On Jean Cocteau’s Crucifixion

Jean Cocteau mural - Notre Dame de France church, London by TheAltruist.
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One of London’s most unique works of modern art has been de-vandalised and re-immaculated.
Specialist restorers from the L’Institut National du Patrimoine have been at work for a month on Jean Cocteau’s three frescoes of the Annunciation, Crucifixion and Assumption which are on permanent display at Notre Dame de France, a French Catholic Church on Leicester Place, just off Leicester Square. Executed on church walls, they are not a moveable feast.
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In 2010 they quietly celebrated their 50th anniversary. Few Londoners are aware of the trove, but those few visit and revisit. Word of mouth initiates. It’s a benign cult, added to by the beggars who sometimes sleep on the pews that face what was originally known as the ‘Lady Chapel’ but is now increasingly known as the ‘Cocteau Chapel’, a smaller altar off to the left of Notre Dame’s main altar, which is decorated by a Robert de Chaunac tapestry.
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Art is in the air in what was formerly the site of Robert Barker’s The London Panorama, where before film or photography great throngs would flock to see 360 degree paintings of such spectacles as the Battle of Waterloo or the Holy City of Jerusalem. The Church’s dome shape was created using the Panorama as a structural mold. Fr Paul Walsh—an Irish but Francophone priest who works at Notre Dame—has joked about how former congregations came for ‘the illusions’. The Church is next door to a much better known house of illusions: the Prince Charles Cinema.
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Unfortunately, some years ago, one clearly deranged and egomanical visitor went too far and added his own markings to the Cocteau work. Probably thinking Cocteau’s alchemical  ‘Black Sun’ was supposed to be the moon, he added silver paint to it, and then added his own signature below Cocteau’s.  It looks like ‘T.A.’ (Was it the Territorial Army?) The great mural had also suffered from water pollution and a build up of grime. The repair work has cost almost £25,000.
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Signature of Jean Cocteau. by TheAltruist.
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Cocteau is best remembered as an arty film-maker, but he has won a subsequent notoriety as an alleged Grand Master of the all-powerful Priory of Sion. In 1960 when he did the mural at the request of the French Ambassador, he was such an international celebrity that the church erected scaffolding to keep fans and journalists from distracting ‘the Master’. (Today the Church is more worried about Da Vinci Code nutcases).
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Though they were actually painted in late 1959, Cocteau signed his name at the bottom right-hand corner with a customary star and the simple date ‘1960’. Perhaps he saw it as an Xmas gift to the French Catholics of London to be enjoyed in the New Year? Also inscribed is the Latin inscription ‘D.D.D’ which could mean Donum Dedit Dedicavit (Given and Dedicated as a Gift) or Deo Donum Dedit (Given and Dedicated to God). Cocteau’s eccentric but genuine Catholicism and his passionate interest in Kabbala both indicate the latter. It wasn’t just his right-wing politics and social elitism that pissed off his fellow Surrealists.
While there is nothing unorthodox about the two side-frescos—the Angel Gabriel announcing news of Mary’s pregnancy by a vase of virginal lilies, and a brass band of angels trumpeting an unassuming Mary upto heaven (allowing her to skip the queue before the Ressurrection)—it is Cocteau’s Crucifixion that has earned it the unwanted nickname: ‘the Da Vinci Code mural’.
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The image is very much of the zeitgeist. In communicating his pro-Magdelene take, Cocteau was a half-century ahead of Dan Brown. (Artistically, he will always be millennia ahead). The church and fresco are mentioned in the novel but thankfully no action takes place there. Notre Dame would probably have to lock its doors, as has The Temple. Roslin Chapel, near Edinburgh, has sold out to Mammon, charging extortionate fees to all-comers.
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The beautifully coloured line drawing—Cocteau was a gifted line-drawer as well as poet, novelist, dramatist, film-maker etc—is arguably more striking for what is not there than for what is. Conspicuous by his absence is the King of the Jews, or at least his head, torso, and arms. All we see on the cross are his legs: knees, shins and feet. The feet bleed onto a giant rose below. Here is our first clue: the rose and cross.  Cocteau—like his musical friends Debussy, Satie and Piaf —was associated with (wait for it) L’Ordre de la Rose+Croix Catholique et Esthetique du Temple et du Graal ie. The Catholic and Aesthetic Order of the Rose+Cross, the Temple and the Grail. These are the Rosicrucians, a type of arty Freemasonry, devotees of the sacred feminine and open to female members. It is thought Francis Bacon originated the movement, for Protestants, in the 17th century. 400 years ago they were all the rage in England and on the continent. Later members included Yeats whose poetry is studded with Rosicrucian images such as ‘Our Father Rosicross is in his tomb’.
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Jean Cocteau mural, London. by TheAltruist.
