were intriguing, and following numerous public controversies, within a few short years, both Salons and Mage were forgotten, to be recalled only as a utopian fantasy of an eccentric buffoon.

Who was Péladan?

Portriat of Péladan, Marcellin Desboutin, 1891, superimposed with some of his books, Musée des Beaux-arts d'Angers, France.

This curious man who in the 1890s went by the name Sar Merodack and claimed an ancestry of Babylonian royalty, left a spectacular legacy of over 100 books, several thousand articles, and was responsible for inspiring a generation of artists and authors as far afield as Russia and South America. Today his works are all but forgotten, encountered only within treatises on the Decadent movement or in brief references in academic studies of fin-de-siècle French Occultism, and the majority of these references tend to perpetuate the sense of his eccentricity and peculiarity.

I first encountered Péladan's name in an academic study of Rosicrucianism; one of the few to acknowledge, albeit briefly, that there was more to the man than the tarnished reputation that had survived in most references to his name.[3]  Initially, I was sceptical, especially since apart from some rare works by his loyal followers, the vast majority of the existing biographies of Péladan are deeply disparaging, dismissing him as an eccentric fool. His oeuvre is vast, and can be disheartening on account of the florid lyricism of his novels, and the turgidity of his theoretical prose. Yet, if one makes the effort to read Péladan on his own terms, what emerges is a man with a clear and coherent vision, whose life's work was an attempt to “build the Temple of Beauty” of which he wrote, and whose every action was tuned to a conscious attempt to disseminate this vision, in the hope that through flooding the world with art created according to the principles of spiritual beauty that he taught, society might achieve a new Renaissance and emerge from the swamp of decadence he felt had overcome it.

Intellectual background

After an unconventional childhood and education, by the age of 26, Péladan had already formulated a complex, coherent cosmology of his own, based in part on world mythology, which he had studied from a young age, and deeply influenced by a tradition of pansophy and “philosophical” history that was eclipsed during the Enlightenment, but which remained a significant element in esoteric thought; a complex of cultural currents that enjoyed a significant revival in the second half of the nineteenth century. Pansophy is understood as a way of combining all human knowledge according to analogical principles, and viewing human history through a form of allegorical hermeneutics, whereby events are interpreted as part of a larger narrative in which events within the human microcosm reflect the celestial macrocosm, and can be revealed through myths, legends, and their correspondences.

This form of historiography, or mythistory, was popularised and brought into mainstream culture by the Romantics in particular, and remained popular among certain traditionalist circles in Péladan's time.   In conjunction with an emergent quest for a new understanding of human civilization and origins that led to fierce debates over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a kaleidoscope of fantastical philosophical and metaphysical theories provided rich sources of inspiration that fuelled, first Romantic, and later Symbolist creativity. Thinkers and writers such as Protestant Freemason and polymath Antoine Court de Gébelin (1725-1784), and later, Pierre-Simon Ballanche (1776-1847),  Antoine Fabre d'Olivet (1767-1825) and Delisle de Sales (Jean-Baptiste Izouard, 1741-1816), were the main “allegorical mythographers” who sought to discover universal, eternal “truths” through the allegorical analysis of all human knowledge, from the emerging sciences and observation of nature, to world mythology, Scriptural teachings, and exciting new archaeological discoveries which would lead to a host of new debates regarding Biblical history.

These ideas were key to Péladan's early education, and a large part of the cosmology he adopted rested on the ideas put forward by Fabre d'Olivet, an erudite polymath who rewrote the book of Genesis, claiming he had discovered the “true”, hidden interpretation of the Hebrew language. His conclusions were replete with theological implications that would fuel a particular brand of Luciferianism in occult circles, and were central to Péladan's work.

Theology and Theodicy: Rewriting Genesis

Guardian of Paradise, Franz von Stuck, 1889, Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany. 

In his subversive rewriting of  Genesis  Fabre d'Olivet tackled the question of the Fall; one which troubled Péladan greatly, since he did not believe that original sin could truly be an immutable curse on mankind. Following Fabre d'Olivet, Péladan came to believe that the world had been created, not by God, but by the angels (whom he names Elohim), and that primordial man was androgynous and immortal. The only thing this creature lacked was self-awareness. On seeing their “most perfect” creation, the angels were so spellbound by its potential, that they sought to give it the opportunity to commune with the divine mysteries. However, this was forbidden by God, because the primordial androgyne belonged to a different order of being, and thus, allowing it access to higher spiritual knowledge through self-awareness contravened natural law. The story of the snake and the apple from the Tree of Knowledge is thus reinterpreted, not as an encounter with a cunning force of evil, but as an act of mercy and love on the part of the angels. Nonetheless, they were nonetheless punished along with their creation, since the androgyne had received a small glimpse of the immensity of the macrocosm, and the first stirrings of self-awareness had begun.    

