Ambiguities Room

This room, Equivoques (Ambiguities), is a place of experimentation mixing all the techniques and styles of the very diverse artworks in the Musée d’Orsay collection, around one theme. Now on: Religion, devotion and modernity.
Ground floor, room 9

Religion, devotion and modernity

"Religion: Part of the foundations of society. Is necessary for the common people. Yet we mustn't overdo it".
(Gustave Flaubert, Dictionary of Received Ideas)

Eugène BurnandThe Disciples Peter and John Running to Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection© Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
From the Concordat (1801) to the Law on the Separation of Church and State (1905), public debate, individual practices and the arts were affected by the questioning of religious traditions, undermined by scientific progress (C. Darwin), positivism (A. Comte), socialism (K. Marx), urbanisation and the rural exodus. While the Second Empire of Napoleon III is associated with the Catholic party and supported the Pope, the secular Third Republic pursued a policy of secularisation (laws on education, work on Sundays, divorce, etc.) and saw the growing popularity of a strong anticlerical opinion.

Paradoxically, France also experienced a new religious upsurge at this time, as reflected by the unprecedented development of the cult of the Virgin Mary, the proliferation of apparitions and the success of new pilgrimages (La Salette, Lourdes), the assertion of new dogmas (Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in 1854, papal infallibility in 1870), and the splendour of ornaments and liturgical celebrations.

Jean BéraudSt. Mary Magdalene in the House of Simon the Pharisee© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
In art, several aesthetic trends coexisted, but two types of religious works stood out: on the one hand, traditional illustrations of biblical history, history paintings most often intended for the Salon and churches, and on the other hand, representations of religious practices themselves, picturesque images or subjects of social and psychological studies. Often edifying, these works portrayed a pious, and sometimes superstitious, rural society. Brittany appeared as the ultimate religious region, protective of Christian traditions and a faith devoid of the assaults of modernity.

At the end of the century, artists combined myth and reality in their works, and chose rarer iconographies in order to better revitalise the genre. Christ appeared at farmers' tables (F. Von Uhde) or at a meal in the town (J. Béraud), and the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus took on the family features of French painter Maurice Denis. The latter, a member of the Nabis group, personified the figure of the modern Christian artist at the turn of the century, and alone infused new life into religious painting.


The exhibition compares visions of the divine and the Christian religion through some fifteen works of all kinds of techniques, produced by artists as diverse as Gustave Doré, Léon Bonnat, Jean-Jacques Henner, Maurice Denis and Paul Cézanne. Whereas the philosopher Nietzsche announced "the death of God" at the end of the century, this miniature overview, on the contrary, presents a picture of an era fascinated by the religious issue, both fervent and haunted by doubt.


Salle Equivoques. Accrochage "Religion, dévotion et modernité"© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Boegly
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