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Beside the cross are the Three Marys. The Marys always cause confusion. One would expect one of these Marys to be the Mother of Christ, but in the scriptures they are usually Mary Magdelene, Mary ‘the mother of James and Joseph’, and Mary Salome. The second of these might also be Jesus’ mother, the evangelists being understandably shy about discussing Jesus’s siblings given the supposedly pristine condition of his mother. (Jesus did have brothers called Joseph and James, as well as a Judas and a Simon). The Third Mary is supposedly Jesus’s aunt, sister of his mother, and wife of Zebedee. Alternatively the third Mary is Mary Cleophas, wife of Joseph’s brother ie. Cleophas. Then again, she could be Our Lady. Other accounts say Jesus’s mother married Joseph’s brother Cleophas—according to Jewish law—after Joseph’s death, and had the siblings with him. Jesus also had a sister called Salome.
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The striking Cocteau mural in the Church of Notre Dame de France, London. by TheAltruist.
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These confusions are added to by the fact that names like Jesus, Joesph, Mary etc were exceedingly common in those days, but also by the possibility that Jesus’s family was actively involved with his bid to be the rightful Messianic King of Israel, a royal family in waiting, and that this ‘sensitive information’ was disguised by the evangelists. If he had had a child, he’d hardly want to let Herod or the Roman authorities know.
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The name of the church Notre Dame de France is also confusing. Who is Our Lady of France? It’s often thought that Notre Dame churches are really consecrate to Jesus’s closest disciple and alleged consort, Magdelene, and not his mother.  Many stem from the Middle Ages when the Magdelene cult was at its former zenith. The two Oxbridge Colleges, Magdelene and Magdelen (prounounced ‘maudlin’), testify to her popularity then. Legend has it that Magdelene and two other Marys—not including the Virgin—sailed to France following the crucifixion and landed at the town of Saintes Maries de la Mer (Holy Marys of the Sea). Magdelene is reputed to be buried in the Basilica of St. Maximin in the South of France. Our Lady of France is thus less ambiguous: it can only mean Magdelene.
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In the Cocteau mural, the lady who leans her head on the cross and weeps into the rose is undoubtedly Mary Magdelene. The lady beside her is probably Jesus’s mother. The one looking upwards with the nipple-like eyes is probably Salome, possibly Jesus’s sister. The Gnostic Gospel of Philip states categorically that the Three Marys were Jesus’s mother, his sister and his ‘companion’.
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We know that Magdelene is the star of his Crucifixion because Cocteau painted a giant ‘M’ on the front panel of the altar, which to the viewer would appear directly below the rose. The ‘M’ is a reference to Da Vinci’s Last Supper and the unmistakable M-shape made by the arms of Jesus and the figure on his right, whether Magdelene or an effeminate John. Cocteau, very arrogantly, painted his M-panel over a mosaic of the Nativity by the artist Boris Anrep, who complained but died without redress. (He had a point but he wasn’t French.) This itself was a gross act of vandalism. In a 2003 cleaning operation the Church rediscovered the mosaic, removed Cocteau’s panel, and hung it nearby. Maybe the vandal was another Anrep, a revenge-seeking desecendant of Boris.
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Cocteau’s other Magdelene code is the dice of the Roman soldiers who are casting lots for Jesus clothes. Here, basic numerological skills are helpful. The dice add up to 58.  5 + 8 = 13. M is the thirteenth letter of the alphabet. This, apparently, is also a reference to the bloody clampdown on the Knights Templar initiated by King Philip and Pope Clement on Friday 13 October, 1307, the original ‘Friday the Thirteenth’. (Rosicrucians—as with their Freemasonic successors—claim the Gnostics, Cathars and Knights Templar as their forbears).
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To the right of the fresco is another intriguing character, a green man with a fish-shaped eye. Is it Peter? No. The male disciples went into hiding after Jesus’s arrest. The curly-haried male to the left of the cross is the effeminate John, but he is the exception. The Gospels make no mention of Peter or any of ‘the lads’ at the scene of Jesus’s death. Who is he then? Mystery-mongers are unanimous in saying that it is Jesus himself, the ‘fisher of men’ and later the ‘Fisher King’ of Grail lore. Perhaps he is having an out-of-body experience which enables him to be a spectator at his own execution? Or perhaps he is witnessing instead the death of a stand-in cum stunt-man, commonly thought to be Simon of Cyrene.
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Detail of the Cocteau mural, The Church of Notre Dame de France, off Leicester Square, London by TheAltruist.
