Friday, March 25, 2022

A Modern French Painter in Love with Our Lady: Maurice Denis’s Remarkable Annunciation Paintings

Annunciation (1912)
Until a couple of years ago I had never heard of the painter Maurice Denis (1870–1943). The beautiful autobiography of the painter and, later, Benedictine monk Jan Verkade (Dom Willibrord, 1868–1946) introduced me to him. Here is a brief description from The Art Story website:

Maurice Denis is perhaps unique amongst avant-garde French painters of the late-nineteenth century in combining a strong commitment to formal and stylistic innovation with an equally profound sense of the significance of tradition: in art, culture, and, perhaps above all else, religion. His boldly colored, vibrant paintings, like those of the artists with whom he is generally grouped together - Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard - express a commitment to abstraction, and to relaying the inner life of the soul, which is, at one level, quintessentially modern. But unlike his peers, the soul which Denis sought to express was integrally shaped by his religious faith which can already be sensed from his earliest paintings as a member of the Nabi group which he co-founded in 1888, and which would lead him, later in life, to activities such as church renovation and altarpiece design. By the end of his life, Denis was also renowned as an art critic, having produced a series of influential essays on aesthetics and spirituality.
There is much one could say about his life and art, so thoroughly integrated with his Catholic faith and with a happy marriage and family—such unusual traits, it sadly seems, in the annals of famous artists. As another website, Sacred Art Pilgrim, explains:
There is a feeling of great intimacy in Denis’ religious art. A devoted husband and father, the artist often used his beloved first wife, Marthe, and their six children as models, placing sacred figures in settings from his daily life in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the Breton seacoast, where the family spent their summers, or an Italian villa they had visited in Fiesole, near Florence. Denis was especially drawn to maternal images of the Virgin Mary, making paintings and prints of the Annunciation and the Madonna and Child in multiple variations… French Dominican Friar Marie-Alain Couturier, a onetime student and leading proponent of Modernist sacred art, offered what is, perhaps, the most fitting epithet for his former mentor. Denis was, in his words, the painter of “the sweet presence of God in our life.”
Today, in honor of the great Marian feast we are celebrating, I wish to share a few of the vast number of strikingly original depictions of the Annunciation that Denis painted over his fruitful career. He seems to have had a particular fascination for this biblical subject over all the decades of his output. The titles are linked to the online sources from which the images were taken. (N.B.: If anyone has access to better images, please send them to me by email so that I can swap them in.)

May this gallery be like a bouquet of flowers to the Blessed Virgin Mary on Lady Day.

In the first image, we see a theme to which Denis will return again and again: the depiction of the Archangel Gabriel as a deacon bearing a book, almost as if Our Lady is the priest at Solemn Mass to whom the book is carried for her to kiss. In this very early depiction, painted when the artist was 19, he has even included a couple of acolytes bearing tapers.

Le mystère catholique (1889)
We see something similar in this depiction from ca. 1914, except that here the deacon-angel bows his head and raises his arms in a gesture of homage, while Our Lady bows her head in a reciprocal greeting. She is dressed as a bride.

Annunciation at Assisi (c. 1914)
As mentioned above, Denis loved Fiesole, where Fra Angelico used to live, and painted many religious paintings there. St Gabriel is looking especially diaconal in this 1919 depiction. Once again the Virgin is dressed in white as a bride, and the Holy Ghost is imaged as a dove with rays from the upper right corner stretching to Mary’s womb.

Anunciación en Fiesole (1919)
In another version, Denis switches the roles, and has the Virgin kneeling near vessels (of water? wine? an allusion to the Cana yet to come?), on a rug, while the angel stands monumentally above her with hands outstretched in a priestly gesture.

Annonciation à Nazareth (1929)
In the very different medium of a monochrome lithograph, Denis has the angel kneeling but with the same outspread hand gesture, while Our Lady stands with serenity, almost looking beyond the scene at a future vista. Is it meant to capture the moment before she is fully aware of her visitor?

The Annunciation (no date given)
Denis’ love of the Italian landscape around Fiesole was such that it sometimes becomes the main subject of the painting. Perhaps he is attempting to set the great mystery against everyday surroundings, to emphasize the penetration of the divine into the human and natural? Our Lady herself, it seems, was engaged in some menial task such as watering or cutting flowers...

The Annunciation in Fiesole (no date given)
One of my favorites is a depiction in which we see the familiar deacon-archangel holding a Gospel book, accompanied by the candlebearing acolytes, approaching the Blessed Virgin on what appears to be a rooftop terrace, with the sun streaming behind her (which is somewhat unconventional; usually the beam of light comes across the scene from the other direction). The sublimity of the setting and its vertiginous perspective hint at the lofty grandeur of the miraculous conception. (How I wish I could find a better graphic than this!)

The Annunciation at Fiesole (no date given)
Here is a Denis looking more fauvist and cubist than usual. For whatever reason he has decided to give Gabriel a chasuble this time rather than a dalmatic, and no book, but something more like a priestly orans gesture. The servers, too, do not bear candles, but simply walk ahead. The haloes are more pronounced.

Annunciation at the Window in Prayer (no date given)
The whole series thus far have been landscape-oriented; here we have an unusual portrait-oriented setting, which allows for ample attention to the wonderful arches and their almost Boethian musical-ratio relationships. The plants exercise a prominent role, with one growing on top of the wall, the potted lily, another flower pot at the front right, and, most strikingly, the “burning bush” directly behind Our Lady. St. Gabriel here is almost timid, afraid to disturb the Virgin’s reverie.

The Annunciation under the Arch with Lilies (no date given)
The tenth and last that I found online seems to be only a portion of a larger whole that I have not had success in locating.

It is usually my colleague David Clayton who provides us with in-depth analysis of modern sacred art (and I hope he will enjoy this post!), but my concluding thought is simply this: if Maurice Denis could return again and again to a great mystery of the Christian Faith and find inexhaustible inspiration and joy in looking at it from every angle his imagination suggested, why cannot our artists today do the same? No subjects for painting can be greater, richer, nobler, more evocative, dynamic, or rewarding. May God grant us more painters like this, through the prayers of His most holy Mother.

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