THE MAGICAL BATTLE BETWEEN THE ROSE-CROIX KABBALASTIQUE AND THE ABBE JOSEPH-ANTOINE BOULLAN.
Felicien Rops ‘Le Vice Supreme’ 1883
An examination of the main protagonists and how the events, documented in the press at the time, shed light on the occult ambience in which ‘fin-de-siecle Symbolist artists carried out their practice.
(Sean Jefferson is a contemporary symbolist artist with a substantial art historical knowledge of the Symbolist movement and the artists whose lives and work helped to shape that movement. His own pictorial work can be viewed on our website by clicking here: Sean Jefferson Art )
A defining characteristic of symbolist art is that it is an attempt to systematically transcend the mundane world and take its audience into realms not perceptible to the normal senses.
This art was an expression of the magical revival which paralleled the scientific revolution. The revelation of the power of steam, hydraulics and electricity, microscopy and ever better telescopes promised ever more sophisticated insights and subsequent human power. It was not illogical to look back to ancient, or supposed ancient, sources, long suppressed by the church, to find knowledge and gain power without recourse to or understanding of the scientific method. Science was and still can be seen as a component of alchemical practice.1
Other factors were also important. The philosophy of Nietzsche and the elevation of the human ‘will’, seen as a tangible force, combined with the publication of the visions and dreams of Swedenborg. The French magician Eliphas Levi had described the human ‘will’ ‘as a stream or galvanic current’2 using the pseudo-scientific jargon of Franz Anton Mesmer. Levi’s publications in the latter half of the nineteenth century were central to popular interest in High Magic.
The visual artists seem to have taken their inspiration from the writers and poets who were, in turn, taking their inspiration directly from occult practices, often spiced up with drugs. At this period artists formed into groups and these had connections with various occult societies.
The first artist to be defined as a symbolist was Fernand Khnopff in 1886.3
Fernand Khnopff ‘The Sleeping Medusa’ 1886
The following year The Kabbalah Unveiled, was published (and has remained in print ever since).4 The ancient Jewish system of kabbalah provides the hidden mysticism behind the Old Testament and had become by the late 19th century the bedrock of the magical revival, its symbolism, and cosmic numerology fitting neatly with Masonic rituals based on the building of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.6 Solomon was famous for his magical powers as well as his wisdom. Most of the documented magical societies were run on Masonic lines with initiation rituals grades etc.
Several magical texts, or grimoires, are claimed to reveal Solomon’s methods. These involve the production of consecrated magical weapons and symbolic robes, the use of the protective magical circle and the triangle of art (to restrain the demon), the production of talismans and all the other paraphernalia of medieval magic.
In 1888 the Rose-Croix Kabbalistique, was set up in Paris, although its founders would, as is common with secret societies, claim they were reviving an ancient order. As with the Golden Dawn in London its founders were Freemasons and as with their London Counterparts they believed they possessed the secrets of the Rosicrucians. The Rosicrucians were an ultra secretive magical society from the early 17th century, which quite possibly never existed. Pamphlets were published in their name in Germany, which caused a massive stir and which fuelled conspiracy theories which even today show no signs of fading away.7
Unlike the Golden Dawn the Rose-Croix Kabbalistique had an artistic manifesto and held five annual salons. At the first and most important Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, Felicien Rops and Khnopff all exhibited. Founder member and Grand Master of the order, Josephin Peladan described Rops, de Chavannes and Moreau as the Kabbalistic triangle of great art. Significantly Moreau was one of three contemporary artist who appear in the book A Rebours (Against Nature) the most important Symbolist novel, written by Joris-Karl Huysmans in 1884.
A Rebours was the defining symbolist work of prose charting the life of an ultra rich aristocrat the last of his line, in his attempt to live completely isolated from contemporary society, controlling completely his sensory world, indulging in the most refined taste, often against what might be considered natural or virtuous. It was based on the notorious dandy and aesthete Robert de Montesquiou. (The book gained further notoriety in the trial of Oscar Wilde, described by the judge as a sodomitical book)
Huysmans’ second most influential book was La Bas (1891) .This dealt directly with occult themes. The hero is again sickened by modern society and in this case is a thinly disguised version of the author himself. He immerses himself in medieval studies and becomes fascinated by the idea of the Black Mass. A parody of the Christian rite where the host, the actual body of Christ, in the catholic tradition, is sickeningly abused.
