Alfred Manessier: The Passion According to Matthew
by Jérôme Cottin
Alfred Manessier (1911-1993) was one of the great painters of the 20th century and one of the main representatives of lyrical abstract art. He also was a committed Christian. He belongs to the rare group of artists who were well-known internationally as well as sincere believers. For him painting and reading the Bible were inseparable.
The Passion According to Matthew (1948) by Alfred Manessier is one of the first abstract works that deal with the gospel. The painting consists of a red vermillion canvas with here and there a purple patch. It is intersected by irregular black vertical and horizontal stripes that look like the lead lines of a stained-glass window. We do not see any figure, object, landscape or symbolical form. The black lines are reminiscent of ribs. They form the skeleton of the coloured space, but do not represent anything.
What link can we discern between the painting and the Gospel according to Matthew? It is most of all an interior connection. The artist has visually translated the effect the gospel had on him when he read it, pondered it and listened to it in musical form. To make this abstract work he actually found his inspiration in the oratory of the same title by Bach: The St. Matthew Passion (1729). Listening to Bach’s music aided the artist to take the step to abstract painting. ‘This Passion is not figurative,’ Manessier said about Bach’s oratory. ‘I wanted to express the same thing in painting as I heard in the music.’
This work is not only of great importance in the history of religious painting (without doubt it is the first abstract work about a biblical narrative), but also in the life of the painter. During World War II he went through a double conversion: to Christianity and to non-figurative art. Actually it was the first that led to the latter. Manessier came from a non-believing family. He turned to the Christian faith in September 1943, when he heard a choir of monks sing the Salve Regina in the Trappist monastery of Soligny.
As a Christian Manessier first started with a figurative work on a religious subject: the Supper at Emmaus. But this ended in failure, on which he commented as follows: ‘When I left the monastery, I wanted to express what I had experienced by means of three holy figures around a table. This did not work. This made me realize that it might be easier to express how I felt by leaving the figures out.’ Perhaps abstraction, or rather the absence of identifiable forms, is better suited to translate the spiritual depth of a person and his inner prayer into images. Abstraction, moreover, better matches the novelty of the message and person of Jesus Christ, who as the Risen One cannot be likened to any visible face or person.
The theme of the Passion, rendered in a non-figurative way, will accompany Manessier for the rest of his life. From 1948 to 1987 he makes no less than 33 paintings of the Passion. Certainly, he became a convert after hearing the Salve Regina, but as a faithful reader of the gospel he stated several years later that ‘to understand our time we are much more in need of the gospel than the Salve Regina. We cannot save ourselves.’
Alfred Manessier: The Passion According to Matthew, 1948, oil on canvas, 130 x 97 cm, Dominican Convent of St. James, Paris, France.
Alfred Manessier (1911-1993) was a French abstract painter, lithographer and designer of tapestries and stained glass. He was born at Saint-Ouen in the North of France. In 1929 he went to Paris to study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts, but also copied Old Masters in the Louvre and worked in the evenings in the academies of Montparnasse. In the 1930s he painted in the Cubist-Surrealist tradition. Contacts with the Trappists in 1943 led to a deep commitment to religion. His work became abstract by 1945, while he continued to draw inspiration from religious and landscape themes. From 1947 he was also active as a designer of tapestries and of stained-glass windows for churches. Occasionally he also designed for the theatre. He was awarded First Prize at the 1955 Pittsburgh International and the main painting prize at the 1962 Venice Biennale. He lived in Paris and Emancé near Chartres.
Jérôme Cottin is Professor of Practical Theology at the Faculty for Protestant Theology at the University of Strasbourg, France. He has written numerous articles and several books about Christianity and art (see www.protestantismeetimages.com/Publications-de-Jerome-Cottin-1990.html) and is responsible for the website www.protestantismeetimages.com.
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