Another Gnostic Gospel, the bizarre ‘Second Treatise of the Great Seth’, is narrated in the voice of an uncrucified Christ: ‘I did not succumb to them as they had planned. I did not die in reality but in appearence. It was another who drank the gall and the vinegar… It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns.’ Some Gnostics believed that Christ was Docetic ie. a spirit being who only seemed to be incarnate. If so, the crucifixion wouldn’t have hurt much and certainly wouldn’t have killed him. It would have been more like a David Blaine happening. Cocteau—himself a John and who has a soft spot for John the Disciple—is probably referring to an Apocryphal Gospel known as The Acts of John. ‘And the Lord himself I beheld above the cross not having any shape but only a voice.’ John flees from Golgotha to a cave on the Mount of Olives. ‘And when he was crucified on the Friday at the sixth hour of the day, darkness came upon all the earth. And my lord standing in the midst of the cave and enlightening it said: John, unto the multitude below in Jerusalem I am beng crucified, and pierced with lances and reeds, and gall and vinegar is given me to drink. But unto thee I speak and what I speak hear thou…’
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Perhaps the Rosicrucians have a rosier image of the Crucifixion? Did Jesus survive it or evade it ? Cocteau has depicted himself in this mural, directly below John, looking out at the viewer and thus ‘turning away from the false spectacle’. Cocteau was probably a subscriber to the legend that Christ lived to bear children with Magdelene and create a holy bloodline. That the royal families of France later descended from that bloodline might account for the traditional French ‘arrogance’? Then again, Christ himself preached humility.
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This brings us to the vexed question of Cocteau’s supposed Grand Mastery of the Priory of Sion, an elite secret society whose previous Grand Masters included Leonardo da Vinci. These days the Priory of Sion has been discredited as a hoax. Could a poet who was also a notorious opium addict and pederast really have found himself in such a powerful position? The Priory were rumoured to be keepers of such an explosive secret that they could bring Christendom to its knees. We imagine a James Bond film with Cocteau starring as himself, the evil genius of ‘SION’ (who make SPECTRE and SMERSH look like nice guys), and Sean Connery as Bond competing with Cocteau for the secret dossiers, the keystone, the very Grail itself, as well as for the attentions of the positively sluttish ‘Madeleine’, who always wears red.
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This theory might appeal to artists because—investing them with absurd levels of behind-the-scenes power—it aggrandizes them, it flatters them; but it is preposterous. Only Hitler got that far, and he couldn’t paint. Apart from a few statesmen like Goethe, the truth is that artists are more usually the playthings of the powerful.
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I see Cocteau as an artistic genius doing in a modern setting what Christian artists have done throughout history, decorating a church. Artists—once their imaginations are allowed to dwell on a subject—invariably begin to play around with ideas, chop and change, shuffle the pack. That Cocteau deploys pagan motifs adds to his Christianity rather than taking away from it. Christ was a poet-philosopher who was hugely inspired by Greek culture as well as Hebrew. He was importing the Dionysian mysteries to the Holy Land. Thus, Christ himself was a Christo-pagan. Magdalene’s hometown on Lake Galilee was very exposed to Hellenic influences and she herself was called Mariamne, the Greek equivalent of Mary or Miriam.
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Other symbols to look out for are ‘the Black Sun’ (Sol Niger)—which gets over the ‘eclipse’ in the scriptures but is also an alchemical symbol of the first stage in the Magnum Opus, the ‘blackening’ or ‘nigredo’—and the falcon on the Roman shield. Cocteau censors the Roman eagle of Christ’s assassins and the arch-enemies of the early Christians. The falcon was an early Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘God’ but also a symbol of Horus who is the Egyptian equivalent of Jesus. Cocteau is serving up his own take on the Christian mysteries with a liberal dash of magic.
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Everything about the church seems to celebrate the sacred feminine; the name, the dome-shape, the Magdalene motifs, the de Chaunac tapestry of the Queen of Creation from Proverbs 8, the portrait of Joan of Arc.
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The plot thickens when we learn that Cocteau left another gift to Notre Dame de France: a self-portrait. This is not on public dislay but hangs in a private room. The Church has discussed the possibilities of donating the painting to a suitable museum. (The National Portrait Gallery may have turned it down because it has no ‘British interest’.) Selling it or auctioning it might be an apt way to cover the repairs. Cocteau would be paying for his own treatment.
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The busy staff of Notre Dame de France are too preoccupied with catering to a large Francophone congregation and with helping the poor of Soho via its many charitable actvities to overly dwell on aesthetic matters. How can you help? Why not drop in some afternoon, savour the panorama of spiritual artworks, decode the Crucifixion for yourself, light a candle, and slot a few coins into a poorbox? Remember Blake’s ‘Jesus and his disciples were all artists.’
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(N.B. The Gnostic and Apocryphal Gospels quoted are all available online).
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 Niall McDevitt


