Joyce C. Polistena
The religious imagination of a Romantic painter
Image

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), considered the greatest painter of the Romantic period, is probably best known for his painting “Liberty Leading the People.” He is far less known and appreciated as an important painter of religious subjects.

Yet the 120 pictures and over 220 drawings depicting traditional subjects, like the Pietà or Christ on the cross, initiate the style of modern religious art. Although Delacroix has been characterized as a radical and an unbeliever who found religion irrational, these pictures challenge claims that Delacroix’s religious subjects were few in number, mere commissions remote from his personal interests.

To say that Delacroix is an important painter of religious works is a controversial claim, given the canonical labeling of Delacroix as a hero of modern painting and the equation of modernity with secularity. But Delacroix’s sympathetic and sustained interest in religion suggests that he found there something more than a tool to spur his pictorial imagination. Others have said as much. In 1885, 22 years after the artist’s death, the art critic Ernest Chesneau wrote: “When one considers the religious subjects that Delacroix has treated in the course of his life of painting, one arrives at an enormous total… one must conclude that, without being a mystic nor a devout, Delacroix had not only poetry but a religious soul.”

Delacroix’s religious paintings were informed in general terms by the Romantic penchant for introspection that defined the aesthetic experience as a sign of the spiritual. More specifically, many of his subjects were influenced by the progressive theologies that flowed from the surprisingly swift religious revival in the early decades of the 19th century.

At a minimum Delacroix’s interest in religious themes emerged from circumstances in which he came to identify intuitively with Catholic culture. Excerpts from the artist’s Journal indicate his ongoing participation in Catholic rites and his sympathetic interest in religion up to his death in 1863:

I was much impressed by the Requiem Mass. I thought of all religion has to offer the imagination, and at the same time its appeal to man’s deepest feelings....

By the 1820s, progressive theologies promoted by German thinkers were signaling change in the religious climate in France. Incendiary hortatory reformers like the popular Père Lamennais called the people to democratic ideals and to a realignment of authority in the church. Romantic theologies paralleled those of the Baroque period, in that the status of humanity was elevated in relation to God. Suddenly, or so it seemed, liberal principles began to have a far-reaching impact on the themes and symbols of religious art. Portrayals of Jesus Christ focused on his humanity and on themes that stressed Christian virtue, rather than on more dogmatic or sacramental themes. By the 1830s the working classes preferred the figure of Jesus as the savior of the poor or as the Good Shepherd; political activists and liberals popularized an image of Jesus as the leader of the oppressed masses; the elite, educated bourgeoisie preferred the image of Jesus as the suffering, solitary hero of Gethsemane. As a class, this last group included Delacroix, his intimate friends and fellow artists, and critics. As long as humanitarian and progressive Catholic philosophies dominated, religious paintings that depicted these principles flourished.

As the Romantic style of painting became identified with modern art, that is, with subjects of passion, horror and violence—from Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” (1819) to Delacroix’s “The Tiger Hunt” (1854)—modern religious painting became increasingly identified with novel subjects that expressed communal spirituality, humanitarian values and greater intimacy with God. Like his patrons, Delacroix was attracted to themes of faith with hope in benevolent care, witnessed by the nearly 11 versions of Christ asleep during the tempest. He twice painted “The Disciples and the Holy Women Carrying Away the Body of Saint Stephen” in which the focus of the composition is on the actions of the community of believers, not the fallen martyr. His images of “The Good Samaritan” and many versions of “The Holy Women Tending to Saint Sebastian” illustrate a similar vision of caritas. The art critic Paul Mantz wrote in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1859 of the St. Sebastian painting of that same year: “This scene of pious devotion, by the melancholic expression which it brings out, this little picture is a hundred times more religious than most of the compositions printed in bloody pages of martyrology.”

What did it mean to be 100 times “more religious”? It suggests that Delacroix’s contemporaries perceived in his works something authoritative and transcendent: a beneficent and vivifying energy pulsing through the vibrant color, the expressive brushwork and the intricately compressed linear patterns. Although his works are layered with narrative, dogma and art-historical antecedents, Delacroix understood well that sensory experience offered a language for encountering the transcendent.

Delacroix’s first major religious painting was “Christ in the Garden” (1826-27), a theme that the artist would paint many times. In an early version Delacroix used vibrant, saturated colors to great effect, simultaneously surprising the viewer with a portrayal of Jesus in a reclining, almost sensual pose that is both languid and tense. With handsome features and a nearly regal countenance, Jesus looks serenely resigned to his fate. The concept is not solely a burst of artistic imagination, because the idea is found in the Gospel of John (10:17) where Jesus says to his disciples: “I lay down my life.... No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord....”

