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Cédric Lesec

Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense


In the 1950s, Christian thought was dominated by the “debate on sacred art”, in which numerous radical and dogmatic viewpoints on the “revival” of religious art clashed. A group of Benedictine monks challenged the status quo and proposed a new approach to the issue; they laid down their ideas in an art review, which soon became a real publishing enterprise. Zodiaque publications enjoyed wide popularity for nearly fifty years, thanks to their use of photographs, which conveyed history much more poignantly than words. Architecture and sculpture thus gradually became independent of text, and at the same time thoroughly reshaped it. They created new, autonomous features, as if “anointing” the book as an object; it now became both an object of aesthetic contemplation and an instrument of discovering national heritage.

Keywords: “Zodiaque”, France, photography, medium


The whisper of the psalms marked the deep faith of Paul Claudel. In a short essay of 1943 titled Les Psaumes et la photographie [Psalms and photography],[1] the author confided his inner need to reflect on these passages every day. The reading of Scripture was his daily encounter with the mysteries of faith.[2] To satisfy his curiosity, Claudel combined humble listening and the transcription of biblical verses with a photographic look at the world, which was to provide support for prayer. The skies, seas and rural landscapes, in short, all that the writer called “the surrounding nature”, are filled with signs that are essential for us to contemplate the world and to understand it. For Claudel, the photographer, unlike the painter, does not interpret nature. The image he creates is not an adaptation, or even a report. It is “a testimony marked only with a mild accent and the timbre of voice.”[3] In the case of psalms, nature captured at a given moment and stopped in the frame reveals the word of God.

It is no wonder that the writer admired photographic objectivity: after all, in the interwar period, he became the bard of a new-found religious art thoroughly imbued with faith. According to Claudel, the photographic image of reality, which is “an expressive means of presenting sacred and harsh reality,”[4] was to stimulate research in the area and lead to the eradication of religious art forms of the previous century, already stigmatized by Huysmans [Fig. 1]. Faded and worn art devoid of piety should give place to austerity and simplicity. According to Claudel, the task should be entrusted solely to Christian artists or convents, such as the Dominicans or Benedictines, to whom “initiating such revival would bring great splendour.”[5]

The controversy about religious art

Claudel’s postulate was realized, and the expression “of the noble zeal of St Benedict’s sons,”[6] to which he appealed, was not long to wait. While their involvement was less visible than the fight led by two Dominicans, Couturier and Regamey, in “L’Art Sacré,”[7] it was no doubt equally pugnacious, particularly in the years 1948–1950, when the “controversy about religious art” first flared up. The post-war revival of Christian religious art was to convey the desire to reconcile the Church with modern art. However, the introduction of the latter into places of worship deeply hurt the most conservative Catholic circles. Famous examples such as the church of Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce in Assy or the chapel in Vence, both decorated by famous artists (Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger and Henri Matisse), became a source of inspiration for the Benedictine abbey of Sainte-Marie de la Pierre-qui-Vire. In the summer of 1948, its prior commissioned the monastery workshop, “du Cœur-Meurtry”, run by Dom Angelico Surchamp, to make murals, whose natural theoretical consequence was the “Zodiaque” magazine.


“Zodiaque” was founded in March 1951, which coincided with the polemic around the bronze statue of Christ destined for the sanctuary of the church in Assy. Even though it made no reference to the dispute, the first issue presented the authors’ plans in a very transparent way. Surchamp emphasized that modern art, like the signs of the zodiac often placed on the portals of Romanesque churches, constitutes a huge collection of symbols to decipher. The magazine was supposed to help make them understood and to “fish out” from contemporary art, “everything that can be transformed into fully-fledged Christian art.” Surchamp made clear that, regardless of whether he referred to ancient or modern art, he would always do it from a particular point of view – from the perspective of faith.[8]

To show Romanesque art, to render sacredness

Faithful to the principles instilled in him by the painter Albert Gleizes, when he stayed at his place in Méjades in August 1946,[9] Surchamp wanted to restore to modern art what it lacked, that is, sacredness. Romanesque art and the richness of its decoration, he argued, are the source from which contemporary artistic endeavours should draw.[10]

For “du Cœur-Meurtry”, the summer of 1952 was groundbreaking, because it was then that the workshop made the transition from theory to practice. Under the influence of Surchamp, an exhibition was held in Vezelay Abbey entitledSacred Art of 52. Some images from the workshop were hung next to works intended for newly established churches. Bazaine’s and Léger’s works were exhibited in such a way as to enable viewers coming to visit one of the most emblematic Romanesque architectural complexes to grasp “the complex expression of contemporary art and slowly re-discover the sources of Romanesque tradition.”[11] The juxtaposition of Burgundian sculptures with contemporary explorations of modern art was intended to show the public a certain kind of continuity, sustainable development, and the common treasury of forms [Fig. 3].

From Zodiaque booklets to La nuit des temps

Alongside the exhibition, the workshop also released a small booklet. It was sold to visitors and allowed to clarify the authors’ intention. This pedagogical approach inspired the first issues of the “Zodiaque” magazine.

