The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation T.S. Eliot

Art and the Church

Belgium: Sint Martinuskerk Latem

Sint Martinuskerk Latem 

by Jonathan Evens 


1919 was a significant year in the twentieth-century revival of sacred art. Alexandre Cingria and others formed the Society of Saint Luc and Saint Maurice which went on to decorate hundreds of churches in Switzerland and elsewhere. In that same year, Maurice Denis and Georges Desvallières also set up the Ateliers d’Art Sacré in Paris that was to play a similar role in France. Yet, unlike these positive developments, 1919 also saw the beginnings of the first significant controversy arising from the revival.  

In 1919 a set of Stations of the Cross and an altarpiece, The Death of St Teresa, were commissioned from the Flemish artist Albert Servaes for the church of the Discalced Carmelites in Luithagen, a suburb of Antwerp. From the point that the Stations were exhibited inGhent prior to being placed in the chapel at Luithagen they attracted criticism as well as praise on account of their use of deformation in service to expression. As Lydia Schoonbaert has noted emaciated bodies, sunken features and incomplete execution offended against classical aestheticism (Ecce Homo, ed. Jos Huls). In 1921 a decree from the Holy Office based on Canon 1399.12, which states that images may not be ‘unusual’, resulted in first the Stations and then the altarpiece being removed from the chapel. 

Servaes had moved to Sint-Martens-Latem in 1905, where he became part of what is now known as the Second Group of Sint-Martens-Latem which also included Frits van den Berghe, Constant Permeke, Léon de Smet and Gustave de Smet. Gustave van de Woestyne, Valerius de Saedeleer, George Minne and Alfons Dessenis formed the first 'generation' of the LatemSchool. Robert Hoozee writes inBelgian Art 1880 - 1914 that the ‘central idea of the little artists’ colony was to search for a meaningful, spiritual art.’ 

George Minne was referred to on more than one occasion by critics as having a 'Gothic soul'. He drew inspiration from themes and forms from the Middle Ages and his entire oeuvre is imbued with religious feeling. Hoozee writes in Impressionism to Symbolism that Minne's work ‘captured perfectly the introverted spiritually expressive concerns of Symbolism, enclosed as they were within the elegant forms of Art Nouveau.’ Like Maurice Denis, who was an influence on his work, van de Woestyne has been viewed as associating ‘the biblical message with the reality of an idealized rural world cut off from industrial society’ (Cathérine Verleysen in Maurice Denis: Earthly Paradise). His work mixed ‘profound religious devotion with a realistic, sometimes mystical sensibility.’ 

Examples of work by these artists can be found at the Gemeentelijk Museum Gevaert-Minne (as well as at other museums in Deinze, Ghentand Latem). This museum is the former home and studio of the painter Edgar Gevaert (1891-1965) who married Marie Minne, the eldest daughter of George Minne. In the early 1920s Gevaert built this house and studio in a style that combines monastic and Gothic influences with those of cottages. The museum opened in 1994 and houses in addition to the work by Gevaert pictures and sculptures by George Minne, Xavier de Cock, Albert Servaes, Gustave of Woestyne, Valerius de Saedeleer, Frits Van den Berghe, Gustave and Leon De Smet and Constant Permeke, among others. 

Servaes moved to Sint-Martens-Latem in 1905 and the depth of spirituality among both the artists and the local farmers stimulated his own faith leading to his taking the discalced Carmelite, Father Jerome of the Mother of God, in Ghent as his spiritual director. Schoonbaert has noted that ‘Neo-Thomism was the basis for the spiritual affinity that Father Jerome had with Cardinal Mercier in Belgium, with Titus Brandsma, his fellow Carmelite in Holland, and with Garrigou-Lagrange O.P., Jacques Maritain, Pieter van de Meer de Walcheren, and later with Raymond Régamy O.P., editor-in-chief of Art Sacré in France.’ 

Under Father Jerome’s direction Servaes explored Carmelite spirituality including those mystics who visualized the crucifixion during their prayers. Servaes linked this spirituality with the sense of suffering which still resonated in society following the First World War. As a result he was a pioneer in the creation of images of the crucifixion for churches which viewed Christ’s sacrifice as emblematic of human suffering in conflict and persecution. Maritain accurately wrote that the Stations were conceived as ‘a pure vertigo of grief.’ 

