Modern Art and the Sacred:
The Prophetic Ministry of Alain Couturier, O.P.
by Thomas F. O'Meara

Spring 1986, Vol. 38 No. 1, pp. 31-40

Thomas F. O'Meara, the William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. A recent publication is: "Thomas Aquinas Theologian" (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).

A liberation from the immediate past, Couturier's work rediscovered not only the greatness of the past but anticipated the dynamic issues of our own times.

TWENTY years after Vatican II, it becomes more and more evident that the Council and the periods preceding and following it are simply a long conversation between Roman Catholicism and modernity. By modernity we mean not simply the ideology of the epochs after Kant, Marx and Freud but the thought-forms of a culture centered in human subjectivity, freedom and historicity. The event of Vatican II (which is much more than the four sessions in Rome) begins a long retrieval, appropriation, critique and transcendence of modernity by Catholicism. Because the Roman Catholic world projects itself in the visual -- in the iconic and liturgical -- and because modern art is the sacrament of the twentieth century, the horizons of art and sacrality in our century could not avoid each other, but would inevitably have to speak, expressing this latest, complex dialogue between Christianity and the West. (1)

Even at the end of the nineteenth century, with the work of Cézanne and Monet scarcely absorbed, young artists pondered the sad , derivative state of religious art. Joseph Pichard's L'Art sacré moderne chronicles the new atmosphere which emerged from 1890 to 1914, and which was then taken up again after World War 1, fostering the first attempts at a modern church architecture in Europe.(2) Pichard himself helped to found conferences and then a periodical which was to exercise particular influence. Within eighteen months of its inception, however, the journal L'Art sacré was taken over by the publishing house of Cerf which confided its direction to two Dominicans: P.-R. Régamey and M.-A. Couturier. Régamey's thought is well known through translations of Religious Art in the Twentieth Century.(3) Now the vision and work of the other Dominicans influential in furthering within Roman Catholicism a positive dialogue with modern art, Marie Alain Couturier, can be glimpsed, for two books with selections from his writings have recently appeared.

The first, entitled La Verité blessée, contains selections from journals and essays, sketches for articles and talks while the other, Art sacré, gives excerpts from his articles on the religious dimension in modern art. The Menil foundation in Paris has drawn together the material for this volume of selections from 1939 to 1953; from the Menil foundation in Houston comes the second volume of brief, powerful excerpts from issues of L'Art sacré elegantly illustrated with the original black and white photographs. In the pages of both books, we hear the voice of an original, multifaceted thinker; a contemplative priest who converses with the great figures of the French cultural world after Cézanne, Picasso and Braque.(4)

Dominique de Menil, in her introduction to the latter book, writes that "it is not a question of re-introducing someone forgotten but of receiving his presence anew," the presence of someone who broke through into unexplored frontiers, someone who when modern art was dismissed as secular, atheist or neurotic was the friend of Braque, Lèger, Matisse, Rouault and Picasso. (5)

The excerpts from the journals and addresses are markings for learning about Couturier's life and work, while the pages reproduced from L'Art sacré speak of the problematic of relating Christianity, seemingly so explicit in its religious objects, to an art increasingly abstract and transcendental.

Born in the Loire on November 15, 1897, the young Couturier was mobilized for the First World War and wounded on the front. By 1919 he was studying painting in Paris with a group centered around Maurice Denis and then worked for the next five years in various churches in the media of fresco and stained glass. During the early 1920s he toured Italy, read Paul Claudel, discovered Matisse, Picasso and Le Corbusier, met Jean Cocteau at the house of the Maritains, and worked for Action française. His interior odyssey, however, moved within not only art but within Christianity, drawing him to religious life, first as a Benedictine oblate and then as a Dominican, receiving the habit in 1925. He speaks of "that day in 1925 when freedom entered into my life, having the face of love."(6) In the years immediately before and after his ordination, Couturier's superiors, far from discouraging his art, offered some commissions: a novitiate chapel, the chapel of the Dominicans at Oslo, frescoes for the private chapel in Santa Sabina (Rome) of the Master General in 1932. Assigned to a priory in Paris, even while working on churches and windows up through 1937, Couturier assumed a widening ministry of preaching and spiritual direction. Simone Weil wrote her Letter to a Religious to the Dominican at the suggestion of Maritain in 1942 when both Weil and Couturier were in the United States. In 1938 he assumed the direction of L'Art sacré.