After the first two issues, entitled Deux notes sur l’art abstrait [Two words about abstract art] and L’Agonie de l’art sacré [The agony of sacred art], came a third, devoted to the cathedral of Autun. For the first time, the work was accompanied by photographs [Fig. 4–5], which allowed the reader to see the tympanum of the cathedral in very close detail,  as if it was directly before him. Despite the poor quality of reproductions, the issue was a great success, which encouraged Surchamp to continue his “Burgundian quest”. A few months later, to illustrate the booklet dedicated to St Philibert of Tournus, the workshop used photogravure. Previously unpublished photographs taken by Pierre Kill, a local photographer, undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of the magazine. Albeit expensive, the idea became permanent and enabled an easy presentation of the splendour of Romanesque buildings’. Subtle and warm images, blurred with shades of gray and shadows, visualized both the depth of their reliefs and the roughness of their surface, thus creating an effect of coarse texture, which closely imitated the original material [Fig. 6]. The human effort put into these works of sculpture and architecture, as shown in the photographs reproduced in the book, presented the greatness of God [Fig. 7]. The main objective of the monks from La Pierre-qui-Vire was to give a tangible visualization and presentation of religious facts, making photographs the new face of piety. In subsequent issues, a subtle discourse was gradually created through the dialogue between text and image. Its keynote was the evocation of Beauty, which for Surchamp was the homage paid to God by nature [Fig. 8].

In 1951, a paper devoted to “Zodiaque” booklets attracted the attention of André Malraux, who was interested both in the theses brought forward by the monks and in their use of photographs in the publications.[12] In 1952, TheImaginary Museum of World Sculpture was published. Just as in “Zodiaque” booklets, the image in Malraux’s book became entirely independent from the text and made the whole resemble a portfolio. It seems that the power of this “visual epic” found an echo in the Abbey of La Pierre-qui-Vive. In 1954, Surchamp decided to collect the photographs of previously described Burgundian masterpieces in one volume.

With the publication of Bourgogne romane[13] the story of the “Zodiaque’s library” began. Instant success persuaded the monks to issue another booklet, entitled Auverne romane,[14] on the basis of the same principle [Fig. 9]. In this way, a collection of Provinces romanes arose, better known under the title La nuit des temps. Initially, one monograph was published every year, and later two – one in spring, the other in autumn. The total collection consisted of 88 volumes published successively until 1999.

As time passed, the series remained a publishing success and became a remarkable source of income for the abbey. Heliogravure, widely used in French publications of the post-war period, unquestionably contributed to this success. It should be noted, however, that the popularity of La nuit des temps and subsequent collections resulted not only from the quality of graphic design and the selection of photos, but also from their readers’ attachment to local religious and cultural heritage, because the publications often evoked associations with solemn family events such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. A look at the pictures bathed in the light of the chancel, stalls, or dark, narrow aisles brought personal memories to mind, which then combined with the universal image of beauty.[15] Reminiscent of the poetic stanza, the structure of each volume would lead the reader, by way of analogy, from the literal sense of forms to their spiritual understanding.

For example, in an introduction to the “guided tour” of the church of Saint-Nectaire, the reader was invited to participate in a true pilgrimage: “Saint-Nectaire is situated in the charming area close to Murols, near the lake of Chambon, between Issoire and Mont-Dore. There are only a handful of Romanesque churches adorned by such vast landscape and such majestic background. It is hard to forget the first impression made by the church. So small and yet so impressive… The dignity observed in its contrasts alone fully reveals the idea of the sacred.”[16] The next pages are a “visual procession.” Photos, never interrupted with text, primarily show the enormity of architecture, and then draw the reader’s attention to several details of the capitals. The reader, like a pilgrim, slowly approaches the altar, the chancel, and the sculptures that adorn it. He comes out of the church, walks away, glances over his shoulder, sees the building for the last time, and is deeply moved. This is the final image, the culmination of the visit.

The mission undertaken by Angelico Surchamp was to look at more than fifty years of the Romanesque art to emphasize not its stylistic differences, but its general sensitivity. All his publishing works were always faithful to this requirement. Word and image were smoothly combined to create a continuous narrative. In the “Zodiaque”, the sacred rhetoric, so clearly visible in Romanesque art, was excellently supported. It organized Christian spirituality [Fig. 10], and, in the context of revealed religion, could serve as an opening to a higher dimension of existence.


Translated by Katarzyna Beściak-Kocur and Urszula Jachimczak

[1] P. Claudel, Les Psaumes et la Photographie, in: idem, Œuvres en prose, Paris 1965, pp. 388–393.

[2] Cf. remarks of D. Millet-Gérard in: P. Claudel, Le Poëte et la Bible, vol. 2: 1945–1955, Paris 2004, pp. 1919–1936.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] P. Claudel, Le Goût du fade [1934], in: idem, Œuvres en prose, Paris 1965, pp. 113–117.

[5] Ibidem, p. 117.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Cf.: F. Causse, La Revue de l’Art sacré, Paris 2010.

[8] “Zodiaque”, april 1951, no. 1, p. 27.

[9] A. Surchamp, G. Jarczyk, L’Art roman: rencontre entre Dieu et hommes, Paris 1993, p. 56.

[10] Cf.: A. Gleizes, La Peinture et ses lois, Paris 1924, p. 19.

[11] Art sacré 52, [exhibition catalogue], Vézelay 1952.

[12] Cf.: C. Lesec, “Zodiaque est une grande chose maintenant…”, in: “Revue de l’art”, 2007, no. 157, pp. 39–46.

[13] Bourgogne romane, Saint-Léger–Vauban 1954.

[14] Auvergne romane, Saint-Léger–Vauban 1954.

[15] Cf.: C. Lesec, Esthétique et apostolat. Les éditions “Zodiaque”, in: Le Livre et l’architecte, Paris 2011.

[16] Auvergne romane (ft. 14), pp. 121 and 125.

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