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A century ago, a little-known Belgian artist named Albert Servaes became famous when cardinals at the Holy Office in Rome censured him for depicting Jesus Christ in a way they considered unsuitable for Catholics. The story made the front page of American Art News in New York. In this “curious case,” a reporter explained, Church authorities had judged a series of ­Servaes’s charcoal drawings of the Passion to be “impregnated with a bold ­realism which render[ed] his representations of Christ as undignified and ­improper.”

The Roman decree of March 30, 1921, came as a shock to Servaes, as did the forced removal of the Stations of the Cross he had drawn for the Carmelite church in Luithagen near Antwerp. He was a devout convert to Catholicism and received spiritual direction from a Discalced Carmelite priest. He resided in Sint-Martens-Latem, an artists’ colony in which Catholic worship and the artistic heritage of Christian Europe were taken most seriously, even as the residents innovated upon the latter in order to speak to a generation just traumatized by the Great War. Although his Stations were untraditional in many respects, Servaes had sought to honor Christ with his art.

Servaes for the most part shied away from sacred themes after his censure, although later in life he found welcome as a Catholic artist in Switzerland. He died in 1966—not long after Pope Paul VI, at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, pleaded with artists who felt alienated from the Church: “The Church needs you and turns to you.”

In the meantime, Servaes with his wider oeuvre had secured a respected place in art history as a leader of the movement called Belgian Expressionism. Less rebellious than its German cousin, the movement eschewed gratuitous eroticism and embraced the rhythms of rural life, an unmistakably Christian spirituality, and the august Flemish art tradition that stretched back to the Middle Ages.

In the early twentieth century, the Belgian Expressionists sought to reconcile movements in modern art with the aesthetic culture of the Church. A number of prominent Catholic intellectuals urged this engagement, including the young Jacques Maritain, who had befriended Servaes. Yet after the Holy Office ruled against the Luithagen Stations, the French neo-Thomist philosopher publicly defended the Vatican decree. Already an admired Catholic layman with a bully pulpit, Maritain could have defended Servaes’s work or remained quiet on the matter. But he chose differently.

Ironically, in this episode of cultural politics, the Vatican and its defenders departed more radically from Catholic tradition than Servaes and the Belgian Expressionists had. The exercise of centralized ecclesiastical power to condemn drawings in a little church somewhere in Flanders was extraordinary. What is more, the cardinals of the Holy Office deemed the entire “new school of painting” Servaes represented to be unsuitable for “churches, oratories, etc.” The Holy Office solemnly declared that the ­Luithagen Stations violated Canon 1399 of the Code of Canon Law of 1917, which prohibited “images or impressions of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of the Angels and Saints, or other Servants of God, alien to the sense and decrees of the Church.” Maritain and other Catholic intellectuals then affirmed this sweeping adjudication of aesthetic taste, failing to note how novel it was in the history of the Church.

The Holy Office had been established in 1542 by Pope Paul III. Originally called the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, it was renamed the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office by Pope Pius X in 1908. At the close of Vatican II, it was reconfigured as the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

During the centuries in which this institution was known as the Roman Inquisition, the cardinals in charge of it rarely entered local disputes over artwork commissioned for liturgical use. When speaking on behalf of the universal Church—and not in their individual capacities as pastors of this or that territorial church or parish—Vatican officials of the Tridentine era pronounced on artistic matters sparingly. When they did, it was usually in general terms, rather than to single out particular artists or works of art. For example, a decree of 1623 prohibited crucifixes that positioned Christ’s arms vertically. This was because Christ’s arms were brought closer together when upstretched than when outstretched, representing too pessimistic a view of how many souls had a chance at salvation. Another decree, issued in 1670, condemned crucifixes that evoked more disgust than reverence.

In practice, the Roman Inquisition left the business of reprimanding artists, and of banning particular paintings, statues, and other artwork, to local civil and ecclesiastical authorities. These decisions could be harsh. The Spanish Inquisition, primarily an arm of the Spanish state, did target artists—but typically when they were suspected of heresy, rather than because their art itself was deemed offensive to God. In one instance, the sculptor Esteban Jamete, a Frenchman living in Cuenca, was imprisoned and tortured for his suspected Protestant beliefs and for hiding Lutheran literature in his home. Upon his release, he was ordered by an Inquisition tribunal to continue making art for Catholic churches.

