Few introductions to the history of art recount — and still fewer museum exhibitions today display — the remarkable productions of a movement called Les Ateliers d’art sacré. Unlike so many of the masterpieces that we enjoy today in the artificial environment of museum collections, the great bulk of the work flowing from this brief but brilliant artistic efflorescence still functions as the organic adornment of living Catholic cults. To experience it, one must make a pilgrimage to countless churches and chapels throughout France. And to experience it truly, one must surrender to this art’s profound invitation to pray.
Founded in 1919, just after the cataclysm of World War I, the Ateliers were an association of French painters, sculptors, architects, and stained glass artists whose shared aim was to advance the development of ecclesial art in a way at once modern and theoretically accessible to the public. Just as parallel secular movements such as impressionism had intended a break with the academic tradition of studio painting, so the artists of the Ateliers d’art sacré, signaled a rupture in the tradition of sacred art, as they perceived it as decadent and hollow. The founding father of the movement was Georges Desvallières (1861–1950).
Raised in a religious home and trained in the classic techniques of academic portraiture, Desvallières’ close friendship with Gustav Moreau introduced him to the exploration of mythological themes, and he became a defender of the wild experimentation of fauvism and the cubists.
Desvallières thus became one of the patrons behind the famous Salon d’Automne in 1903 that made impressionism and its heirs known to the public. Increasingly, however, as his own style matured and through his experience of the Great War, religious themes came to dominate his oeuvre.
The most captivating, energetic, and comprehensive expression of Desvallières’ religious and artistic vision is embodied in the extraordinary cycle of frescoes he painted in the chapel of St. Privat from 1919 to 1925. The vivid, swirling images possess a mystic power that defies description. It is enough to say that the four walls of the church surround the viewer with the graphic horrors of the war, mingled intimately with the images of human salvation, in a stunning visual ode to the self-sacrifice and suffering of Jesus on the cross.
When contrasted with the decadent and frivolous années folles — “the mad years” of the 1920s — the sober intensity of the cycle makes Desvallières’ achievement an art at once modern, yet in deep discord with the spirit of the age.
No less arresting and violent than St. Privat, but on a much less epic scale, is Desvallières’ remarkable tableau, the Sacred Heart. Exhibited at the Salon of the Independents in 1906, well before the trauma of the war, the work dates from a period when Desvallières had not yet focused himself entirely on religious commissions. Still, it fully anticipates the gigantic and concentrated strength he would eventually consecrate to sacred themes.
Upon seeing the painting, Léon Bloy proclaimed in ecstatic, solemn wonder:
You have done what no one today would know how to do. You have made a Sacred Heart that makes one weep and tremble. You have unchained a lion … the Heart of Jesus needed a painter. By the power of love and faith, you have been judged worthy to glimpse the red Pelican, the Pelican who bleeds himself for his little ones.
Simply to compare this depiction of the Sacred Heart to the saccharine devotional images that still adorn so many homes and holy cards is to understand immediately the express aim of the Ateliers movement. The massive gap is unmistakable. Such sacred art as this, imbued with tremendous, contagious feeling, bears no affinity to the innocuous, mass-manufactured pieties that emerged in their time.
Desvallières’ austere, gray-toned palette diverges abruptly from the normal range of warm reddish colors to communicate a message of deep and anguished desolation. The short, scratchy brush strokes upset the conventional soft lines, echoing the stripes that Christ bore and the spikey thorns of his crown. Above all, the raw, naked flesh of the Lord’s breast, ripped open in a small burst of fleshy red, pierces the body like the fiery orange sky behind the church. Everything speaks of the ravaged pain of Jesus’ love.
The Eucharistic overtones of the image are hinted at in Bloy’s allusion to the Pie Pelicane — the traditional symbol of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament as a pelican feeding its young with its own bloody flesh.
By placing the suffering Lord in front of the silhouette of the iconic church of Sacré Coeur in Paris, located high on a hill overlooking the artists’ quarter of Montmartre, Desvallières not only identifies the subject of the composition but perches Jesus high atop the city, overlooking his people — even as from below we gaze up at the pierced one, lifted high above the earth (see John 3:14).
Through the image of the church, Desvallières also powerfully evokes the mystery that transpires in that sacred structure, where the sacrifice of Jesus is re-presented daily upon the altar in an un-bloody way. A church is always an image of Christ’s body, and here the doubling creates a mirror effect. Jesus pulls back the veil of his flesh and allows us to peek into the inner sanctum, to observe what transpires in the Holy of Holies at every Mass.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart is a spiritual entrance behind the veil of Jesus’ flesh. It is a devotion to that highest and deepest element of Jesus’ humanity — his human soul. Jesus’ soul is the seat of all his thoughts and desires, the living reservoir of his knowledge and love of the Father and of each one of us. It is this soul that harbors all the bottomless riches we penetrate and come to know in the risen Lord. Revealed in his flesh and through his wounded body, tortured upon the cross, the burning heart of Christ pours fiery life and color into the sad world of shadows and grayness.