Art, Death, and Resurrection
By Bronwen McShea - New Haven, Connecticut, USA - Lent/Easter 2011
In each issue of Pilgrim, one work of art will be featured prominently on our home page. In our inaugural issue, we displayed a painting called "Dimanche Après-Midi" ("Sunday Afternoon"), which was painted in 1914 by Gustave van de Woestyne (1881-1947), a Belgian expressionist painter associated with the Flemish and Catholic artists of the village of Laetem Sint-Martin. This issue, we share a painting called "Matin de Pâques" ("Easter Morning") by Maurice Denis (1870-1943), a French painter associated with the Symbolists and a group of avant-garde post-impressionists who were inspired by Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne. They were known as Les Nabis.
The moniker "Les Nabis" -- referring to the Hebrew word nabi, for "prophet" -- was coined by the Symbolist poet and writer Henri Cazalis, who said of the group, "Most of them wore beards, some were Jews and all were desperately earnest." The joke was that they wanted to galvanize painting, which they believed was being killed by the refined style taught in the French academies, the way the prophets of old wanted to revive ancient Israel.
Maurice Denis was one of the bearded and earnest Nabis, but not one of the Jewish ones. Born on November 25, 1870 in the Norman town of Granville, he was a devout Catholic from an early age. Late in his teens, his intense piety was incomprehensible to his non-believing father, a railway worker named Eugène, and unnerving even to his devout mother, Hortense. The young Denis was drawn to the idea of religious life, but in a journal entry written before he was eighteen he explained, "In lieu of the Cloister, I found the Studio, the Studio with all its frivolity and debauchery; and while I'm looking to reconcile the teachings of Heaven, my broader knowledge is opened up to a greater variety of ideas."
Denis married young, in 1893, with Marthe Meurier. Their first child died as an infant, and they had five daughters -- one stillborn -- and two sons after that. Early in 1919, while Marthe was very ill, Denis became a tertiary of the Dominican order. Several months later in August, Marthe died. Denis remarried in 1922, with Elisabeth Gatesolle, who gave him two more children, a boy and a girl.
For a long time, Denis was a member of the controversial monarchist (Orléanist) organization Action Française, but he left the group when Pope Pius X condemned it in 1927.
Toward the end of his life, his eyesight began to fail him -- painful for a painter, especially for one with a passion for bright colors, as Denis had. His poor eyesight occasioned his death, when he crossed a Parisian street too soon and was hit by a car. He died on November 13, 1943, shortly before his 73rd birthday, after a prolific career as a painter, portrait artist, illustrator, and decorative artist.
Several churches and chapels in France contain murals and stained glass windows made by Denis. The windows of one church, L'Église de Villenauxe Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul in Aube, were destroyed in 1940 during a bombing.
Denis spent most of his life with his large family in Saint Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris, where his home stands today as the Musée Maurice Denis, where many of his works can be viewed. A lot of his paintings were of mothers and children; his oeuvre contains many religious paintings, though the majority of his works were not of explicitly sacred subjects. A good number of his works have a sentimental quality about them, and did not have wide appeal in his own day. The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), credited with the earliest truly abstract paintings, wrote rather harshly of Denis in 1910 that although he was the best of the "curve school" painters inspired by Gauguin, he had by that point "become a slave to sentimentality," and had long been "left behind." This remark appears in Kandinsky's book Concerning the Spiritual in Art. I would have to study Denis' paintings more carefully before deciding for myself whether Kandinsky -- however ungentlemanly he might have been toward a fellow painter -- was right in that assessment, but based on my initial encounters with Denis's work through books, on the web, and in person, I do find the earlier religious paintings to be more striking, and far less sentimental, than those done at a more mature age.
Several of Denis's paintings are on permanent display at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. This is where I first encountered his work, a few summers ago. I was moved by a very simple painting Denis did at the age of eighteen or nineteen, called "La montée au Calvaire" ("Climbing to Calvary"). With the simplest lines and subdued blocks of color, it depicts Christ bearing His cross, bending down, kneeling, to be kissed by one of several black-clad, nun-like female figures who are following him up the hill. In the background, a grim troop of soldiers with helmets and lances appear to be marching forward toward the Passion scene.