One especially famous early modern case of Catholic policing of art was likewise an exercise of local authority. In 1573, a tribunal of the Venetian Holy Office, loosely affiliated with the Roman Inquisition but formed and largely controlled by local civil magistrates, interrogated at length the Italian painter Veronese. A painting of the Last Supper he had produced for the refectory of a Dominican friary caused a scandal. The problem was that Veronese had portrayed Christ and the ­Apostles supping in the presence of “buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs, and other such scurrilities,” as one incredulous inquisitor put it—that is, as if the first Mass had taken place at the kind of party frequented by the young and restless rich of Venice. Veronese was lightly reprimanded and ordered to fix the painting at his own expense. His ingenious solution was simply to change its title. It was no longer The Last Supper, he decided, but rather The Feast in the House of Levi. The unaltered painting was now taken to depict the well-heeled tax collector Levi, before he became a disciple, entertaining all manner of sinners and buffoons—the very reason Christ’s visit, in the Gospel account, had scandalized respectable opinion. Satisfied, the inquisitors let Veronese’s painting hang.

Art historians once held that Tridentine-era Church authorities had been under pressure from the Vatican to police art and condemn artists guilty of subversive innovations and lascivious imagery. One basis for this presumption was the edict “On the Invocation, Veneration, and Relics of Saints, and on Sacred Images,” issued in 1563 by the fathers at the Council of Trent. Another was Pope Pius IV’s order, in 1564, that nude figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel were to be covered up with loincloths of paint.

But today art historians reject the conceit that papal Rome spearheaded a prudish offensive against experimental artistic geniuses. Pius IV was not acting on behalf of the universal Church or condemning either Michelangelo or his Last Judgment when he commissioned the loincloths. He was simply exercising his right, in his capacity as the Bishop of Rome and as a priest who said Mass regularly in the Sistine Chapel, to alter the decor of the wall he faced whenever he offered up the Eucharistic paten and chalice to his Lord.

And the Tridentine edict on sacred art, far from suppressing genius and innovation, is today understood to have encouraged major artistic developments of the early modern era. As Jeffrey Chipps Smith puts it in Sensuous Worship: Jesuits and the Art of the Early Catholic Reformation in Germany, the council certainly “warned against idolatry and the misuse of images, two of the excesses most criticized by Protestants.” But the edict also underscored “the salutary role of art in cultivating piety” and empowered local bishops, not Rome, to take the lead in regulating “abuses and novelties”—doing so, furthermore, without offering programmatic guidelines. In practice, then, a great deal of freedom existed in the subsequent centuries, as lay and clerical leaders throughout the Catholic world commissioned sacred art of the Mannerist, Baroque, Cuzco, French Classical, and other schools.

This hands-off approach was the norm for Rome even through the nineteenth century. At that time, a succession of modern artistic movements competed for commissions, beginning with the Neoclassicism favored by liberal nationalists. These movements diverged considerably from the increasingly mass-produced Neo-Gothic, sometimes consciously anti-modern, and sugary “Saint-Sulpice-style” works increasingly employed for Catholic worship.

The revolutionary moment for the regulation of Catholic art, as for many other aspects of ­ecclesiastical governance, was 1917. In that year, Pope Pius X and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri finalized their unprecedented overhaul and rationalization of the Church’s ancient, messy, and often inconsistently applied canon law tradition, reintroducing it as a single, streamlined, one-volume code. The process was conducted in Rome and overseen by the clerical hierarchy without much notice or input from the rest of the Church. This below-the-radar revolution was possible because previous ecclesial reforms and violent political upheavals since the eighteenth century had eliminated many of the traditional forms of both lay and local clerical control over the composition and activities of the clerical hierarchy. Moreover, most people were preoccupied at the time with the First World War.

The new Code of Canon Law was part of a larger project of consolidating ecclesiastical power in Rome, which included a major restructuring and retooling of the clerical bureaucracy. Vatican officials—and bishops who were now more directly answerable to Rome than ever before—were newly emboldened to be more activist and controlling in numerous areas of ecclesial life. The Holy Office busied itself with assessing and censuring sacred art near and far. It became more receptive to denunciations of particular artists by offended parties and lobbying groups.