Fernand Khnopff, Frontispiece for the Istar, 1888.

Carlos Schwabe, Spleen and Ideal, 1907

This is the moment when time began, according to this retelling. The androgyne was separated into two, unequal beings, male and female each receiving different attributes and qualities, while those angels who, like Prometheus, had dared to try to share the “sacred fire”, were sentenced to live out all eternity on earth, mating with humans and, in a twist of divine irony, charged to guide humanity and to help them to evolve spiritually, so that through the generations, they would achieve enough self-awareness and knowledge of the mysteries to be able to reunite into their original, androgynous form, and by extension, to reintegrate with the Divine.

This theory is the motive force for all of Péladan's work, and the metaphysical principles underlying this premise form the entire basis for his aesthetics. His fixation on the arts, and visual representation in particular, derived from his belief that humans were created by angels casting their shadow, and then tracing its silhouette in order to shape the human form.

The beings delegated by Being (Elohim) conceived their creative oeuvre by decreeing that humanity would be manifested (delineated) according to their shadow. The Elohim were spirits, individualised emanations of the essence. Since the shadow is a decreased form of light, the shadow of essence is substance, and the shadow of substance can be notjing other than matter ... The prototype of man, king of the sensible world, is the angel ... One can define beauty by looking at angelic forms ... We know the Greek legend of the origins of the art of Drawing. On the eve of their parting, the daughter of Butades, the potter of Sicyon, delineated the shadow of her lover with charcoal on a white wall. So, for the fervent memory of our angelic origins to remain in our soul, we must maintain our understanding and our sense of the desire to return, some day, to those who gave us perfect love, as they gave us reality and life. Some must do this by creating works of art, others by understanding them.[4]

The Myth of Butades, Edouard Daege, 1832, Nationalgalerie Berlin. Germany.

Art as Religion

To this end, Péladan saw the creative process as the ultimate sacred act, whereby through emulating the act of creation, humanity could move back towards a reintegration with their divine origins. Artists had been gifted with the talent to create those works of art that could spark the spiritual evolution he believed necessary for this process, and his mission was to inspire them to do so, while also attempting to attract the general public, and helping them to understand the content of this sacred art. He proclaimed art to be a religion in the sense of a process “mediating between the physical and the metaphysical”[5] and defined it as follows:

Art is the totality of the methods of realising Beauty. Beauty is the essence of all expression through form. Techniques are nothing more than the means to an end. If Beauty is the objective, and art the means, what is the rule? The Ideal. Therefore Idealist art is that which reunites within a work all the perfections that the spirit can conceive on a given theme.[6]

As Péladan saw it, the heart of this process was the act of giving form to intangible Essence, based on the Platonic notion of the world of Ideas, so in his vocabulary the “Ideal” is the sublime, ethereal aspect of creation, which needs to be given a shape, a body to inhabit, if it is to become perceptible in the material world. These “bodies” are nothing other than works of art, and a “perfect work” would also be an ensouled work – like religious icons, it would be inhabited by the Idea that it represented. Péladan was quick to specify, that not all works of art are reflections of the Ideal; rather, they must conform to specific rules, and he wrote many long explanations arguing the philosophy of this point, summarised in his axiom that “A work that is real in form, and unreal in expression, is perfect”.

Ideas and Forms

For Péladan, a perfect work had to conform to the two characteristics of idealism and mysticism. He defined Idealism according to the dictionary definition: “that which reunites all the perfections that the spirit can conceive”.[7] To achieve this goal, the idea had to be clothed within a form. Péladan stated that the content could, and should use a recognisable and realistic form to express the Idea it housed, but this was not all. It also had to express something of “the beyond”, something ineffable that could tell the viewer that the apparently mundane object, or figure they observed in a painting, was something more than it appeared. This, he suggested, was to be achieved by a combination of three aesthetic principles: Intensity, subtlety, and harmony, combined in such a way as to hint at their symbolic nature, symbolism being a mode of expression that is subtle by definition. In the words of the author of the Symbolist Manifesto Jean Moréas:

The Idea, in its turn, should not be allowed to be seen deprived of the sumptuous lounge robes of extraneous analogies; because the essential character of symbolic art consists in never approaching the concentrated kernel of the Idea in itself. So, in this art, the pictures of nature, the actions of human beings, all concrete phenomena would not themselves know how to manifest themselves; these are presented as the sensitive appearance destined to represent their esoteric affinity with primordial Ideas... For the precise translation of its synthesis, it is necessary for symbolism to take on an archetypal and complex style.[8]

In other words, the artist should create embellished, complex forms to house an idea, precisely because it must keep a certain distance from the “kernel of the Idea in itself”. This obliges the viewer to engage intellectually with the work in order to begin to decipher it, and the use of archetypal and allegorical imagery, subjectively deployed but based on a shared frame of reference, should help the viewer to translate apparently mundane representations into their Ideal forms.  Péladan's teachings are entirely in line with this perspective, his definitions of idealism and mysticism respectively expressed through the use of realism and the “unreal” perfectly mirroring Moréas' description.

