A parish church, consecrated in August of 1950 to service Catholics in the French Alps where tubercular patients and sanatoria convalescent services increased considerably between 1930 and 1950. The church, designed by Maurice Novarina, is not particularly distinguished architecturally; however, the appointment of its decoration served as a focal point of the postwar controversies surrounding the Dominican-led art sacré movement in France.
In March of 1939, at the request of the Canon Jean Devémy and the architect M. Novarina, Pierre m. a. couturier, OP, agreed to assist in the planning and execution of the church. The subsequent evolution of this plan in its iconographic program and its relationship to the specific convictions and abilities of the artists engaged, as well as the kind and quality of contemporary art employed, served to sharpen questions on contemporary religious art. The problems posed were consequent to the employment of outstanding artists from the secular art world in an effort to initiate a notable renascence within the area of religious art. The majority of artists engaged were chosen not on the basis of their faith, but on the basis of the quality of their work; most were non-Catholics. The art work itself was, for that time, unusually advanced and seemed foreign to what was considered religious art by reactionary Catholics in France and elsewhere.
The iconographic program unfolded gradually and was partly adjusted to afford a suitable conjunction of the temperament and ability of a particular artist with the subject and its location in relation to the sanctuary. Works for the church included: a façade mosaic by f. lÉger, "Virgin of the Litany"; baptistery mosaic and reliefs by Marc Chagall, "Crossing of the Red Sea," "Psalm 42," and "Psalm 124"; stained glass designed by G. rouault, notably his "Christ aux outrages"; a large tapestry based on Revelation, ch. 12, by Jean Lurçat; altar pieces representing St. Dominic (ceramic tile) by H. Matisse and St. Francis de Sales (oil) by P. Bonnard; a bronze statue by J. Lipchitz, "Notre-Dame-de-Liesse"; tabernacle door relief by G. Braque; and stained-glass windows by J. Bazaine, P. Bony, P. Berçot, M. Brianchon, A. Hébert-Stevens, and Father Couturier. The controversial bronze crucifix was designed by Germaine Richier for placement on the main altar.
Although brilliant in individual qualities and somewhat appropriately appointed iconographically, the works as an artistic ensemble show a disparity of styles that has been criticized as an exhibition of talent more suitable for a museum. The controversies that followed the dedication of the church were precipitated by the wide attention given to the church through illustrated articles in magazines such as France Illustration and Life. A public lecture given by the Canon Devémy on Jan. 4, 1951, for the Friends of Art at Angers received cries of "insult" and "outrage" from a band of Integrists when the crucifix by Germaine Richier appeared in the slides. The Integrists distributed a tract (known as "The Tract of Angers"), that attacked the Richier crucifix. It indicted artists belonging to a "school" led by the "communist Picasso" and asserted that it was time to "unmask the trickery of this spurious art." During February and March the bishop of Annecy was pressured by letters and by a drive led by Charles du Mont in the Observateur de Genève; in April, Bishop Cesbron ordered that the crucifix be removed. Reactions to this move were rapid and received wide attention in the press. The art critics Jean Cassou and Bernard Dorival defended the Richier work and saw the move as an imposition on what is properly the domain of art; G. Marcel responded to Dorival noting that an art critic may not contest ecclesiastical authority. F. Mauriac asked whether art can be heretical, and Gaston Bardet answered by proposing that there be created an "index" for artistic works. Celso costantini issued the most provoking censure in the Osservatore Romano (June 10, 1951) in an article "Dell'arte sacra deformatrice," which referred to the crucifix as an "indecent (sconcio ) pastiche" and attacked the so-called modern movement in art as a Protestant plot against figurative art.
The debates over sacred art were met by an official 11-point directive issued in May of 1952 by an episcopal commission for pastoral and liturgical matters and approved by the cardinals and archbishops of France. The document avoided mentioning any specific works and provided a sufficiently general basis to pacify both sides. The first article recognized that sacred art like all other art is a living art and must correspond to the spirit of its times in its techniques as well as in its use of available materials.
The Assy controversies, by sharpening questions surrounding contemporary art, the artist, and the Church, provided practical precedents and a spirit of inquiry that contributed considerably to the growing modern renewal in liturgical art.
See Also: church architecture.
Bibliography: w. s. rubin, Modern Sacred Art and the Church of Assy (New York 1961), illus., extensive bibliog.; for critical evaluation see r. sowers, Stained Glass: An Architectural Art (New York 1965), n. 39, p. 126–127, passim. a. christ-janer and m. m. foley, Modern Church Architecture (New York 1962).
[r. j. verostko]