The Illuminated Myth of Mzona by Richard of Kédange (1802-1879). Part I

From Alsace to Lorraine / The research / The book

In 2010, three graphic grimoires from rural Lorraine popped up at a Strasbourg bookseller’s, whose peculiarity and intensity were astounding. A Richard from Kédange, today Kédange-sur-Canner, a town not far from the border with Saarland and about 30 km north of the capital of Lorraine, Metz, today the department of Moselle, identified himself as the author. A few dates found in these books suggest a time of origin around the middle of the 19th century, an assumption that was confirmed by the research and the material-technical examinations.

The text consisted of a delirious mix of sigil-magical and astrological signs, consecration-liturgical vocabulary, and a tuneful magic language, partly French-Moselle-Franconian gibberish with Latin interpolations. The figurative depictions, partly hieratic, partly comic-like, looked as if they had sprung from Ethiopian magic scrolls or early Coptic illuminations. An opus so archaic, so rustic, and so esoterically grotesque, as if it were a materialisation of the secret book that a Madam Hen or Hahn (German for rooster) scraped out of a heap of dung in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

And roosters could be seen in abundance. They seemed to play a leading role in a circling end-time spectacle, alongside Lemurian spirit creatures, comical saints, the Mother of God and the Crucified. In most cases they held a large pistol in their claws, sometimes two.  They looked sweet and harmless, children’s book cockerels, but when they fired, they apparently hit their target three times. If these magic books had been publicised at the time they were written, Breton would surely have given them an honoured mention in his anthology of black humour. No wonder, then, that even experts initially believed them to be fakes.

The three books were very diverse, both in format and conception. The first volume, bound in leather in a waistcoat pocket format of 136 x 83 mm, consisted basically of a printed version of the “Enchiridion Du Pape Leon”, a grimoire that was published in 1800. Like many other charm books of the time, it was also distributed in the countryside by itinerant traders, so-called colporteurs. Richard had appropriated the pseudo-historical publication in its entirety by overdrawing or overwriting most of the 120 printed pages with brown ink and adding 60 pages with his own content at the back and 60 pages at the front. While this opus thus rather gave the impression of an exercise and pattern book, the other two volumes, considerably larger and for the most part containing colour illustrations, came across as more independent works. In their display of splendour, these albums are reminiscent of medieval illuminations.[1]  With a total of 744 illustrated pages, this collection is a very rich one, although the leaps in the graphic development indicate that these may only have been excerpts from a much more extended production.[2]

Before they found their way into the book trade in Strasbourg, these three works had already spent two decades lying more or less unnoticed in an antiquarian bookshop in Lorraine. That Francois and Mireille Pétry, he a well-known archaeologist and long-time national conservator, and she a studied librarian and outstanding literary connoisseur, finally took them on can only be described as a stroke of luck.

From Alsace to Lorraine

The Pétrys had previously spent many years in securing and recovering a comparably obscure work. In a painstaking effort, they had succeeded in researching and partially reconstructing the multi-part painting cycle “Salon of Dreams” (Le Salon des Rêves,1939-44) by the forgotten Alsatian painter Joseph Steib (1898-1966).[3] In this series, Steib had dealt with the trauma of Hitler’s dictatorship not only in a fantastically surreal way, but also in an ultimately exorcistic and protection-magical way by referring to motifs of regional devotional art.  In the catalogue books, Francois Pétry spoke of a “black passion”. After Steib’s death, this unique document of an artistic banning spell against the horrors of the occupation had been dissolved and scattered to the winds.

Little was known about the painter himself. Rumours that he had worked as a streetsweeper seemed to mainly serve the pigeonhole of a naïve art. However, the research of the Pétrys brought to light that this ensor of Alsace had a training, albeit brief, at a prestigious art school. He had pursued his artistic resistance quite unromantically as an employee of the local waterworks. His artistic activities had taken place in Mulhouse and the surrounding area, in the extreme south of a cultural region that had been worn down and traumatised by centuries of border conflicts.

Francois Pétry knows this region like no other. He has burrowed through many of its layers of civilisation. Moreover, he ceaselessly explores the vast field of so-called ephemera, anonymous sketchbooks, calendars, diaries, press graphics and photo series, materials of the most diverse kind and provenance, which pile up in his magazine to considerable heights.  What emerged with this new find in the Strasbourg antiquarian book trade, however, did not seem to be ephemeral at all, after Steib another cardinal excavation site, this time in the regional north.

The research

While the enterprise “Le Salon des Rêves” could rely on a large number of documents and eyewitness accounts, which allowed a gradual insight into the circumstances of the creation of this cycle of paintings and a focusing of Steib’s artistic personality, the research on Richard von Kédange turned out to be much more difficult. Since central files of the Moselle department from the time before 1850 were destroyed during the Second World War, essential elements of his biography have been lost. Thus, the portrait of the magician of Kédange has to remain for the time being fragmentary and shadowy. What is astonishing, however, is what the Pétrys have brought to light despite these obstacles.