Suddenly, even obscure, devout artists in places like rural Flanders found their work scrutinized and condemned—by officials speaking on behalf of the Church Universal, no less! Such expansive and minute exercises of centralized ecclesiastical authority would have surprised even the inquisitors of pre-Enlightenment Europe.

Working-class and artistically gifted, Albert Servaes was twenty-two in 1905 when, under the influence of a Benedictine monk named Bruno Destrée, he left his native Ghent—the oldest industrialized city in continental Europe—for sleepy, agricultural Sint-Martens-Latem to the southwest. He had heard of some artists who had formed a community there and whose work was influenced by both mystical realism and the rhythms of local village life, centered as in eras past on the local parish church, Sint Martinuskerk. Gustave Van de Woestijne, for example, was a veteran of the artists’ colony. This painter sought to unite traditional sacred imagery with rural and domestic scenes. He had spent some time in a Benedictine monastery (as had Servaes), discerning a possible call to religious life before deciding to marry and raise a family. Van de Woestijne was influenced in his work by the French Symbolist painter Maurice Denis, a tertiary of the Dominican order.

The example of Van de Woestijne and other ­Latem artists such as the sculptor George Minne (beloved as well as ridiculed for his “Gothic soul” and attentiveness to medieval traditions) encouraged Servaes to become more serious about Catholicism. While throwing himself into painting and drawing, he was drawn to the Carmelite spirituality of his new confessor and director, Fr. Jerome of the Mother of God, who taught him about Teresa of Avila and other mystics and introduced him to neo-Thomist ideas.

By the late 1910s, Servaes’s work combined such Catholic influences with new Expressionist styles and techniques. When he was commissioned to produce the Stations of the Cross for the Carmelites in ­Luithagen, he sought to present the Lord’s Passion in a manner that would simultaneously convey something of the early Carmelite mystics’ views of Christ’s suffering and call back to God contemporaries who had witnessed the darkness of the First World War and, in many cases, turned against religion.

The Luithagen Stations brought about conversions. They spoke powerfully, too, to many Catholics, both lukewarm and devout. But their exaggerated lines and stark emphasis on Christ’s agony disturbed some pious onlookers.

Controversy over the Stations began to swirl. Complaints were sent to Rome. Fr. Jerome and other devout churchmen and laymen, including Maritain at this stage, came to Servaes’s defense. Another ­Carmelite priest, Titus Brandsma from the ­Netherlands, attempted to help Servaes by publishing with him a small book of meditations on each of the charcoal images. Brandsma would eventually die at Dachau and be beatified by Pope John Paul II. But in 1921, his book, which included reproductions of Servaes’s drawings, was likewise reported to the Holy Office. In the Vatican decree that came down in March, Brandsma’s book of meditations was deemed inappropriate for Catholics, as were the Luithagen Stations, which were taken down.

Many prominent, faithful Catholics were dismayed, including the French Dominican priest and theologian Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange. But no one with real influence in the Church—and no one who hoped to attain such influence in the future—­challenged the condemnation, despite its ­unprecedented character.

Maritain offers a telling example. In The ­Maritain Factor: Taking Religion into Interwar Modernism, Jan de Maeyer details the philosopher’s about-face. Maritain and his wife ­Raïssa, a Russian-born poet and philosopher, strongly sympathized with artists like Servaes. They disdained the mass-produced, saccharine art that had glutted Catholic churches in the industrial era. ­Maritain wrote of the “­diabolical ugliness” of “the majority of the objects turned out by modern manufacture for the decoration of churches.” The couple lamented the philistinism they perceived among many of their co-religionists. “The Catholics of ­today,” ­Raïssa wrote in her diary in 1919, “are hard on artists.” Convinced that “the full and luminous Catholic doctrine” united “truth, taste and intelligence,” she insisted: “No timidity. No pharisaism. No ignorance. No prudishness. No Manicheism.”