Early in 1940 the French Dominican arrived in New York to preach a series of Lenten Conferences in French at St. Vincent de Paul, and then to visit Canada. The war trapped him in North America: lecturing in Canada, meeting artists such as Salvador Dali, painting a Way of the Cross for the Dominican Sisters of Elkins Park, serving as chaplain to French pilots in Jacksonville, Florida.

Couturier returned to France in August 1945, a changed man, deepened by his exile, filled with new perspectives for art and faith. His activity gave expression to more striking ideas about how the church, in its decoration and liturgy, should relate to modern painting, sculpture, design and architecture. In a revolutionary move, Couturier attracted for the decoration of the new church of Assy in the south of France Léger, Braque, Matisse, Chagal, Lipchitz and others. Assy was consecrated in June, 1950. By then Couturier was corresponding with Matisse over the chapel for the Dominican cloistered nuns at Vence. Conservative reactions both in France and in Rome became increasingly vocal. In the years which followed, Régamey and Couturier worked on a dual front, explaining and further encouraging the breakthrough of twentieth century art in the decoration of Assy, Vence and Audincourt and defending the very possibility of this new incarnation to the intégristes and to Rome. After an operation, Couturier never fully recovered his health and died in early 1954.


Marie-Alain Couturier published a few books during his lifetime; his creative spirit found small, original and provocative pieces, not synthetic systems, congenial.(7) Drawing on the provincial archives of the Paris Province of Dominicans, the M. A. Couturier Archives created by the Mend Foundation in 1975, has been able to assemble the texts in La Verité blessée (with a forward by the French, post-structuralist philosopher of science and art Michel Serres). These texts are drawn from journals, lectures, notes for future articles, dating from 1939 to 1953, and range from a line to several pages, although most are brief.(8) Couturiers spiritual life is glimpsed through observations or quotes from literary figures; a paragraph depicts the conversation at meetings with figures from the arts; longer segments recall the ever more profound description of art and the sacramental.

I believe in the continuity of the life of forms, in the homogeneity of their evolution, and yet it is true that the appearance of a genius is unforeseeable, and that such an appearance puts everything in question, reversing the course of life, orienting everything to the new genius.

Matisse: "All my art is religious."

Picasso: "Nothing can be done without solitude; I have created around myself, without anyone suspecting it, a profound solitude."

Normally the artistic life and the mystical life exclude each other; art truly alive nourishes itself from everything, from the entire life of a person. Nor can we say that each (of these lives) simply addresses itself to different realms of the soul -- that is only partially true. The truth is, on the contrary, that generally one must choose one of them.(9)

This book -- what readers will hope is only a first work from the Couturier Archives -- also contains a fine selection of photographs (Couturier as a novice; looking at the plans for Assy or Vence; visiting with Chagall and Maritain) and ends with a detailed chronology of his life and an index.


To appreciate the agonizing problem which Couturier and Régamey faced, we must call to mind the split between a traditional (but largely nineteenth-century) church, and a modern France after Proust, Debussy, Monet. Catholicism in France was marginalized, its isolationism furthered by a recent alienation from Germany and England, and by what Couturier called the "Byzantinism" of Catholic Italy and Spain. The long tradition of interplay between the sacred and the arts, quite capable of sustaining the revolutions of the medieval, the renaissance and the baroque, had collapsed. With the beginning of the nineteenth century, the church turned to mediocre talents, to merchants and carpenters of an art and architecture that is religious simply because it presents with emotional objectivity a Christian figure. Lourdes, Fourvibre, Lisieux emerge from an art which is imitative, mediocre, confused; stupendous but lacking depth. In the environs of Paris alone 120 churches had been built, but without the advice of a single significant architect.(10)