By adjusting and balancing the relationships between the content (Idea), the form, and the technical rendering , one could create Péladan's notion of a “perfect work” that would serve as an aesthetic springboard to awaken the soul out of materialism and decadence, and if the public were exposed to this on a grand scale, then the cumulative effect, he thought, could only be a spiritual renaissance.

To support his arguments, and to inspire the artists (in all the arts) who understood his cause, Péladan reached to the art and architecture of ancient civilisations, selecting and highlighting specific symbolic elements to illustrate his philosophy. One such telling example is the Assyrian Sphinx, or Lamassu, a hybrid, protective deity with the body of a bull, wings, and a human head.

The Lamassu, or Assyrian winged bull, University of Chicago Oriental Institute, USA, c. 721-705 BCE.

This motif appears repeatedly in many aspects of his work, from the frontispieces of his books and the emblem of his organisation, to the numerous reiterations of his philosophy:

What is Art? Human creation. God made the universe (macrocosm), man made the temple (microcosm), from where arts emerged.... What is a monument, if not a calculation of lines and volumes for the expression of spiritual will? From the forest path and from the cavern to the cathedral, human work appears colossal. What is a figure such as the sphinx or the winged bull with a human face, if not a philosophical combination of natural motifs for the manifestation of an idea? From the cat to the sphinx, from the savage bull to the genius that guards the temple threshold, through quasi-divine operations the artist raises himself to the level of creator. [9]

He explained the significance of this symbolic entity as follows, in one of the several theoretical handbooks that he wrote as guides to self-awareness designed to help his contemporaries achieve their spiritual potential:

That which the intelligence has conceived, the soul executes....Study this symbol; the human head wears the royal crown with three rows of horns, a privilege of the gods, and signifies, initiate, [that you should] no longer obey, for you are a king, if you think. A king does not seek to reign, the triple horns have destined you for the sole conquest of eternity. The wings show you that you must be inspired by the superior world, without ceasing, to manifest light on earth by the power of the bull's hooves. [10]

This layering of symbolism demonstrated the kind of “idealism and mysticism” that Péladan preached; expressed through a deceptively familiar “real” form (in the sense that it is not an abstract composition of colour), but the form encapsulates the “ineffable”, “unreal” notions that cannot be expressed satisfactorily by other means. While the verbal description is linear by necessity, the visual depiction retains its stratified nature, and allows us to perceive the meaning that it houses in a flash of insight, complete rather than in stages. Thus, each line and detail becomes an ideogram to be deciphered by the viewer:

The line in itself is as abstract as the alphabet, it does not exist in nature; literally it is an ideogram, a hieroglyph which, for human intelligence, translates the sensible world; it is, therefore, in its highest form, the only thing that is independent of technique and where genius can show itself; all the rest belongs to talent.... Drawing is the art of writing by means of living forms treated by the abstract process of the line, augmented by the contours.[11]

Other key recurrent motifs that Péladan gave prominence to in his work included the androgyne, the Sphinx in all its forms, and motifs from the myth of Orpheus.

St John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci, 1513-16, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

The androgyne reflected, first and foremost, Péladan's understanding of the origin of humanity, the unification of opposites and the ideal to which mankind should strive. A symbolic figure that has appeared in various philosophical and esoteric works since antiquity, Péladan's use of this symbolic motif is grounded in a Platonic, yet worldly context, and his treatises written for men and women explain in fine detail how human relationships should strive to achieve a perfect balance between the two sexes so as to create an androgyne from their union, since this held the key to unification with the divine.

I am the androgyne of forms... I am the announcer of the mysticism of Beauty, the mysticism of Art...
— Joséphin Péladan

Péladan's Sphinx is a mystagogue and mnemonic of the creative potential within man, and, like Orpheus, takes on an almost talismanic role as a patron and guide inspiring Symbolist expression. Comprehension and use of these symbols in artistic compositions (whether poetic, theatrical, figurative or literary), was the mark, privilege, and duty of the artist-initiates; whom Péladan exhorted to place their talent at the service of a supreme purpose; the awakening and raising of mankind to their divine potential.

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Gustave Moreau, 1864, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NewYork, USA.

In his treatise The Birth of Tragedy (1886), deeply influenced by various Theosophical theories and other occult practices of his time, Nietzsche outlined the notion of Dionysian-Orphic ecstasy and possession that were the motive force of Symbolist art, and a supreme form of initiation into the invisible forces of man and universe. This idea of initiation was at the heart of occult thought of the time, and it refers to awakening, discovery, and the development of dormant human faculties which are available to all, but are in a state of dormancy. 