Delacroix’s early work is in marked contrast to his later versions, which were created in a variety of media from the 1840s through the 1850s. The later pictures demonstrate a transformation from the solitary, strong, heroic figure to a more austere and vulnerable personality, posed in a stark and haunting vision of suffering as described in the Gospel of Mark.

Delacroix, so often described as an atheist or a Voltairian skeptic, writes enthusiastically about wanting to read a widely popular book based on mystical revelations of Christ’s Passion by Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824). This is surprising, because the nun’s record of a divine revelation is written with deeply devotional language, rich in tradition and evocative of profound piety.

The Lamentation

In Delacroix’s painting “The Lamentation,” the body of Jesus is a tightly compressed form, folded at a sharp angle; his right leg is drawn with a deep cleft-mark at the calf that makes it appear strangely entangled with the other limb. These contortions imply the violence of Jesus’ death. In the same way the bloodied right hand lies limp and folded at his waist, while the left arm hangs down. Jesus’ eyes are closed, but even in death his brow remains furrowed from the agonizing pain, his mouth drawn in a downward slope and lips slightly parted. His corpse is dramatically lit from an unknown source at the upper left, so that the color of the body is startling with its ghastly white pallor and greenish tones, highlighted with flecks of purples and blues. Delacroix makes use of his signature bold red hue with color accents not only on the body of Jesus but also on the shroud and on the surrounding figures, thereby creating a circular pattern that unifies the composition.

Because this large painting (11-1/2 feet by 15-1/2 feet) was originally intended for the Chapel of the Virgin in the church of Saint-Denis du Saint-Sacrement in Paris, it is likely that Delacroix conceptualized Mary’s role in the drama as the most important. In doing so, the Virgin’s tear-swollen face, her delicate and expressive hands and outstretched arms pull us irresistibly into the moment. Her face displays a grimace of pain with her downcast eyes, the slightly arched left nostril and her lips that curl upward while the corners of her mouth slope downward. One might even interpret her features as an expression of repugnance at the capacity for violence on the part of sinners. Our attention is drawn to the mother and son, who are molded into a single human form. Michelangelo’s “Pietà” in St. Peter’s Basilica was an obvious model for Delacroix, although the merged figures in the painting are not as successfully united as in the famed sculpture. Upon seeing this painting, the critic Grimouard de Saint-Laurent said he believed that Delacroix had gone too far: “We consider the bursts of sadness in all the scenes of the Passion, and especially in this Lamentation, as a defect....”

Conversely, in 1885 the art historian and critic Charles Blanc, in Les Artistes de Mon Temps, singled out Delacroix’s work as able to move even non-Christians to contemplate the depth of the sacrifice: “Although there are a thousand others [paintings of the “Pietà”]...this time it is so profoundly sensitive, so human, and so heart-rending that all men, Christian or pagan, must be moved to their innermost selves....”

The Crucified Body

In one relatively brief period, Delacroix created a quartet of images of the passion of Christ that, taken together, come closer to portraying Christological theology than nearly any other 19th-century contemporary artist. “The Crucifixion,” “The Lamentation,” “The Entombment” and “The Appearance of Jesus to Saint Thomas” (also known as “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas”) illustrate the sacred body as anointed, adored, caressed, carried, lanced and probed, wrapped and mourned over. Delacroix captures the same quality that he praised in Michelangelo. Here painted flesh appears tangible and vivifying. What he wrote about Michelangelo’s figure of Christ in “The Last Judgment” is true of his own painting: “C’est Dieu lui-même...“ (“It is God himself”) (Revue des Deux-Mondes, 1837).

Perhaps it is sufficient to clarify that orthodoxy did not disappear from art after the Baroque period but re-emerged in the Romantic era. Delacroix was not an atheist: his admiration for Christianity was partly a response to feelings of doubt or despair as he sought a rationally ordered moral compass. As he wrote in his Journal in 1857, he was open to the possibility of the supernatural and receptive to the consolation he found in meditation and in the faith of others.

I love churches; I like to rest in them nearly alone, and to sit on a pew, and remain there in calm reverie.... It appears to me like a tapestry of all the prayers that suffering hearts have echoed there rising to heaven. Who can replace these inscriptions, these ex-votos, like paving stones...used by the knees of generations who have suffered and in which the old church has measured their last prayers.

Joyce C. Polistena teaches art history at Pratt Institute in New York and is the author of Eugene Delacroix 1798-1863: the Initiator of the Style of Modern Religious Art (Edwin Mellen Press, 2008).

Also See

Recently in Art