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One of our number recently had the good fortune to have a rather original image of the Sacred Heart published by one of the rare publishers of sacred imagery who is at the same time a man of taste. It happened that a very cultivated curé in the vicinity of Paris placed it in the salon of his rectory. But after suffering the repeated comments of all the lady patronesses and churchwardens that the image was a horror, he decided to retire it... This true story explains why, in all the applied arts: vestments, stained glass, goldsmithing, etc., and, finally, in architecture, it is always the most banal forms, the most mediocre, the déjà-vu, which are triumphant. 

Such inert, superannuated, really dead forms do not correspond to the expansive, many facetted evolution of the Church’s life, and are incapable of giving expression to the ways in which it is currently manifesting itself. At a time when the apologetics of a Bloy or of a Péguy, or Claudel’s poetry, or neo-Thomist intellectualism are renewing Catholic thought, ever active and ever living as it is, do we have a sacred art capable of sustaining the prestige of Catholicism, and which, in the words of Fr. Sertillanges, "brings into a relationship with God, through Christ, the beauty of human life, with everything that follows from it, and all its possible ways of flowering"? (1) 

(1) Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges, O.P., 1863 -1948, founder in 1893 of the Revue Thomiste.

In associating religion with ancient forms, have we not seen that we are handing an argument to those who hold that the Church’s role in society is henceforth finished? But, seen from another point of view, one could say that this mistrust of the modern, this fear of life, comes from a narrow, false idea of morality. Modern art is an art of perdition, sensual, realist, revolutionary? I maintain that, on the contrary, nothing is religious in art which is not living, which does not spring forth from the sensibility, the piety, of the artist. It is with all that in mind that Claudel has written that "modern churches have all the fascination and pathos of a confession heavy with sins to confess. Their ugliness is the external manifestation of all our sins and faults, weaknesses, indigence, timidity of faith and of feeling, dry hearts, disgust for the supernatural, domination by conventions and formulas, exaggeration of individual and disordered practices, worldly luxury, avarice, vain boasting, bad humour, phariseeism, puffery..." But nonetheless, he adds, the internal soul remains alive... That is what we must not tire of repeating. I don't want to dwell too long on this bill of accusation. But there is still this which I wish to say. 

Those among us averse to change, in their mistrust for life and modern art, our Jansenists in their fear of Beauty, have an excuse for feeling they don't need the services of artists. We need, they say, to ensure the essentials of worship in the greatest possible number of sanctuaries. It is therefore necessary to obtain, as quickly and inexpensively as possible, the necessary ornaments: they must thus be mass-produced, easily obtainable on any day of the week, economical: that is everything. Well then! No. If one should eliminate the artists, there are manoeuvres to replace them. These will confuse the beautiful with the pretty or the tinselly, and piety with the pallid. Such a simulated art might please the greatest numbers but it does no-one any good; it is unworthy of the mysteries it represents, unworthy of the believers whose prayer it expresses, unworthy of widows and mothers in mourning, of those who love and those who weep! Henceforth it matters little that such an art be catalogued, that it have salesmen, set prices, stores full of customers. The advantage of low prices is no compensation for inferiority, for indecency. 

When we lived at a slower pace, when the workshops of artists and craftsmen offered clergy and donors that which they now demand from large stores, poor churches as well as rich found the means to be supplied. Those dating from the fourteenth century and which in Italy have not been robbed of their treasures, still display marvels of Christian art which one would seek in vain in modern churches. Some have a humble Franciscan quality, with their frescos from the Scuola of a great master, their trimmings and altars in painted wood, their modest ornamentation; others, enriched by generous princes or by flourishing cities, by the resources of religious orders or by the generosity of pilgrims, are filled with magnificence. But all, rich or poor, contain only works of art, almost always made specially for them, in which the imagination and handiwork of the worker, the artist, knew how to express at once religious truth and life by means of beauty. 


It is not impossible, given the present state of the economy, to achieve, in conditions that are perfectly manageable, analogous results. There are artists whose convictions and talents indicate their suitability for work of this kind. There are the necessary resources, and I am assured that I was mistaken when, at the conference I made for the Revue des Jeunes at the Salle de Géographie in February of 1919, (2) I reproached Catholics for not having a budget for fine arts. And were we wedded, as Henry Cochin (3) has written, to simplicity and poverty which do not exclude beauty, we ought to recall that Christian art was born in the catacombs... What is lacking is for artists to organise themselves to supply the aesthetic needs of the churches; and for confidence to be placed in the artists.

(2) New Directions in Christian Art translated as part of the present series.

(3) Henry Cochin, 1854-1926, politician, supporter of the Church in the struggles over laicisation, President of the Société de St Jean. 

Several groups of Catholic artists have recently applied themselves to accomplishing this double task - to organise themselves and to gain the necessary recognition. There are the Société de Saint-Jean and the group L’Arche; and, in Switzerland, the Société de St. Luc et St. Maurice; or associations of enlightened amateurs, such as the Amis des Cathédrales or the Amis des Arts Liturgiques; or, for instance, a publisher of sacred art, Louis Rouart, (4) whose initiatives have already had a most beneficial influence. This is also the goal proposed by the School of Sacred Art which Georges Desvallières and I wish to create on the basis of a straightforwardly corporate form of organisation. I shall explain presently why this is a matter of interest.

(4) Louis Rouart, 1875-1964, publisher and director of Librairie d’Art Catholique which published books on religious painters such as Fra Angelico and Raphael, scion of a family of painters, industrialists, patrons of the arts, associated with Impressionism and in particular with Edgar Degas. He published Denis' Nouvelles Théories, including the present essay.

The group of St. Luke and St. Maurice in Suisse Romande is a new development; it declares itself able to supply the whole decoration of a church and all the articles necessary for worship. Messrs. Cingria, Guyonnet, Poncet, G. de Traz, are so French in heart and culture that I do not hesitate to include them under the heading of French groups. They have every sort of boldness and technical curiosity, together with a highly refined sense of modern decoration. 

It is to be desired that the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs should soon open its doors to a new exhibition of Christian art, so that we can judge the results of these different efforts. Foreign contributions, above all English and also Belgian, would, believe me, be most interesting. (5) In the meantime, we must be content with an incomplete documentation, whose basis is the 1911 exhibition.

(5) Note by Denis: This wish was to be realised at the end of 1920. Among the remarkable works seen at this last exhibition, I cite the great fragment of a chapel for M. Rouché by G. Desvallières [Jacques Rouché, drector of the Opéra, supported Desvallières since 1905 and commissioned him to paint his own chapel of St-Privat, 1919-1924, as a meditation on the war - PB], the Lady Chapel by the Atélier d’Art Sacré, the chapel for M. Pradelle [Georges Pradelle, 1865-1934, architect, specialist in church architecture and pioneer of the use of fresco painting - PB], decorated with frescos by Henri Marret, the Chapel dedicated to St. Jean inspired by baroque art, by Messrs A. de Cingria and G. de Traz, the Virgin with Angels by R. de Villiers, and stained glass windows by Marcel Poncet.

Georges Desvallières: God the Father, mural painting in the Chapelle de Saint-Privat, 1919-25