"What are the reasons for this?," Couturier asked in L'Art sacré. The rapid de-Christianization of Europe and the retreat of the church, marked by fear and ignorance, from all areas of culture; a modern culture diverted away from the ecclesiastical world; an ignorance of the mentality, goals and style of modern artists linked to the influence of the older academic art; the rapid alteration after 1850 of the forms of art, both in terms of a withdrawal from beauty and pure objectivity and a new resonance among a wider public. All of this, he concluded, is summed up in the widespread criticism of turning in any way to modern artists: "They are not believers."

Couturier argued that the precise ideas and goals of ecclesiastical art should be pondered and presented by the church, but then the church should step back and let the free genius of the artist (which exists independent of Christian faith and yet is not without its own mysterious lines to the transcendent and the mystical) provide "the elaboration of forms, their birth which occurs in liberty, purity, weakness aided by friendship, respect and prayer."(11) This difficult introduction of Christianity to the media and varieties of modern art (which is being faced in this period in America by figures like Paul Tillich and Maurice Lavanoux) Couturier describes as no less than "the rebirth of Christian art . . . , the reform of ideas, the restoration of visual sensitivity."(12)

Purification and liberation mark this process. Purification means a shift to formal purity, a move from justification through the object presented to the perduring variety and depth of beauty in form. As with the divine being, form diffuses beauty, and in a great work of art a harmony of lines and colors sets forth in formal accord their overall impact. Such an unchained beauty lives free from academic imperialism, traditional ossification, bourgeois conformism, and theological immaturity. The striking black and white illustrations in L'Art sacré, where a romanesque church, a pagan temple, an American dam, an African village emerge with a striking formal dynamism and spiritual depth, are carefully assembled to display "the multiple and living beauty of being." "To escape the danger of barriers and blinders, we publish images taken from natural realities and even from industry, recalling that admirable forms are born without any need of art but through the rigor of mathematics or by means of a healthy conception of function and goal."(13)

As Pichard's book showed, the conflict over modern art and liturgical service began early in this century. Couturier had to go to the ultimate issue -- beyond the modern lines of architecture of the newness of Nolde, Rouault, or Chagal -- to abstract art. It was Couturier who, although he himself appreciated a greater variety in contemporary art than merely the drive towards abstract expressionism, saw that this ultimate form of modernity could not be set aside in contempt or compromise.

It was not through his own work as an artist that Couturier brought his revolutionary ideas to realization but through his active friendships with the great artists and cultural figures of his day. Régamey writes:

From the time of his training at the Ateliers d'Art Sacré under Denis and Desvallières, Pere Couturier's greatest ambition was to revive Christian art by appealing to the independent masters of his time. He discussed the project many times between 1932 and 1935 with the Abbé Devémy who was chaplain at the sanatorium in Assy, opposite Mont Blanc. In 1936, his friend jean Hébert-Stevens, who worked in glass spoke about the project to Bonnard, who was very interested; at this time, however, no opportunity came to make the idea materialize. In 1938, Hébert-Stevens suggested to Couturier that he speak to Braque about the idea. (14)

In 1936 Abbe Devémy thought of commissioning artists who were not "third-rate" for a church in an area near the Alps to serve sanatorium patients. In 1939 Couturier stopped to visit his friend and was asked to collaborate in planning "Our Lady of All Graces." The project began by acquiring a window designed by Rouault.(15) The war years intervened, with meetings with Maurois, Focillon, Dali, Stravinsky, and conversations with Léger and Chagall on the prospect of collaboration at Assy.