Maritain’s heart was close to his wife’s on such things. As Maeyer shows, on the eve of the Vatican condemnation, Maritain expressed privately to Fr. Jerome that his friend Servaes’s work was “very remarkable” and “deserved to be energetically defended.” Yet when pressed for public remarks on Servaes after the 1921 decree, the up-and-coming lay Catholic intellectual carried water for the Holy Office. In a lecture in 1924, and then in the second, widely translated edition of his book Art and Scholasticism, Maritain condemned the Luithagen Stations in more rigorous terms than were used by the Vatican cardinals. He asserted that it is “never difficult” for the faithful “to understand the wisdom and justice of the Church’s” decisions—thereby substantializing, as a magisterial judgment of the universal Church, a single citation by the Holy Office of the new Code of Canon Law. Maritain explained that Servaes, “fascinated by the Ego sum vermis et non homo of Isaias and conceiving his Stations as a pure vertigo of grief,” risked misleading the pious masses. Ordinary Christians “cannot harmonize the poor figurations that art places before their eyes and the pure image living in our hearts of the most beautiful of the children of men.” Faced with “certain plastic deformations, a certain degenerate aspect of the contour,” unsophisticated believers rightly perceive the drawings as “an offense against the Humanity of the Savior.”

These are unexpected words from a man who knew what grief and confusion the decree of 1921 had caused many Catholics, some of whom counted ­Maritain as an ally. Although fond of presenting himself as “an inveterate layman,” Maritain in this instance outdid the Holy Office by suggesting its unlimited authority and competency to pronounce on aesthetic matters. He applauded the policing of paintings and other artwork by Vatican officials as a service to the Church, “whatever [the works’] ­aesthetic value” or “the piety, faith, depth of spiritual life, and uprightness of intention of the artist who produced them.”

The Holy Office was encouraged in its new mode of appraising and regulating particular works of art. In the interwar and postwar years, the Holy Office busied itself more than ever with investigations and statement-drafting on controversies in places very far from Rome.

In 1949, for example, the cardinals targeted the too-modern-looking Stations in another small Belgian church. This series was executed by Aad de Haas, a Dutch-born artist who was a devout Catholic and had been imprisoned for a time by the Nazis. In 1952, a crucifix sculpted by Germaine Richier for the Dominican church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce at Assy in the French Alps was condemned by the Holy Office. The Holy Office then opened a general inquiry into the artistic program of the French Dominicans, which included works commissioned from Georges Rouault, among others.

At this time, the Holy Office issued a general instruction on sacred art. It urged strict adherence to the Code of Canon Law and forbade “representations recently introduced by some, which seem a deformation and deprivation of healthy art.” Examining this development in The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution, Dario Gamboni notes that whereas “doctrinal arguments [had been] employed” against works such as the Assy crucifix, Roman cardinals were now newly using phrases such as “healthy art” and attributing dogmatic authority to their own judgments about society’s shifting “aesthetic norms and conventions.”

During the same interwar and postwar period, writers and works of literature likewise came to be policed by Rome in a new way. The cardinals responsible for the old Index of Forbidden Books were encouraged to shift gears and increase their activity after 1917, when the Sacred Congregation of the Index was merged with the Holy Office. The new Code of Canon Law also now grounded Vatican assessments of works authored by some of the leading lights of the Catholic literary renaissance. Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory was subjected to a rigorous investigation. Works by Evelyn Waugh and Bruce Marshall were also examined by the Holy Office. These and other investigations arose when individuals and organizations made denunciations and demanded action from the cardinals in Rome. The centralizing logic and comprehensive spirit of the 1917 Code seemed to demand the most detailed and far-reaching responses by Roman authorities.

However, as Isaac Newton taught, for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. The ratcheting of Roman policing of the arts after 1917 would give way, by the 1960s, to a very different centralized program: that of enthusing over all things “modern,” accompanied by a top-down imposition of a modernistic aesthetic program. With Vatican II, the Church would swing toward unrestrained and obligatory aggiornamento—a development that was, in a sense, the condemnation of Servaes turned on its head.

During the late 1940s and 1950s, younger churchmen found the Holy Office’s policing of art and other aspects of cultural life to be excessive and counter­productive. At the same time, the generation of bishops that came of age in the post-1917 Church were tempted to identify this surveillance with “anti-modernism,” a catchall term for what they mistakenly thought had driven their predecessors in the hierarchy for generations.

Many of these future participants in Vatican II had spent considerable time in Rome, as students at the pontifical colleges and junior ecclesiastical bureaucrats. The Church as they knew it best—looking out from Rome, and from chanceries and seminaries where the vagaries of relations with Rome determined careers—seemed to them stuffy, philistine, and defensive in the face of the rapidly changing modern world. They could see that artists of the various modern schools had not simply or in general turned from God. In some cases, they had been hastily scorned by Church authorities who felt authorized by recent transformations of the ­ecclesiastical bureaucracy to impose their tastes, not just their theological positions, as magisterial. This, in turn, had encouraged culture warriors of the era to lobby for influence at the Vatican and in chanceries around the Catholic world.

