This fourth article completes the final drawings in the second part of Louis Janmot‘s (1814–1892) epic narrative series of paintings, Le Poème de l’âme (Poem of the Soul).
The previous drawings traced the young man’s history to the point where he succumbed to an evil spirit, and engaged actively in an orgy.
The man is alone again, surrounded not by the flowers and countryside of his youth, but by wizened and twisted trees, straggling thistles, weeds, and barren rocks. Having abandoned God and his faith, a figure is now approaching him from behind. That figure is swathed in black robes, which even cover its face.
28 The Phantom
The black-robed figure has now driven the man down to the beach, where it pushes him along into the wind of the gathering storm. His bare feet are crossing hard rocks, not soft sand, and he is deeply fearful.
29 Fatal Fall
In one of the most complex images of the whole series, the black-robed phantom sits impassively as the young man falls from a path at the top of a cliff. The scene is apocalyptic: with rare touches of colour, there are buildings burning in the background, and high volcanoes lit red with their flowing lava. The phantom sits at the foot of the Tree of Knowledge, the serpent still coiled around its branches. At the left, a man bears a burning brand and a dagger; at the right a nude woman holds her cup up for Satan to refill it.
Behind the figures is a large classical building, similar to the Acropolis, which looks set to be engulfed by the approaching fire and its dense palls of smoke. Satan holds up a funeral plaque bearing the Latin word ERITIS, meaning you will be, while the phantom holds an open book with the words FATALITÉ (fatality), REVOLTE (revolt), and MATÉRIALITÉ (materiality).
30 The Torture of Mezentius
The young man apparently did not die from his fall, but is now seen on a ledge in barren mountainous terrain, chained to the lifeless corpse of a woman – a situation known as the torture of Mezentius. Mezentius was an Etruscan king who was notoriously cruel, and known to the Romans as a ‘despiser of the gods’. He apparently took particular pleasure in executing people by chaining them to corpses, and leaving them to die slowly as the corpse next to them decayed.
Janmot also produced an oil painting based on this scene, which was exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1865, and has recently been acquired by the Musée d’Orsay.
31 Generations of Evil
The man has aged now, and is still chained to the corpse. He has been brought to another ledge. At the left, an old man sits, studying his face in a hand-mirror, while he strokes a monkey’s head. At the right, the phantom sits on the statue of a sphinx, a human skull held on its lap. Behind and above them, seven topless young women dance in a round, perhaps a dance to the music of time.
This is Janmot’s most enigmatic image in the series, and possibly represents the man’s nightmare vision as he kneels chained to the corpse, awaiting his eventual death.
32 Maternal Intercession
The man’s plight is taken by his mother to Jesus and the Virgin Mary, who are sat beside one another in heaven. Around them are angels playing harps. One young woman – at the right, accompanied by a winged angel – appears to be the man’s soul, who is perhaps being prepared for a journey to mark his death. The man and corpse are seen in a glimpse of earth at the foot of the drawing.
The intercession was successful, and a team led by an angel arrives to address the man’s plight. The woman’s corpse is despatched into the waves, perhaps in a form of burial at sea. The angel’s team consists of two other women, who sit and read from books held open by putti. At their feet are symbolic animals: a lion (strength), fox (cunning), and sheep (the sacrifice of Jesus Christ). Above them are three more putti, bearing symbolic objects including a large fish-hook, whose meaning is obscure.
34 Sursum Corda (Lift up Your Hearts!)
The man is welcomed back at a heavenly Eucharist – the title is from the early words of the service, in Latin. Angels swing censors, there are rows of pious kings and clergy, and in the distance, descending a flight of steps, is the figure of Christ himself, bearing a lamb on his shoulders. The group at the right foreground contains the man’s soul, who looks directly at the viewer, just as she did in the thirteenth oil painting, Sunrays.
This is a huge narrative series which varies considerably in content and quality. The oil paintings are beautifully painted, with the effects of light being particularly well shown. Although the charcoal drawings are technically accomplished, most of them are narratively weak, lacking the rich details found in Hogarth’s narrative series, for example, and until the last half dozen, are almost bereft of symbols.
One major problem in reading these paintings is the difficulty in obtaining information about them. Long out of copyright, Janmot’s epic poem does not even appear to be freely available in the original French, and no English translation seems to have been made. There is no point in keeping Janmot’s writings and paintings a closely-guarded secret: that will only secure their place in obscurity.
There are several books available in French, notably those written by Élisabeth Hardouin-Fugier who is the leading expert on Janmot and this series.
Wikipedia (in French).