Brandsma and Maritain were amongst those who sought to support Servaes in the controversy which arose from the Luithagen commission. Yet Servaes ultimately felt betrayed when Maritain, advised throughout the controversy by van de Meer de Walcheren, distanced himself from Servaes by writing in the second edition of Art and Scholasticism that the Stations were ‘false to certain theological truths of capital importance.’ While Maritain pushed the boundaries in his friendships with artists and in the ideas which he explored as a result, he also understood Church politics and knew when to rein back in order to keep his wider program on track. 

Despite the controversy Servaes continued to receive and create commissions for churches. During World War II, however, he was caught in another controversy as he became rather too closely allied with the cultural activities of the Nazi occupiers. As a result, after the War, he moved to Switzerland where he continued to undertake church commissions. 

Father Jerome was initially moved from Ghent to Bruges. In 1946 he was sent to Les Méjades where he prepared Albert Gleizes for his first communion. The propensity for controversy that existed within the revival of sacred art is indicated by the fact that relations between the two soured as a result of disagreements over Neo-Thomism. Gleizes distrusted Thomism, which he saw as the beginning of Humanism, and instead wanted to return to the thinking of St Augustine. This aligned him more with the Benedictines than with the Dominicans and, in 1948, resulted in a further quarrel over sacred art – on this occasion with Father Régamy through articles in the journals Arts and Art Sacré. 

My day in Sint-Martens-Latem was free from controversy, however, and began in the most leisurely way of my entire Sabbatical art pilgrimage. After a lengthy drive from Lyon and a late arrival in Latem, breakfast was a relaxing affair in a room overlooking the River Leie. Cattle grazed and rabbits played in the fields stretching into the distance where the roofs of houses in the next village could just be seen. The scene was exactly as would have been painted by artists from the Sint-Martens-Latem artist's colony were it not for the presence of a large, lurid red sculpture of what appeared to be a pitbull terrier on the river bank. 

Sint-Martens-Latem is now one of the wealthiest residential municipalities in Belgium. One result of areas developing artistic reputations can be, over time, to make them desirable areas in which to live. This effect often then neuters the radicalism of the art which is created locally and unfortunately the commercial galleries in the area now seem to sell and exhibit work which essentially sanctifies bourgeois values. 


Something different and genuinely moving is found on entering Sint Martinuskerk, however, as the baptistery contains a Passion charcoal by Servaes. Given all that he experienced in the controversy over the Luithagen Stations, including the removal of work which was a genuine expression of his faith by the Church of which he was part, I found it profoundly moving that a work of his, in the same vein as the Luithagen Stations, should be displayed here in the church and area where his faith and art first fused. 


Other work in the church by the LatemSchool includes a painting above the left side altar by Gustave Van de Woestijne which represents Mary giving the rosary to St. Dominic and a Sacred Heart statue in the front right aisle by George Minne. Minne’s grave with a sculpture of a grieving woman, can also be found in the churchyard. 


The church has continued to commission new work and accept gifts of art. The stained glass in the church was designed by Harold Van de Perre (1978 and 1993) and includes a sequence of scenes from the Annunciation to Pentecost. The rear windows depict the glorification of Sint-Martens-Latem and the heavenly Jerusalem with the apocalyptic vision of St John, while the baptistery contains images of Mary, St Joseph; the Nativity, the Sacraments; the Eucharist, Alpha and Omega. Van de Perre’s stained glass can be found at churches or chapels in Oudenaarde, Diksmuide, BrugesGhent, Dendermonde, Tongeren, Nederboelare, AntwerpLille, Aarschot, Zwijndrecht, the Abbey of Königsmünster, Meschede (Germany) and Pietermaai Cathedral, Willemstad (Curaçao). 


In 1966 the painter Maurice Schelck donated a painting, which is now above the right side altar, showing St. Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar. Stations of the Cross from 1983 are the work of ceramist Paul de Bruyne. Other contemporary work is by Omer Gielliet, Valere,Erna Roelens and Dick Gryse. As in many Belgian churches, contemporary art is integrated with the artwork of the past in a melange of different styles which, while not specifically harmonised, nevertheless possesses integrity. It is a great encouragement to see churches, already rich in heritage, wishing to continue to develop and add to that tradition from the work of their own day and time. Here this can be seen as a continuation of the legacy created by the Latem School of artists. 


Sint Martinuskerk, Dorp 1, Sint-Martens-Latem. 

Gemeentelijk Museum Gevaert-Minne, Kapitteldreef 45, Sint-Martens-Latem.