Thracian Girl Carrying the head of Orpheus, Gustave Moreau, 1875, Private Collection.

Orpheus in the Underworld, Jean Delville, 1896. Delville continued Péladan's Salons in Belgium with Péladan's blessing.

According to Orphic cosmogony, humans were the progeny of the ash of Dionysus' body and the blood of Titans, and it was this dual nature that made good and evil an intrinsic part of the human condition. To evolve spiritually and purify themselves from their evil, Titanic elements, humanity was bound to live through many incarnations until they achieved full self-awareness. As the legend has it, when they died, humans were obliged to drink from the Well of Oblivion (Lethe), and forget their mortal life before they reincarnated, and so in their next incarnationn they would begin afresh, with no memories to guide them. Initiates, however, may drink from the spring of Mnemosyne after death, so that they may evolve spiritually, but only if they spoke the password to the guardian of the spring: “A Child of Earth I am, and of the Starlit Sky”, which denoted that they knew of their dual, earthly and celestial origins. Orphic cosmology and theology is reflected in much of Péladan's work, particularly with regard to the initiatory capacity of art – for both artist and viewer. 

In the greatly influential work The Great Initiates (1889), Edouard Schuré discusses the notion of initiation in depth, and presents the initiatory journeys of various great figures in human history and legend. Among them, Ram, Moses, Jesus… and Orpheus. Regarding initiation, he says the following: “Modern man seeks happiness without knowledge, knowledge without wisdom… For someone to achieve mastery, the ancient sages tell us, man must fully reconstruct his physical, ethical and spiritual existence. Only then can an initiate, initiate [another]….Therefore, initiation was, then, something very different from a hollow dream, and something far greater than a simple scientific theory: it was, then, the creation of a soul out of itself, its evolution on a higher level, and its flowering on the divine plane.”

Orpheus stands for creative genius and initiatory tradition, and his lyre symbolises human existence itself, whereby, according to Edouard Schuré, a contemporary of Péladan “every chord corresponds to a mood of the human soul and contains the laws of one science and one art,” thus ‘proving’ Orpheus to be “the great mystagogue, ancestor of poetry and music, which reveal eternal truths.”[12] This “religion” of initiatory and creative genius was the motive force of the Symbolists, for whom Orpheus was the archetypal Artist-priest, who, in Péladan’s vision, would collectively initiate society through their exposure to the mysteries hidden within symbolic artwork. Hence the repeated motif of Orpheus’ head and lyre, are no less than sacred icons, talismans encapsulating their whole raison-d’etre. And Orpheus is their patron saint.

Recontextualising Péladan's teachings

One might question the extent to which Péladan's vision, expressed in often quaint, or bombastic terms, is something that can be of any interest in the twenty first century. Can it be of any use to neo-symbolist artists?

As both a scholar and an artist, I believe that Péladan was ahead of his time, and that his aesthetic principles with regard to Symbolism in particular, are both timeless and a potential source of inspiration. Regardless of whether or not we espouse his spiritual and religious perspectives, Péladan's priority was that art should go beyond imitation of reality. The Symbolist art of which Péladan spoke was to transmit the history of civilisation and perceptions of the human condition through line and form, and through the use of a symbolic language which brings both artist and viewer into a constant dialogue that continues long after the gallery lights have gone out. That in itself is the ultimate act of animation, or ensoulment.         


[1]             Josephin Péladan, Catalogue du Salon de la Rose + Croix (Paris: Galerie Durand-Ruel, 1892), pp. 7-11.
[2]             Péladan, “Le Salon de la Rose+Croix”, Le Figaro, 2 September 1891, p. 1.
[3]             Christopher McIntosh, The Rosicrucians: The History, Mythology, and Rituals of an Esoteric Order (New York: Weiser, 1998), pp. 93-96.
[4]             Péladan, L'art idéaliste et mystique (Paris: Chamuel, 1894), pp. 41-44.
[5]             Ibid., p. 36.
[6]             Ibid., pp. 36-7.
[7]             Ibid., p. 37.
[8]             Jean Moréas, “Le Symbolisme”, Le Figaro 18 September 1886.
[9]             Péladan, Les Idées et les Formes: Antiquité Orientale, Egypte – Kaldée – Assyrie – Chine – Phénicie – Judée – Arabie – Inde – Perse – Aryas d'Asie Mineure (Paris: Mercure de France, 1908)., pp.9, 10-11, 13.
[10]            Péladan, Comment on Devient Mage, p. 8.
[11]            Péladan, L'art idéaliste et mystique, p. 102.
[12]            Édouard Schuré, The Great Initiates: A Sketch of the Secret History of Religions, trans. by F. Rothwell (London, 1913; originally published 1889), p. 92.