Hail Mary, full of grace

The Mystery of the Catholic Faith,1889, by Maurice Denis (1870–1943). Photo courtesy of Public Domain.

by Fr. Anthony Giambrone, OP

For Maurice Denis (1870–1943), the vocation to create sacred art was clear from his youth. At the age of 15, with a sense of destined conviction, he wrote the following words in his journal: “I have to be a Christian painter and celebrate all the miracles of Christianity, I feel that it has to be so.” His life would prove the truth of his intuition.

Co-founder with Georges Desvallières of the Ateliers d’art sacré in 1919, Denis produced an immense outpouring of works during his career. Like Desvallières, moreover, Denis’ style was not isolated from the broader artistic movements of the age, but deeply engaged and even influential. As a young man he played a central role in formation of the so-called Nabis (Hebrew for “prophets”), an avant-garde post-Impressionist group, a brotherhood of painters that in the 1890s sought to exalt the artist as a “seer” of the invisible, symbolic world.

Theoretician as well as practitioner, Denis later composed a popular and very personal survey of sacred art, L’histoire de l’art religieux (1939), which carried the story of Christian crafts from the Roman catacombs down to his own day and never abandoned his early intuition of the artist as a “seer” (though by that time his style had matured through various experimental modern modes to a kind of neoclassicism). At the conclusion of the work, Denis compared the task of Christian art both to the act of faith, which fastens on things unseen, and to the sacraments, which use sensible signs to make invisible realities present. For him, the work of the Christian artist was “a liturgical necessity” meant to guard “the mystery” and awaken in souls the “religious disturbance of divine charity.

Self-Portrait with His Family in Front of Their House, 1916, by Maurice Denis. Photo courtesy of Public Domain.

One of the earliest, most striking, and most representative of Denis’ works, painted at the age of 18, is titled The Mystery of the Catholic Faith. The image is a rendition of the Annunciation, a scene he depicted at least five different times and five different ways during his career. The title reveals a tender and pious audacity, and the great singularity of this piece is the replacement of the archangel Gabriel by a priest, accompanied by two acolytes.

The encounter of the Virgin with this small ecclesiastical procession is ultimately an image of the Church, liturgically joined in its head and members, the totus Christus. Traditional iconography of the Annunciation scene often shows the young virgin reading the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14: “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a child.” Here the ministry of the priest, who holds open the sacred text toward the gentle Mary, brings the Word to the one who will give it living “welcome in womb and breast” (to borrow a quote from the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ).

Climbing to Calvary, 1889, by Maurice Denis. Photo courtesy of Public Domain.

The book is inscribed with the angelic salutation Ave Maria, gratia plena and glows with a kind of mysterious light. Denis, in fact, has filled the room with a soft, shadowless radiance, an echo of the luminous technique of Fra Angelico, one of the great inspirations for the painter. The gesture and gentle bow of Mary, all wrapped in innocent white, mirrors the bend of the lily behind her and unmistakably evokes Angelico’s magnificent rendition of the scene.

The window in the background opening upon a pink garden outside also makes subtle allusion to the paradise imagery employed by the Dominican renaissance master. The two altar servers bearing candles, who unite the priest and the Virgin, recall a familiar liturgical protocol: honoring the presence of Christ both in the reading of the Gospel and in the Blessed Sacrament. They invite us to adore the Incarnate Lord in the womb of Virgin Mother.

Annunciation, 1912, by Maurice Denis. Photo courtesy of Public Domain.

Denis’ power of vision urges us to contemplate and wonder at the ecclesial channels of grace. Like an angel, the hierarchical priesthood mediates between man and God and with humble dignity stands in the reverent service of both. The Virgin Church is the fruitful Mother, who receives these heavenly ministrations with a still greater humility and more exalted dignity, making them bear blessed fruit, both human and divine.

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