The mountain of light by Louis Couperus

The mountain of light by Louis Couperus

25 October 2019 - 17 May 2020

Elagabalus the monster

The exhibition centers around Couperus' decadentist novel De berg van Licht (The Mountain of Light, but unfortunately, the book was never translated into English). Its subject is the rise and fall of the Roman emperor Elagabalus, who ruled Rome from 218-222 AD. Elagabalus was the ultimate representative of the decline of ancient Rome. Posthumously, he was accused of the most monstrous cruelties and sacrilige. Allegedly, he was a perverse madman who castrated his victims and put the eunuchs into his harem, he suffocated his dinner guests in a shower of roses and he slaughtered newborn babies in order to read the future in their entrails. He brought his exotic religion to Rome - Elagabalus worshipped a black stone, symbol of the Syrian sun god Elagabal after which he was nicknamed - and tried to subject the Roman gods to this deity. Eventually he was murdered in the slave quarters of his palace, aged eighteen, and his remains were chucked into the river Tiber. The novel was widely condemned and never reprinted during Couperus' lifetime. Now it counts as one of his greatest achievements.

Elagabalus the anti-hero

In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries opinions about the emperor were reversed. Slowly, Elagabalus grew into an anti-hero, an artiste manqué, a crowned anarchist and a hero of the sexual revolution. As such, this new image furnished endless inspiration for art and literature right up until the current day and age. Couperus's novel fits perfectly into this trend. In his book, Elagabalus is a sensitive soul, an adorably beautiful child whose dance around the Black Stone seduced the Roman army in Syria to proclaim him emperor at the age of fourteen - an office he himself never craved. Transplanted to Rome, this delicate orchid rapidly grew into a poisonous weed. Couperus wallows in descriptions of Roman orgies and all kinds of atrocities, but his sympathy is with a boy emperor who never aspired to the throne. 

The exhibition

Recently, in France, life and death of Elagabalus have been turned into a series of comic books entitled La dernière prophétie (2000). In order to meet the demands of a younger public, the Louis Couperus Museum shows a number of illustrations from these books, by the artist Gilles Chaillet. The atmosphere of the novel and of the late Roman empire in general is further evoked by illustrations by artists such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, René Gockinga, Auguste Leroux and Gustave Adolf Mossa. Also, the museum presents a new source for the book: Aethiopica, the Story of Thegenes and Chariclea,  by the Greek author Heliodorus, on which Couperus based an unpublished story named 'Theagenes. A novel of tourism in antiquity'. The showcases contain other examples of inspiration on the story of Elagabalus, such as contemporary Japanese manga's. Finally, the show features old films about the subject of Roman decadence. 

John Sillevis, former chief curator of The Hague Kunstmuseum, is guest curator of the exhibition. The accompanying text was written by Caroline de Westenholz.


The exhibition was made possible by a contribution from Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds.




Illustrations by René Gockinga for Couperus' novel (1912-1914)

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