The new generation of churchmen, once in power, redirected the Church toward a warm embrace of the modern world. The irony is that in doing so, through the decrees of Vatican II and in the ­Council’s aftermath, they preserved and strengthened centralized mechanisms of ecclesiastical control, not just over doctrine and worship, but also over cultural judgments and sensibilities. Rome and the clerical hierarchy were suddenly airing out a Church that supposedly had been stifling and stale inside for many centuries. Now, “openness” was not optional: ­Dialogue became the order of the day. The modernized engines of ecclesiastical governance were revved up for aggiornamento, which the laity and lower clergy would get, whether they wanted it or not. Even Maritain, late in life in The Peasant of the Garonne, would rue this turnabout.

Much as they had with theology and the liturgical reform, the bishops oversaw a rushed, coordinated aesthetic revolution. Old-fashioned crucifixes, paintings, statues, stained-glass windows, and even sacred vessels were cast aside for modern ones—beautiful, well-crafted, and elegant in some cases, but ugly, kitschy, and blasphemous in countless others. Vatican-­issued and chancery-stamped statements, more revisions of canon law, an­d conferences paved the way. Ordinary Catholics stood by—­bewildered, often—as the styles of art that had been ­forcefully opposed by their mitered shepherds just a few years before were now promoted by them. All manner of Expressionist, Cubist, Fauvist, and Abstract works began to populate cathedrals and small-town ­churches. Sacred spaces were bulldozed, whitewashed, and reconstructed. And a great deal of fine artwork—crafted lovingly and donated by the laity of past eras—disappeared overnight.

Those years brought gains. The reputations of excellent, devout Catholic artists such as Servaes and de Haas were restored (in many cases posthumously). But the Church’s cultural life was permanently scarred by the illusion that the maintenance of theological integrity requires Rome to pronounce on matters of taste and style. Today, Catholic traditionalists often shun the forms and techniques of modern artists. Their response is based less on studied aesthetic judgments than on the fact that these styles had once been condemned by the supposedly “­traditional” Holy Office. Others in the Church (and I include myself) have been bombarded our entire lives with so much uninspiring, mediocre “modern” and “relevant” sacred art that we favor the rediscovery and revival of the older artistic styles that were hastily discarded by Vatican II enthusiasts. But some among us are, perhaps, too uncritical of the “old,” and too suspicious of nontraditional styles. We might benefit by distancing ourselves from the theological warfare conducted through the condemnation and commendation of art by high-ranking churchmen—largely a modern phenomenon—and form our aesthetic judgment to take in the full range of the beauty by which we may honor and worship God.

In view of the complex history of which Servaes was a part, it is worth considering whether more mature modern approaches to sacred art would have developed organically, in creative dialogue with the wider culture and ancient traditions, had Vatican bureaucrats and their defenders in the early twentieth century behaved more, not less, like their Tridentine-era predecessors. Vatican I and Vatican II both effected highly centralized, Rome-driven reform. They may appear in some respects antithetical, but they ran on the same rails. The centralizing impulse of the age seduced Rome into censoring experimental artists in ways that Tridentine and medieval Church officials had not imagined necessary or even possible. Then, by the mid-twentieth century, mortified by the Church’s cultural marginalization, the hierarchy tried to reverse it with an even heavier hand—f­oisting a sloppy and destructive aesthetic revolution on the Church to accompany the dramatic liturgical and theological reorientations.

As part of our ongoing cultural recovery from all this, we should revisit artists such as the Belgian Symbolists and Expressionists of Sint-Martens-Latem. They and their work can point us down less-traveled roads. They may help us move beyond our complacency regarding hyper-centralized ecclesiastical governance—and our dismissive caricatures and romantic idealizations alike of both ­preconciliar and Tridentine Catholicism. All of these factors ­overinform debates within and about the Catholic Church. They also indicate a need for better formation in history, as well as aesthetics, among ­Catholics than the modern Church has so far ­nourished. 

Bronwen McShea is Writer in Residence at the Institute on Religion and Public Life and a Visiting Assistant Professor in History at the Augustine Institute Graduate School.