Maurice Denis's masterpiece, The Green Christwas shown publicly, during the artist's lifetime, only to his visitors and may also have been circulated at a meeting of the Nabis.
In Denis, artistic vocation and religious feeling are inseparable. Painted in 1890, The Green Christ comes to close a period of questioning: while the young man wanted to follow in the footsteps of Fra Angelico and become a monk-painter, the discovery of the life of the artist’s studio “with its frivolity and debauchery” plunged him into a deep spiritual dilemma. In 1889 he found a way that would allow him to unite the Cloister and the Studio: “I believe that art must sanctify nature; I believe that vision without the Spirit is vain; and it is the mission of the aesthete to erect beautiful things into immutable icons.”
This painting thus belongs to a group of small formats centering on the Crucifixion created during this turning point, combining Christian inspiration and novel plastic experimentation, here reaching a form of abstraction unequaled in Denis's career.
The power of the work is that it is at once simple and mysterious. The figure of Christ takes up most of the composition. It stands out on a yellow cross, in front of a bright red background. Further down, different shades of yellow sketch figures: angels collecting the blood of Christ, praying figures or processionaries massing at the foot of the cross. In the foreground, some clumps of vegetation that refer to the Garden of Eden. A white flower has bloomed, the symbol of resurrection and salvation. The subject is thus more complex than it seems: is it a crucifixion scene or the representation of a crucifix or a calvary? Earthly and celestial registers merge.
The colors, reduced in number, and the lines do not describe, but function as “plastic equivalents” intended for creating an emotion. The yellows refer to the golden backgrounds of the icons, but especially those of the Primitives and Fra Angelico. Yellow also evokes the sacred and the light that emanates from Christ. Green is the color of the liturgy and hope, and it is here, as in The Green Trees (1893, Musée d'Orsay), associated with spirituality.
The Green Christis certainly the most radical of the artist's works and, as such, unparalleled in his painting and in the art of the late 19thcentury. Its acquisition enriches the Musée d'Orsay's collection of Nabi and post-impressionist paintings, the most complete in the world, and reaffirms the place of Maurice Denis and the Nabis in a history of the avant-garde and modernists, where they had only begun to find their place in the 1960s.