Christ d'Assy I by Germaine Richier

Germaine Richier

Christ d'Assy I, 1950, Bronze, 45 cm, Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce, Plâteau d’Assy, © Estate of Germaine Richier; Photo by Hervé Champollion / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Image

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A Man of Sorrows

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Jonathan Koestlé-Cate

In the early 1950s this sculpture for the church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce, Assy, was at the centre of a cause célèbre known as ‘la querelle de l’art sacré’, fought over the condemnation of ‘corrupt and errant forms of sacred art’ that had found their way into Catholic churches (Pizzardo 1955: 369). The work was ordered to be removed by the Bishop of Annecy in 1951 and only properly reinstated some twenty years later (Wilson 2006: 66).

It is a cruciform bronze sculpture of a desiccated, lacerated, and near-featureless figure, whose posture incorporates the cross into the figure of Christ, his outstretched arms effectively becoming the horizontal crossbar. Germaine Richier’s uncompromising aesthetic was derided by its critics as a scandalous profanation and sacrilegious deformation of sacred art, yet to those open to its devotional and liturgical potency it presented a Christ ‘strong, expressive, powerful, charged with humanity, and palpitating with love’ (Rubin 1961: 51). Indeed, although denounced by the Church as offensive to ‘the faithful’ it was vigorously defended by many parishioners, principally the patients and staff of several nearby sanatoriums, as ‘this man of sorrows, so fraternal to their sufferings’ (Rubin 1961: 52).

Those responsible for its commissioning, including the Dominican priest Fr Couturier, seem perhaps to have anticipated a reactionary backlash, offering a scriptural precedent for the work on a placard accompanying the sculpture, justifying its unconventional form as the embodiment of Isaiah 53:

For he grew up…like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. (vv.2–3)

Writing in defence of the work, Couturier was explicit: ‘This tortured body, torn to shreds, rough as tree bark, twisted and bent, is the moving vision of Isaiah translated into a cast of bronze’ (Couturier 1960, my translation).

 

References

Couturier, M.-A. 1960. Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce. (Assy: Editions Paroissiales)

Pizzardo, J. C. 1955. ‘Instruction to Ordinaries on Sacred Art’, The Furrow, 6(6): 368–372

Rubin, W.S. 1961. Modern Sacred Art and the Church of Assy (New York: Columbia University Press)

Wilson, S. 2006. ‘Germaine Richier: Disquieting Matriarch’, Sculpture Journal, 14(1): 51–70