How do we promote good art in the churches? (Pipe-Smoking Women)

by Beat Rink

Was Picasso right?

“I find it absurd when a woman who does not smoke a pipe paints one,” Picasso once said. Was he right? The answer is no and yes – both at once. Picasso was not right. Was he in Guernica on April 26, 1937? No! And yet he created a powerful artistic memorial to this town and its liquidation in the Civil War. As is well-known, artists do not have to experience personally the things about which they paint, write, or compose. Artists, for example, do not necessarily have to believe in God to create Christian art. But wait – maybe they do? As we see, it‘s already getting more difficult to confront Picasso with a clear “No”. This was namely the exact problem that Picasso was referring to when he spoke these words. 

 AUDINCOURT / Glass windows by Fernand Léger

An appeal by a Dominican priest

In 1935, the French Dominican priest Alain Couturier, in his journal “L’Art Sacré”, appealed to the great artists of his time to apply their skills to church buildings. For the sacred art of that time had fallen to a very low level, while great things were happening in the art world. This was painful for Couturier and his circle. They did not share the thoughts of Fra Angelico, who stated: “In order to paint the things of Christ, one must live with Christ.“ Rather, Couturier was closer to Delacroix’ view: “One must always place one’s reliance on genius.” And that means: “Every true artist is inspired. Alone due to his nature and his temperament, he is prepared, predisposed for intuitive thought: why should he not also be receptive when that Spirit descends who always only blows where he will? And you hear his voice… but you do not know where he is going and from where he comes.” (Couturier)

Couturier thus opened the doors of the church to artists of genius. And geniuses were (or are) receptive to the working of the Holy Spirit. Theologically, an argument of this kind is questionable. But this alone does not make Couturier’s appeal questionable. Why shouldn’t churches in fact bring in good art, even when it is not by Christian artists? Among Couturier’s contacts, there were indeed only a few great artists who also got involved in churches, including particularly Alfred Manessier and Georges Rouault.


It was only after the Second World War that Couturier’s appeal bore fruit. Thanks to a donation by a generous couple, it was possible in 1950, in the town of Assy, to dedicate a church containing work by Fernand Léger (openly a communist), Marc Chagall (a Jew), Georges Braque, Jean Lurçat, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Jean Bazaine and Couturier himself. For the taste of the day, the wooden cross created by the sculptor Germaine Richier was not “sacred” enough. Only the intervention of a number of French intellectuals prevented its complete removal from the church.


In VenceHenri Matisse built a chapel. “Every detail of this church, the altar, the crucifix, the glass windows, and the painted tiles, were designed and carried out by the artist himself. The impressive Stations of the Cross are sketched on white tiles, showing a reduction of form and interruption of the strokes unusual for Matisse.” (The art historian Horst Schwebel). Matisse said, “This chapel was for me the final goal of a life of hard work and the climax of a great, sincere and difficult aspiration.”

Audincourt, Les Bréseux, Ronchamp

In Audincourt a further impressive church was created, involving work above all by Léger and Bazaine. In Les Bréseux in the French Jura mountains, Manessier created glass windows, without representational motifs, which invite the observer to enter reflection.

And finally, Le Corbusier built in Ronchamp a church that seems to have its origins entirely in poetry and has nothing in common with historical church construction. (Schwebel). Soon, Germany too followed France‘s example. 

The Chapel Notre-Dame-du-Haut bears the sign of its famous architect, Le Corbusier. High on a hill above the village of Ronchamp close to the city of Belfort in eastern France, it stands on the side of an older pilgrimage chapel dedicated to Virgin Mary which was destroyed during the Second World War. Le Corbusier was commisioned to build the new chapel which was completed in 1954, being one of the finest examples of his works.

Good art for churches

Picasso refused all invitations to participate in such projects. We already know the reason he gave.
But perhaps he was not completely wrong in his slightly strange comparison with pipe-smoking women. At least he was himself aware that he was not a suitable person for decorating the church. With his themes, with his aesthetics, and also with his well-known personal characteristics, he was too far away from the church and faith for this to have been successful. 

But Couturier and his circle did ask very precise questions – not regarding the faith of the artist, but: ‘Which artist seems to be particularly ‘receptive’ for a particular theme, whose gifts are suitable for a work for that one place or fulfilling that certain function?‘ (Pie Régamey, one of Couturier’s main collaborators).

3 questions

Today, too, churches can pose these questions:
“Where do we find artists who are not necessarily Christians but are capable of bringing good art into the church? Artists whose themes, whose aesthetics and also whose personalities are not incompatible with the church in the way Picasso was?”

But there is a first question that should not be skipped:
“Where are there creative artists in the churches whom we should support?”

We put the third question in the mouth of artists, who are «at home» in churches: “Where can they invite colleagues to work in churches and thus be blessed themselves – with music, visual art, literature, dance…?” 

The life of the Swiss composer Paul Burkhard is a good example of what can happen: this famous composer was invited by a pastor to write a Christmas play for children. The resulting “Zeller Weihnacht” (an outstanding work) led him to become a Christian himself, and in the following decades he created wonderful sacred music.

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Beat Rink leads Crescendo International together with his wife, Airi. They founded the movement in 1985. Beat is a theologian and an ordained Reverend of the Swiss reformed church. He has also studied linguistics, literature and history. To date, he has published several of his books, including some of his poetry. Beat works full-time for Crescendo.

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