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.