One might make the case that painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was the “active” Martha in contrast to Eugène Delacroix’s “contemplative” Mary. Where the passionate Delacroix produced canvases with furious brushstrokes revealing his passion for color, Ingres’ meticulous workmanship added different nuance to the 19th century’s visual expression of religious sentiment.
Born in 1780 to a modest family in the town of Montauban, France, Ingres studied art in Paris under the legendary Jean Louis David. In 1797, the same year the French conquered the papal states and looted the art collection in the Vatican Museums, Ingres won the Rome prize and went to study in the Eternal City.
Ingres is best known as the artist who gave the world languid odalisques, mocked by his naysayers as having “three vertebrae too many.” These famous nudes, along with his years of study under the “the painter of the French revolution” make it hard to imagine Ingres as a painter of religious art.
Nonetheless he worked on many sacred subjects, beginning during the French Restoration led by King Louis XVIII.
Ingres painted his “Christ Delivering the Keys to St. Peter” in 1820 when he was a student in Rome for the church of Trinita dei Monti atop the newly built Spanish Steps. This work reveals the deep and lasting influence that Italian Renaissance painters would have on the young Frenchman.
Critics complained that his emulation of Raphael undermined the sincere religious sentiment of his work, claiming that the Renaissance painter’s loose morals and excessive interest in nature left his works bereft of true spiritual meaning.
This type of criticism dogged Ingres throughout his career, but he continued producing religious art in his pristine style, eventually earning critical acclaim and even approval from Abbot Auguste Hurel, vicar of Ste. Madeleine in Paris and author of the 19th-century tome, “Contemporary Religious Art,” who claimed that “lines and somber color seem more desirable and appropriate for Christian works.”
Ingres personally defended his emulation of Raphael, writing, “Is art to be completely dead? ... Our manners are vicious, they are mannerisms. We must look to the past, go backward in time so as to join the right path.”
It is easy to forget that Ingres lived in an extraordinarily challenging time for Catholic art. The French Revolution had driven faith underground, making Ingres’ works among the first religious commissions in 25 years.
“The Delivery” was part of a project that art historian Susan Siegfried has called the “patronage of atonement.” The revolution had destroyed countless churches and artworks, and the restored monarchy intended to revive them.
While “The Delivery of the Keys” was inspired by Raphael, Ingres packed his pictorial space more densely. A monumental Christ towers over a kneeling St. Peter, while the apostles crowd closely around, almost overshadowing him.
Ingres also included Judas, relegated to the shadows on the lower left, alone in his envy. Christ is radiant, voluminous — a captivating combination of the mortal and the divine. Even Ingres’ harshest critics found his Jesus arresting, claiming “the features have an evangelical simplicity and a celestial dignity.”
Jesus commands attention and directs it upward, away from Peter, to the Father. This story is not about Peter, but the universal journey to God. In an age where man had come close to obliterating God from society, Ingres focused on re-presenting divinity to his countrymen.
Some interpret the work as extolling the Gallican church, which sought greater independence from Rome. When the Ultramontane, or papist, faction gained the upper hand, this political interpretation further damaged Ingres’ reputation as a religious painter, along with his “Vow of Louis XIII,” which was beautifully executed, but obvious propaganda for the monarchy.
Ingres himself apparently never experienced much religious fervor. He wrote, “I have often admired in churches those sentiments of affection and love that animate the faces of pious persons.” He felt it must be “very satisfying for the heart.” For Ingres, religion was less about passionate zeal and more about a sense of order and perfection.
As Ingres matured as an artist, he drifted away from narrative biblical scenes suited to his training as a history painter and moved toward more iconic images, prompting critics to dismiss his work as “Byzantine.”
Irritated by the success of Delacroix, whom Ingres called “the apostle of ugliness,” and enraged by the poor reception of his own “Martyrdom of Saint Symphorian” after 10 years of effort on the work, Ingres left France in 1834 to become the director of the French art academy in Rome.
There, for six years, he fostered the talents of some of the artists who would become France’s greatest painters of sacred subjects, including Hippolyte Flandrin.
Ingres returned to France with a new sacred iconography, the “Virgin with the Host.” He painted the subject five times despite being lambasted by critics who called it “worthy of being thrown to the flames.”
In this work, however, Ingres challenged the boundaries set for religious art, which encouraged ecumenical pictures such as Jesus as a lone hero or a leader of social causes, by painting a strictly Catholic sacramental image of Jesus in the Eucharist adored by the Virgin Mary.
The simplicity of the colors of cobalt, crimson, and pearl recall the famous Madonnas of Raphael, as do the soft angels playing with the candles. Ingres’ Virgin dominates the scene, still, solemn, and painted with crisp lines that evoke her perpetual purity as much as her luminous skin tone.
Her downcast eyes lead the gaze to the host, where faint lines show the crucifixion. Mary was faithful to God during her suffering, thus she remains with God for all eternity. Ingres evokes the mysterious power of the Virgin and her intimate relationship to the Body of Christ, not through emotion, but through focused meditation.
Whereas Delacroix excited the heart, Ingres used line to draw the viewer’s mind to mystery. In this era, when the increasingly secular society perceived faith and reason as adversaries, Ingres and Delacroix opened pathways to belief through the heart and the mind. In this contest, however, it would be hard to say which painter chose the better part.
Elizabeth Lev is an American-born art historian, teacher, and author who lives and works in Rome.
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