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Religious objects are bazaar goods taking the place of art objects, incense paper replacing the Magdalene’s perfume. We shall have obtained nothing so long as clergy and catholics are not persuaded that this is inadequate or, more to the point, indecent. It is as convenient as it is easy to buy from those stores where chasubles, stations of the cross and chalices are sold pell-mell in all sorts of styles. It seems economical for being made in series, set out in catalogues. It gives the illusion of that art of which it is nothing but a base counterfeit. I find it inadmissible that we should reserve for the house of God, for the sacrifice of the Mass, a category of imitation accessories which we would not want for decorating our own homes. Who among you, ladies, would consent to exhibit in your parlour any of the horrors that are enthroned on our altars? In the midst of the careful display of objects (16) which you use to preserve your family traditions, what would you say to having those tarted-up statues, the ornaments of our churches? You will answer me that there isn't anything else to be found, and the objection is serious. I shall answer it.

(16) My interpretation of 'le luxe si respectable'. Respectable luxury feels wrong. 

I am aware that things must be done inexpensively, and therefore that machine-made products must be used, as we live in an age of machines. It is difficult to gauge all that the work of our hands conferred by way of sensibility on the least of objects in other times. Everything we see in our country churches - statues fashioned with hatchet-blows, stalls which are heavy and crude but nonetheless the devoted work of the neighborhood woodworker, everything that has been embroidered, chiseled, embossed with love, it all has something human which a machine cannot give. Very well, though, let us use machines, I consent to it: that is no reason for the maker, for the merchant, to impose his taste and, because he has chosen a stupid model, for Catholics to be content with it. There have always been bad models: but the machine wasn't there to multiply them. The artist might become a manufacturer, if he were so encouraged, and the manufacturer might become a man of taste - such has occurred and such exists - if he should feel that among Catholics there was a concern for Beauty. To have recourse to the artist would not be as costly as people think: that is a legend that has been carefully cultivated. 

Some discipline would be necessary, and that would perhaps be the greatest difficulty. The clergy are in error, but they are in error mostly because they yield to the fantasies of donors: hence those jumbles of heteroclite horrors which are so disconcerting. 

A curé of Geneva, (17) for whom I had the honour of working, a man of good sense and good taste recently, alas, taken from us, succeeded in making of his church an exemplary monument where everything is harmonious, in good taste and new, where the religious object has no place. But it was by imposing a strict discipline about himself that he was able to conserve the beauty and logic of the edifice constructed under his responsibility. Did one of the faithful wish to give a statue, a window, a hanging? His offering would be accepted, but never in kind: the curé and the architect (18) together decided where it would be placed, the colours and proportions - and chose the artist. They would be trusted implicitly. Whatever the talent of the sculptor or stained-glass artist, the result was always a work of art suited to the architecture, the lighting, the decorative spirit of the church. Nothing entered that was not expressly composed for it. Nothing entered that was not modern in spirit. A perfect unity was thus obtained, everywhere the same radiance of beauty. And that happened in Geneva: I could not say what sympathy for Catholicism such a church might inspire in Protestant circles, what an impulse for expansion it might place at the service of the Faith.

(17) NOTE BY DENIS: Abbé Jacquet, curé of St. Paul’s, deceased in 1919.

(18) NOTE BY DENIS: My friend Adolphe Guyonnet. 

Painting by Maurice Denis in the Eglise St Paul, Geneva

If we tolerate tawdriness in the churches with such indifference, it is because we consider the decoration of the holy place as a theatrical setting, as a sort of mise-en scène wherein illusion suffices. What does it matter that the actors’ accessories are made of cardboard if they fool the eye! As far as I am concerned, I cannot understand why trompe-l’oeil should be admitted into the churches in any form. All falsehood is intolerable in the temple of Truth. 