By the time of his return to France, it was clear to Couturier that the resurrection of religious art through an incarnation with modernity would never be accomplished by lesser talents, a quasi-modern religious art, and the institutional church. He had conceived the bold idea of involving the great figures of the twentieth century in aspects of church decoration -- even if they were fallen away from, or indifferent to, the church. Three great churches were touched by the Dominican's statement that modern art can express the sacred in line and color: (1) Matisse's chapel for the Dominican sisters at Vence, (2) the windows and mosaic by Léger and Bazaine at Audincourt, (3) and what we might call the religious art gallery of Assy. What is the lesson of the Assy church where the tapestry backdrop for the sanctuary was done by Lurcat, the facade mosaic by Léger, the tabernacle door by Braque, windows by Rouault, stained glass and a ceramic mural by Chagall? Couturier answered: for Christian art to exist at all, "each generation must appeal to the masters of living art, and today those masters come first from secular art ... there are no dead masters in art." It is not sensationalism which turns the commissions away from the ateliers of the academy or of the hierarchy, but the search for those individuals in whom, in our times (no others exist), art is living. You must employ life where you find it. "Let the dead bury the dead," Devémy, the pastor of Assy observed. Assy is not a masterpiece -- it lacks rigor in organization -- but as a cultural-theological statement it is of the greatest import.(16)

Assy had attracted enormous attention; in the United States Life magazine featured it. Reactionary Catholics, however, looked askance at this dialogue between art and religion; attacks usually focused upon the lack of a religious object, the strangeness of the forms, the manifestation of modern freedom and subjectivity, and the lack of faith or ecclesial membership of the artists. The balanced tone of Pius XII's encyclical Mediator Dei (1947) and of his allocution in 1950 on sacred art ("The purpose of all art is to break the narrow boundaries of the finite, and open windows onto the infinite for the benefit of the human spirit, yearning in that direction."(17)) is replaced by an "Instruction" issued by the Vatican in June, 1952. This document, listing the censures of Nicaea and Trent against distortion and innovation in art, rightly emphasized the link between sacred art and liturgy, deplored mediocre, mass-produced images and praised artists who are outstanding for their technique, but its discouragement of "unusual images ... not in conformity with the approved usage of the church ... [representing] false dogma . . . the occasion of dangerous error to the unlearned" was interpreted as supporting those who could conceive of religious art only as photographic and theologically shallow.(18) By 1953 the controversy over sacred art was only a facet of a spreading crisis. The worker-priests were ordered to take no new recruits; contemporary theological directions had been summarily dismissed in 1950 by Humani Generis; to save the Dominican Order from suppression, Suarez, the Master General, removed from their positions the French provincials, prominent theologians such as Congar, Chenu and Feret, as well as the director of the Cerf publishing house (which was responsible for L'Art sacré). For the remaining years of the 1950s, until John XXIII called Vatican II, the renewal of the Catholic Church in the laboratory of France came largely to a halt. Couturier did not live to see its utterly unexpected recommencement bearing within it a long and world-wide destiny.

Couturiers work was a liberation from the immediate past in order to rediscover the greatness of the many pasts and of the many futures; his few, climactic years after 1950 anticipated the issues of our own creative but troubled times. His apostolate was for the future, and his perspective was universal.

To return to L'Art sacré, the Dominican observed in the journal's pages that in the regions which the church then designated "mission fields" the problem of art and sacramentality was compounded, for the church understood neither contemporary art, nor the "modernity" of the art of Africa or Asia. Next, Catholicism must adjust itself everywhere to a new relationship between the profane and the sacred. This is the same issue as that labored over by theologians in middle decades of this century viewed as the previous compartmentalization and the new union of nature and grace. Couturier quoted here in L'Art sacré André Malraux, with whom he had much in common in breadth of vision and whom he often cited in his notebooks: "Each day it appears more evident that modern civilization is incapable of giving forms to spiritual values. The same thing happens in Rome. That Christianity cannot give to its churches a style which permits Christ to be present there, nor unite in the figures of the saints a communion with artistic quality -- this is worth reflecting upon."(19)

Immanence, transcendence: the Noli me tangere of Easter counterpoised to the baby's birth at Christmas. To forget either side is to wound the church, not only in its dogma but in its activity. Couturier does not claim to have solved the innumerable problems of style in modern art within the ecclesial and Christian world of space and time. Yet, clearly, he has altered the relationship, illuminating the purity of modern media, liberating religion from past academic scholasticisms, stating in practice the possibility and necessity of their conversation.