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9 Responses to On Jean Cocteau’s Crucifixion

  1. mike halligan says:

    the story is that of the, “star of Bethlehem”……………the kite………..

  2. Pingback: ‘The Da Vinci Code mural’ at ‘Cocteau Chapel’ @ China Town | everydaylife.style

  3. Pingback: Cocteau, Ralph Downes, and Notre Dame de France

  4. Claire says:

    I think this chapel holds many clues about to be revealed – perhaps the entire intention of the Prieure de Sion.

    Once one looks past the veils of deliberate obscurity, the liberating message of this work of art becomes clear. Like Leonardo, Cocteau was presenting the truth in plain sight with his clues, whilst at the same time portraying a puzzling yet nevertheless conventional image of the received so-called wisdom of the orthodox, patriarchal religions. A secret they were, and are, desperate to keep from the public. Once you see past this mind control mechanism of two millennia or more, a truth emerges. One which only an artist could reveal, and perhaps only an artistic nature can understand?

    The first startling and revelatory fact is that Jesus is not on the cross, but gazing up at it. This is an utterly radical departure from the conventional story of Mary gazing up at Jesus: how did Cocteau get away with it? Because he bedazzled the audience with an obscufation and a drama, just as Leonardo did. Could it be that the star of this tragic show is actually Mary Magdelene? The giant ‘M’ on the altar. The legs on the cross indicate no gender, it could be a woman. If not in actual physicality, could this entire work be the ongoing foresight and premonition of the crucifixion of the divine feminine? Jesus knew of it, hence his anguished, tearful expression. He was powerless to stop it. The brutality of the Roman soldier exposing himself to her, as a mockery, Cocteau himself in the picture: complicit, involved, knowing, perplexed. The sheer feminine quality of the chapel and Cocteau’s other works on this theme indicate a more over-arching knowledge of the bible story, and, as an alleged grand master of the Priory of Sion, perhaps he was giving us a loaded clue as to the real history of the last two thousand years of the anti-feminine, misogynist agenda as enforced by patriarchal religions and politicos. The nurturing, compassionate, anti-war theology that Jesus was a proponent of is being crucified before his and our eyes.

    Whatever his personal opinions, Cocteau has given us a lament to female pain; the metaphysical or metaphorical crucifixion of Mary Magdalene and the divine feminine is revealed here at the Notre Dame de France Church, which also holds the key to the end of humanity’s suffering, hidden in plain sight in London ‘s bustling centre.

  5. John says:

    I was fortunate enough to visit the chapel back in 2001 and see the mural in itt’s pure state before that person vandalized it. A friend of mine who lives in Leeds happened to make a trip down to London and sent me photos from his visit there and I was shocked to see those markings on the mural, it was very upsetting as Cocteau’s art is very personal to me. I really hope that the restoration process has been completed on this fine work of art. I’m looking forward to going back to London and seeing the mural again as it was intended to be viewed.

  6. Mir says:

    Hitler was a good in drawing and painting.

    • Niall McDevitt says:

      Congratulations! Idiot of the Month prize goes to you. Hitler was a good, was he? What on earth has that got to do with this essay on the gnostic significance of a modern Christian mural? Cocteau was rightwing, we know, but he wasn’t a mass murderer. By the way, Hitler was a good at drawing buildings but he was not a good at drawing human beings.

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