I want all the materials used in the church to be not necessarily rich and precious, but sincere and true, like the Word that is preached there, and the God who lives there. This is not about giving an impression of vain luxury. This is about the very spirit of the liturgy of the mass - as it was of the sacrifices of the old Law - that the inert artefacts (19) that are associated with it, either as signs or as instruments, be exempt from trumpery and faking. The walls of the Temple of Jerusalem were of genuine cedar wood - imitation wood had yet to be invented, that notorious ersatz which today permits the simulation, at low cost, of fifteenth century sculptures with their ancient patina. The wine for the Mass is not to be adulterated. Why should the ornamentation of the altar, the door of the tabernacle, be of cheap stuff, gilt with powdered bronze or fake Gothic? Why not be content with humble candelabra made of genuine wood, if one cannot pay for precious materials, and why that appalling frippery which installs insincerity and falsehood upon the altar of the Living God?

(19) 'créatures inertes' in the original. I assume he means by contrast to the living moving creatures, the clergy? But somehow I baulk at saying 'the inert creatures'. 

It is for the same reasons that I resolutely reject copies of the styles of bygone times. Fake Romanesque, fake Gothic are as deplorable as fake wood or fake marble. Chapels and churches are built of stucco-covered concrete with an imitation ribbing introduced after the fact, together with imitation buttresses. What is the point of those tricks, the sort of things we associate with fraudulent antiquarians, makers of fake antiques, which nonetheless fool no one? We know that that fake ribbing and those fake buttresses serve no purpose, that they are legitimised by no pressure from the vaults, that they are there solely to deceive us and to lie! 

That all serves to flatter another mania: archeological mania. There are those, as Léon Bloy said, more or less, incapable of kneeling unless they can verify if the vault over their heads is a key-vault or a barrel-vault. A macabre fashion has associated with the idea of piety all the dead forms of architecture. A church must be either Romanesque or Gothic. I hasten to add that it is not only in religious architecture that this mania flourishes. So, for example, rug-manufacturers and furniture dealers find it easier to reproduce as suites the dining room of Henri II, Louis XV’s salon, Louis XVI’s bedroom, than to create forms and décor adapted to modern life. 

Ask yourself, then, when you see a new church: Is that truly a shelter for prayer? A tabernacle of the eucharistic God? But don't ask what style it is in. That is indeed the stupid question that supposes us, artists of our own time, obliged to repeat forever what had been done before us; the stupid question that is founded on the sterility of modern Catholic thought, which tends to substitute the superstitious cult of the past to confidence in the present or in the future. A creative art, which presupposes "endless beginnings," cannot be chained by archeology. Yes, there are modern churches in known styles, Romanesque, Gothic, which nevertheless are not pious, which are train-stations, casinos, operating-theatres, or, as Huysmans said amusingly: "machine storage units, engine sheds." Around 1830, barometers were made in a Gothic style, which did not thereby render them edifying. There is nothing sacred, as Ruskin said, in an arch, a barrel vault, a buttress. In the Middle Ages, they built in whatever happened to be the current style, and that is what we should do now. 

Remember that, by a prejudice contrary to our own, the seventeenth, our glorious seventeenth century, destroyed a great deal. In the sixteenth century, when Bramante demolished the antique, venerable St. Peter’s in order to build the new, thus earning the nickname Rovinante, there were many protests; but Julius II, as he himself said, wished to "build a temple such as had never existed," and everyone trusted the humanist pope, the Renaissance, modern art. It is the same state of mind which our Italian Futurists push to the extreme: in place of the canals of Venice, they would have wide avenues in the style of Chicago. Such fanaticism fills me with horror. In wanting a place for modern art, I wish no destruction. We allow for what the centuries prior to the nineteenth did not envisage - restorations in the original style. And I go further. I wish, for example that, while waiting for our sculptors to find clients, we should utilise good quality plaster casts, provided that they are not tarted up, to occupy the spaces modern art sill cannot fill. 

To those remarks I would add this. If it is difficult to create a model of, say, the unique Sacré Coeur, a model that would be valid in all possible cases, it is relatively easy to create a suitable statue or bas-relief destined for a particular place. I have just praised the discipline and its happy consequences of a church in Geneva. Now I want to turn your attention to the virtue of patience. We are in too much of a hurry. Our lives are too fast. Were there great emporia of religious objects in Florence during the quattrocento? The churches of those times did, nonetheless, not want for paintings or statues. There existed artisans’ workshops and boutiques, and the archives tell us that the pious donors of that period, the parishes, corporations, communes did not buy "ready made."