The word "living" occurs repeatedly in his writings. Only the living can flourish in the now. If the church continues the cultural diaspora nurtured since Louis XVI and Gregory XIV, the world of Catholics will be a ghetto, "and ultimately nothing is more opposed to the Gospel than the mentality of the ghetto or sect."(20)

Modern art and the sacred, modernity and sacramentality -- far from being esoteric hobbies, they mirrored the problem of how Catholicism, its theology and life, would be expressed in epochs after 1900 and 1950. What the worker-priests articulated in the factories, what the theologians wrote in their books on labor, salvation-history and episcopacy, what the liturgists and musicians explored -- this conflict and potential Couturier perceived in art.


1 "Art is for modern artists the successor of the absolute. It is not a religion but it is a faith. It is not a ritual but it is the negation of an impure world." Andre Malraux cited in Couturier's notes (La Verité blessée, p. 158).

2 (Paris: Arthaud, 1953), pp. 21-43.

3 (Paris: Cerf, 1952); translation (New York: Herder, 1963).

4 La Verité blessée (Paris: Plon, 1984); Art sacré (Houston: Menil Foundation/Herscher, 1983).

5 Art sacré, p. 9.

6 Ibid., p. 14.

7 Art et Catholicisme (Montreal: Editions de l'Arbre, 1941); Chroniques (Montreal, Editions de l'Arbre, 1947) brought together in the posthumous Art et liberté spirituelle (Paris: Cerf, 1958); after Couturier's death Régamey published Discours de mariage, Se garder libre, L'Evangile est à l'extreme.

8 "Note de l'Editeur," La Vérité blessée, p. 13.

9 Quotations from the year 1948 (pp. 147ff.).

10 M. A. Couturier, Art sacré, p. 34. "One baptizes only the living (although there has been a practice among Christians to baptize the dead). These enormous "still-borns -- St. Patrick in New York, St. John the Divine, Sacre-Coeur in Paris. If I think of what is being built everywhere in the United States and what I just saw in Rome, it is with great emotion that I behold what is born at least once ... at Assy.' La Vérité blessée, p. 152. Cf. Pichard, "La Decadence," L'Art sacré moderne, pp. 7ff.; W. Rubin, "Decadence and the Dominicans," Modern Sacred Art and the Church of Assy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961).

11 Ibid., p. 36.

12 Ibid., p. 14.

13 Ibid., p. 17.

14 Religious Art in the Twentieth Century, p. 236.

15 For a history of the genesis of Assy and for a detailed study of its works of art, cf. W. Rubin, Modern Sacred Art and the Church of Assy, pp. 31 ff. 77ff.; also the recent corrective to the sometimes strange theoretical conclusions of Rubin; J. Dillenberger, "Artists and Church Commissions: Rubin's The Church at Assy Revisited," in Art, Creativity, and the Sacred (New York: Crossroad, 1983), pp. 193ff.

16 M. A. Couturier, Art sacré, p. 52, 56.

17 "Address to the First International Congress of Catholic Artists," Liturgical Arts 19 (1950), 3f. Cf. Regamey, "The Laws of the Church," "The Non-Christian Artist in the Service of the Church," Religious Art in the Twentieth Century, pp. 116ff., 177ff. (incorporating the material from his earlier articles in La Vie intellectuelle 19 (1951).

18 "Instructio. . . 'De Arte Sacra'" (Suprema Sacra Congregatio S. Officii) Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 44 (1952), pp. 542-545 ff; (English translation: "On Sacred Art," Catholic Mind 50 (1952), pp. 699ff.).

19 Art sacré, p. 140.

20 Ibid., p. 144.