I had thought originally of featuring that Calvary scene in Pilgrim this Lent. But then I stumbled across "Matin de Pâques" while browsing through Art Resource's wonderful online art gallery. I was riveted.
The real painting is in a private collection. I investigated a bit but I could not find any more information about it. I am guessing it was painted around 1891 or 1892, as Denis did a series of other works on the same theme, and with similar titles.
Looking at "Matin de Pâques," I am very moved by the unusual composition and by the colors -- the oranges and the whites and the blues and blacks -- and by the scene of Resurrection, at the bottom, initially overshadowed by the white trees in the foreground, which seem snow-covered rather than blossom-covered, and by the stripped, dark trees in the background, with the three crosses of Calvary appearing almost to stem out of them. Denis allows the wintry, sorrowful scene of death to dominate, in our first view, the joyful scene below, with its subtle, controlled splotches of greens, warmer oranges, bright whites on Mary's halo, and purples -- as in the grape vine above and to the right of the gardener-like Christ figure. The grape vine seems to stem from atop Christ's head, the way the crosses of Calvary seem to stem from the dead trees.
It is as if Denis, with his paint, whispers to us the wondrous, startling truth of Easter Morning.
It is as if Denis understood that any attempt to achieve more than a whisper, with his human hands, his paint and brushes, and his artist's Ego, might somehow distract us away from the fuller truth about who the risen Lord is, what He has suffered, and what He suffers still until we see Him face to face, on that day of our second birth.
I may be reading things into the painting Denis did not intend, based on my own experiences as an amateur painter, often of religious subjects. I have attempted several times, unsatisfyingly, to depict the risen Christ, and in the process I have had run-ins with my own artist's Ego, thinking I could somehow capture something of the glory and beauty of that other, holy world with a sequence of deliberate and impulsive movements of my imagination and brush. And so it is the quiet of the Resurrection scene in "Matin de Pâques," resulting from Denis's modesty and delicacy while painting, which I love the most about the image. It reminds me of the line in the Eucharistic hymn, "Let all mortal flesh keep silence . . ." I deeply admire what Denis achieved here.
The effects of the painting, as well as its subject matter, remind me too of some spiritual reflections I have had while painting, about the role of artistic creation in a world that is passing away -- a world that necessarily points to another, in which we will not need images to draw us nearer to Christ. A place where, in our final freedom, there will be no more falling pray to the Ego or illusions -- and no more need for whispers or sober delicacies of expression to help us safeguard for one another the integrity of the beautiful truth that has been revealed to us.
One of these thoughts comes on occasion when I am especially conscious I have captured something, with lines and colors and painted forms, I find palpably beautiful. I wonder if the beauty I see, and which I have achieved as the artist, will ever be seen by anyone else in the way that I see it. I have moments of artistic insecurity, too, wondering if the beauty I think I see, and feel, is not sometimes a misrepresentation, even a grotesque manipulation, of a truer beauty I have not grasped delicately or put to canvas modestly enough.
And then I am reminded that I and everything I have made as an artist -- as part of the world of flesh -- will one day pass into dust. And I become conscious of a fear that lots of things I find lovely and good in this world, and lovely things I and many others may never have a chance to see and take in during this life, will not have a permanent place in Heaven, where we are to be like God . . .
All the children of God, of course, if they persevere in Christ, have a chance to live eternally in Heaven and to encounter Beauty in its -- in His -- absolute fullness and holiness: "Thou art beautiful above the sons of men: grace is poured abroad in thy lips." The saints in Heaven do not need art, they do not need the beautiful and sublime things of this created world, to lead them to the God they know and enjoy in His fullness. Of course, they should hardly be wanting of anything apart from Him, who satisfies every human longing, beyond all human imagining. And yet it is He who created us, in His own image, to be creative, to grace the world He gave to our first parents with the work of our hands. And so I earnestly wonder, what will become of paintings, of things we make for our homes and for others, after death? What will become of solid, fine buildings, or excellent stonework done by master craftsmen? How do things made by human hands, especially the ones most lovingly made, figure into that greatest mystery of Love, which "beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things . . ." How do they figure into the mystery of Him by whom "all things consist," in whom
. . . it hath well pleased the Father, that all fullness should dwell;
And through him to reconcile all things unto himself,
making peace through the blood of His cross,
both as to the things that are on earth, and the things that are in heaven.