The person in question was, according to local records, a certain Pierre Richard, who was born in Kédange-sur-Canner in 1802 as the third child of a wealthy peasant family. After his father’s early death, the rest of the family had moved to nearby Dalstein, his mother’s birthplace, around 1820. A decisive experience was probably the acquaintance with a Jean Heitz, who is known to have lived in Dalstein since 1835. The bookplate of the “Enchiridion Du Pape Leon”, which Pierre Richard had overworked and which probably served him as a retreat book, shows him as the previous owner.  Heitz may have acted as a kind of master of ritual magic and Christian Kabbalah for the young sorcerer aspirant.  It is also feasible that Richard acted as a medium for him for a time. The English magician and astrologer John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelley are known to have had such a channelling cooperation for the reception of supernatural messages and the magical mapping of the angelic world. The influential “Book of True Practice in Divine Magic” by the pseudo-Abraham of Worms recommended the use of a child as a medium because of its heightened sensitivity to the presence of angels.

Among the few biographical clues about the Dalstein period is a contract of sale in which Pierre, then 31, is listed as co-owner of a real estate. In an entry in the cadastral registers of 1841, he is referred to as a ” pensioner”. Several documents show that this property, however, passed into the hands of an older half-brother already three years later, after the death of his mother. Had he been incapacitated? Towards the end of the 1840s, the tracks of the author of strange magic books in Dalstein disappear. The Pétrys only found concrete evidence of his further life in the files of the communal asylum in Gorze, near Metz, where, since 1870, so-called mental patients had been interned alongside beggars and vagrants. Around this time, a Pierre Richard from Chemery, a neighbouring village of Dalstein, had been transferred there.

One of the two illuminated albums includes the date 1867 twice, so the Pétrys assume that they were created in Chemery, where he probably spent more than two decades. Had the half-brother organised the move and arranged placement in a foster family or informal charitable institution? It is strange, however, that he left no administrative traces during this long period there.

One of the particularities of the village was a traditional Marian “Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception”, in which he may have been involved. It had extensive supra-regional contacts, from whose ranks a king was elected annually, an office akin to the majesties of the marksmen’s clubs. Some curious motifs in his charm books – feather-crowned hats, cape scapulars and targets – might be traced back to the picturesque customs of this Marian connection.  In January 1879, Richard of Kédange died after almost a decade of internment in the central asylum of Gorze.

The book

That the Pétrys managed to get the highly deserving and committed publisher Pierrette Turlais on board can be seen as another lucky coincidence within the afterlife of the Lorraine magic books. The opus “Pierre Richard (1802-1879) Grimoires illuminés”, published in 2020, emerged as a bibliophile masterpiece that does justice to its solitary subject in many respects, in terms of the award-winning design and the selection and quality of the illustrations, as well as in the meticulous editing of the numerous contributions. It is all the more regrettable that this brilliant publication, which has already opened several museum doors to Richard’s work in France, has been given only a very limited reach, due to its limited edition and its high price, and also because it is published in only one language. A bilingual edition that makes the Grimoires accessible in their entirety would be an absolute desideratum and nothing less than a tribute to the unifying bilingualism of the originals.

Turlais’ publishing house Artulis, which, according to the announcement, specialises in first editions of “writings of rebellion, of revolt, of resistance and of survival”, had previously taken on another outstanding work with cryptographic aspects, the corpus of the fourteen surviving Devil’s Island diary notebooks of the exiled Alsatian captain Alfred Dreyfus. In addition to all kinds of daily routine notes, this volume also provides information about the development of a fascinating psycho-ornamentalism within the marginal scribblings.[4]

A narrowing between these arabesques of a Jewish alleged traitor to the people, who was exiled to a diabolical island, and Richard’s folk magic with its subliminal anti-Semitic resentments was certainly not intended; but if one adds the Pétrys’ connection to the Alsatian exorcism of Hitler by the painter Steib, the result then will be a passage in stages through the history of the region in the manner of a Hell’s Ride, which would do honour to the Grünewald Altarpiece of Isenheim.

[1] Album I: 327 x 222 mm, 188 pages, Album II: 360 x 240 mm, 282 pages

[2] This speculation has recently been reinforced by the appearance of images of another of Richard’s albums in the Savoy region.

[3] Cf. Francois Pétry, “Joseph Steib – Maler des „Salon der Träume “, Munich 1999 / eds, Le “Salon des réves” Comment le peintre Joseph Steib fit la guerre à Adolf Hitler, Strasbourg, 2015.

[4] Alfred Dreyfus, Cahiers de l’île du Diable, Editions Artulis, 2009.


All photos of the Pierre Richard images: Klaus Stoeber, Strasbourg

(Translation supported by DeepL)

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