There are two reasons the black mass is performed. One to gain favour with Satan, who seemingly to the practitioners, and with some evidence, is the ruler of the earth. Two, and more commonly, to experience liberation from any belief in a higher judgemental being. Interestingly there are some striking similarities between the Black Mass and certain Gnostic rights from around just before the birth of Christ. Gnostic belief has similarities to Kabbalah and contains the belief that a divine spark exists in all humans. Some sects practice degrading rights involving semen and menstrual blood, excreta, possibly child sacrifice and certainly orgiastic sex in order to celebrate or assert that the divine spark can never be contaminated by matter even though it is imprisoned temporarily within it. Other groups practiced extreme asceticism for the same ends. Both practices will lead to a derangement of the senses, with resultant visions, intense unnatural agonies and ecstasies, and ultimately revealing what lies behind the veil of ordinary limited perception.
In order to correctly perform the Black Mass the host has to be properly consecrated, by a Catholic Priest. In the book the hero traces down a Priest who practices the rite. In real life Huysmans became acquainted with the Abbe Boullan.
It now seems Boullan was an extremely sick but obviously charismatic individual. A Catholic Priest, he had come to believe that salvation was only possible through sexual intercourse with saints or angels. These may have been manifest in human form; sex in some form, anyway formed an important part of his ministry, particularly with a community of nuns with which he was involved. Unsurprisingly he was to be accused of invoking incubi and succubi, presumably ‘under the guise’ of angels or saints. It was rumoured that he had ritually sacrificed one of his children. After being defrocked he had gained control of a sect of Vitrasians. These were followers of the recently deceased PiereVintras , another unorthodox Catholic Priest, famous for his production of bleeding Hosts at the altar and receiving apocalyptic visions.
It is hard to believe Huysmans knew the full extent of Boullan’s activities; they may have been exaggerated, yet La Bas ends with a minutely described Black Mass, presumably attended in real life by Huysmans himself. Philip Ward Jackson, in his essay , points out that Huysmans was closely associated with Emile Zola and was considered a naturalist author before a total redirection took him into Symbolism and the Occult.8 Peladan hated naturalism, celebrating the mundane banal realities of ordinary peoples ordinary lives, describing Zola as the inventor of ‘the black arts of medan’. Instead of welcoming him into the fold Huysmans was convinced that Peladan was carrying out a sustained magical assault on him . This was the probable start of the whole magical battle as Huysmans enlisted the help of Boullan, understandable if he thought his life was at risk.
The Rose – Croix Kabbalistique had been set up by Peladin on the death of his brother Adrien, who had been initiated into a ‘Rosicrucian’ Masonic Lodge. Tradition and continuity are vital to magical societies. It is likely it was through his brother that Pelladin had the required level of initiation and probably a legitimate charter to form his new group. Co-founders of the group were the Marquis Stanislas de Guatia, a poet, freemason, occultist and serious drug user, and Gerard Encausse, pen name Papus.
Encausse had written popular books on the occult and was instrumental in bringing the Tarot cards into the kabbalistic system. The claim was that the link had always existed but had been kept secret. It was claimed that the 22 major arcana corresponded to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and it is a strange choice of number if there is no link. The 22 letters are associated with the paths on the tree of life diagram which has become central to Western gentile kabbalism. See 9.
Encausse is less known for his time at the Russian Imperial court. In 1905 he was brought in to raise the spirit of Czar Alexander 3rd. He warned against the influence of Rasputin and accurately predicted the death of Czar Nicholas.
De Guatia and his secretary Oswald Wirth had on separate occasions visited Boullan and had been shocked by what they had found. De-Guatia stole a manuscript of one of Boullan’s rituals ,presumably as proof of what was going on and most likely to make a magical link in order to carry out occult attacks. This goes back to folk magic, but often then a hair or nail clipping of the victim was the link of choice. Boullan soon suffered a number of heart attacks which he put down to the Parisian magicians’ attacks on him.