Of course, until my own hour of returning to real, lasting life, I will not know the answer. And so in the mean time, it seems right and good to try harder to ground my artistic nature -- animated so much by passions for the world of creatures and created things -- in Christ's own Passion, and not to fear and mourn the fleetingness and loss of sensible, earthly loveliness and grandeur in ways that imply they are more important to me, or more satisfying to my deepest human longings, than the very God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies my humanity.
I described "Matin de Pâques" to a friend who does not own a computer and who had not yet seen what it looked like. She was moved by the description alone, and directed me toward a favorite passage by Simone Weil, from the essay "On the Love of God and Affliction," found in the book Waiting for God. It seems a good Lenten reflection to share along with Denis's painting, with the trees, and the crosses, and Christ as the true Vine. It consoles me, too, that it is good -- and not something to be feared and pushed away -- to reflect on the mortality of all flesh, perhaps above all following those most exuberant moments of artistic creation, and in other joyful times of our life when we are tempted to love things, and this world, and one another and our own selves in ways that do not lead to our true joy:
Over the infinity of space and time, the infinitely more infinite love of God comes to possess us. He comes at his own time. We have the power to consent to receive him or to refuse. If we remain deaf, he comes back again and again like a beggar, but also, like a beggar, he stops coming. If we consent, God puts a little seed in us and he goes away again. From that moment God has no more to do; neither have we, except to wait. We only have not to regret the consent we gave him, the nuptial yes. It is not as easy as it seems, for the growth of the seed is painful. Moreover, from the very fact that we accept this growth, we cannot avoid destroying whatever gets in its way, pulling up the weeds, cutting the good grass, and unfortunately the good grass is part of our very flesh, so that this gardening amounts to a violent operation. On the whole, however, the seed grows of itself. A day comes when the soul belongs to God, when it not only consents to love but when truly and effectively it loves. Then in its turn it must cross the universe to go to God. The soul does not love like a creature with created love. The love within it is divine, uncreated; for it is the love of God for God that is passing through it. God alone is capable of loving God. We can only consent to give up our feelings so as to allow free passage in our soul for this love. That is the meaning of denying oneself. We are created for this consent, and for this alone.
Divine Love crossed the infinity of space and time to come from God to us. But how can it repeat the journey in the opposite direction, starting from a finite creature? When the seed of divine love placed in us has grown and become a tree, how can we, who bear it, take it back to its origin? How can we repeat the journey made by God when he came to us, in the opposite direction? How can we cross infinite distance?
It seems impossible, but there is a way -- a way with which we are familiar. We know quite well in what likeness this tree is made, this tree that has grown within us, this most beautiful tree where the birds of the air come and perch. We know what is the most beautiful of all trees. "No forest bears its equal." Something still a little more frightful than a gibbet -- that is the most beautiful of all trees. It was the seed of this tree that God placed within us, without our knowing what seed it was. If we had known, we should not have said yes at that first moment. It is this tree that has grown within us and has become ineradicable. Only a betrayal could uproot it.
This Lent, and in view of the great Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord, as I pray and hope for greater detachment from my own desires and from the earthly objects of my love and affection, I do still wonder what will become of beautiful places, and of beautiful paintings such as "Dimanche Après Midi" and "Matin de Pâques," which have helped to lead me to such poignant, penetrating words by Simone Weil, and which have all led me a bit closer to God and to understanding that He wants me to let all things pass away when it is their time to pass away.
And my heart dares to whisper to Him -- though I do not dare write it down! -- its hopes for what will come to be for all that is lovely and good in this place, this earth He made and continues to give to us, miraculously, to work and watch over while we await our second birth.