The Mira Jacob Collection includes both versions of Ensor’s famous print La Cathédrale: a rare first-state impression of the first plate made in 1886 (this lot); and an impression of Ensor’s own copy from 1896 (see lot 15).
The towering structure of the building draws upon the architecture of three cathedrals, Aachen, Vienna and Antwerp, which Ensor probably saw illustrated in the journal Le Magasin Pittoresque. Combining elements of each, Ensor created a fantastical, shimmering edifice, which seems not only to reflect, but to emanate, light. The cathedral is surrounded by a carnival procession, with fluttering flags and banners, marching soldiers and costumed revellers. This seething mass of humanity calls to mind Balzac’s description of 'Thousands of people squeezed together, like ants around their nests’ in the short story Jesus-Christ en Flandre, a possible literary source for the etching (H. de Balzac, Jesus-Christ en Flandre, in La Comédie humaine: études philosophiques, 1846, quoted in: D. Lesko, James Ensor – The Creative Years, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1985, p. 86). The densely ornamented surface of the stone cathedral almost finds its translation into flesh and blood in the meticulously detailed facial expressions and antics of the crowd. The print has generally been interpreted as a social critique, in which the sublime structure of the church, a symbol of mankind’s highest aspirations, is contrasted with the chaotic crowd, representative of its baser instincts.
La Cathédrale was one of the best known of Ensor’s prints during his lifetime and its popularity led to the plate deteriorating through repeated printing. As a result, Ensor made the new version (see lot 15), which is almost an exact copy of the first.