In 1891 Huysmans was with Boullan researching for La-Bas and found him retaliating against de Guatia and Pelladin with attacks of his own. Huysmans went to the French press describing his friend Boullan, tormented by Devils, cursing Peladin and de Guatia, at his altar ,calling on intervention from St.Michael and the ‘Eternal Judiciaries’. During his stay a letter arrived condemning Boullan to ‘death by the fluids’, a term redolent of the demonstrations of Mesmer a century earlier in Paris, although Mesmer’s magnetic fluid was used for healing purposes in large public performances. Despite his efforts, Boullan succumbed to the attacks and died of a further heart attack. Huysmans himself became convinced he was under attack.
Huysmans publicly accused de Guatia of Boullan’s murder and as a result was challenged by de Guatia to a duel. Huysmans quickly withdrew his accusations and published an apology. This could have ended the affair had not Jules Bois renewed the accusations against the Rosicrucians.
Joules Bois was not only a friend of Huysmans but also S.L.M Mathers, one of the founders of the Golden Dawn. Bois was himself a member of the Golden Dawn and like Mathers was active in women’s emancipation. The Golden Dawn had broken with Masonic tradition and accepted women on equal terms with men, a good move for Mathers who relied on Annie Horniman for his sole source of income between 1891 and 1896. Mathers has retained a whiter than white reputation regards his magical practice, apart from some inevitable comments by Aleister Crowley, and it must be assumed that at this time Bois would have held the same beliefs as Mathers. It is strange then that Bois sided himself with a notorious black magician. It may also be significant that at this time Mathers and his wife Mina were moving their operations to Paris , and this coinciding with his setting up an even more secret second order within the Golden Dawn, for its highest initiates, where ceremonial magic was practiced. This was The Order of the Rose of Ruby and The Cross of Gold ,a new Rosicrucian order right under the noses of Peladan and de Guaita.
Another loose end in the affair is the claim (made by a current member of the Ordo Templi Orientis, another Rosicrucian inspired group) that de Guaita’s anger at Huysmans and Bois was that La Bas was a thinly disguised expose of the practices of the Rose – Croix Kabbalistique and not Boullan. Later Louis Van Haeke , chaplain of the Chapel of the Holy Blood in Bruge was to be considered a source for the book.
Bois, rather unfairly,fought duels both with de Guaita and Encause ,inevitably magic played its part in the proceedings. The journey to his encounter with de Guaita was interrupted when the horses pulling his carriage became inexplicably terrified and refused to proceed . On eventually arriving and fighting the duel the bullet failed to leave his gun , the Marquis then missed with his shot, probably in accordance with etiquette. The journey to the second dual was again beset with problems with the carriage . The duel, this time with sabres , took place with each man receiving slight injuries and honour satisfied. Later the two men became friends.
This put an end to the affair, but it should be noted that the 1st Salon de la Rose Croix took place during the period and the exhibiting artists and no doubt other leading symbolists would have followed the story in Le Figaro and Gil Blas. It is hard to imagine what they made of it all although it is likely to have influenced who subsequently exhibited with Peladan or got involved with groups practicing magical initiation.
The cataclysmic events of 1914-1918 largely finished off mainstream interest in the mysticism and the occult which inspired Symbolist Art, apart from a more populist
interest in spiritualism. De Guaita died young and blind as a consequence of drug abuse, a typical end for a poete maudit at the time and still a popular ‘life style’ choice for modern creatives. Huysmans embodied the other clichéd end for a decadent artist and became a devout Roman Catholic. Oddly in the light of all the above, in March 2010, a Masonic Lodge was consecrated in Rome dedicated to Stanislas de Guaita.
Aubrey Beardsley ‘Of a Neophite and How the Black Art was Revealed to Him by the Fiend Asomuel’ 1893 (private collection).
(1) Isaac Newton , The Last Sorcerer by Michael White Fourth Estate
(2) Transcendental Magic,Its Doctrine and Ritual by Eliphas Levi Rider 1962
(3) Silouettes D’Artists by EmileVerhearen (1886) From essay on Fernand Knopff
by Frederick Leen in Fernand Knopff ISBN90-76704-45-7
(4) Kabbalah Unveiled by Mathers S.L.M. Routledge 1970 reprint
(5) The Cannon by William Sterling R.I.L.K.O
(6) The Key Of Solomon trans. Mathers S.L.M. Routledge 1972 reprint
(7) The Rosicrucian Enlightenment by Yates F.A. Routledge
(8) Felicien Rops. Arts Council Cat. ISBN 7287 01162.
To view the author’s own art work on our website click here: Sean Jefferson Art