The cover of the month

The Virgin of Pardon by Pierre-Marie Dumont

Along with Sérusier and Gauguin, Maurice Denis (1870–1943) was one of the founders of the Nabis movement (“Prophets” in Hebrew). Reacting against academism, photographism, and impressionism, this movement advocated a return to creative thought and emotion to restore art to its sacred vocation—that of expressing the mainly spiritual and poetic dimension of nature and taking human existence as a starting point. “I reject realism because it is prose, and all I want is music and poetry,” Maurice Denis liked to say. And, he added, “Art is a creation of our spirit, for which nature is only the occasion.”

In 1908, Maurice Denis purchased a house in Perros-Guirec, Brittany, with the beach below and a breathtaking view on the sea. It was to be his family home where, with his wife Marthe and their nine children, he spent long summer vacations. It was there that, every year on 14 and 15 August, the Denis family took part in the processions and festivities of the “Pardon”.

A sign of her perpetual protection

In Brittany, the word “Pardon” refers to the annual festival ­celebrated in honour of the patron saint of a church or a chapel, in this case Our Lady of Clarity, dedicated to the salvation of sailors lost at sea. In the painting on the cover of your MAGNIFICAT, the procession, having left the sanctuary, arrives at the place called the Mound of Clarity. There stands a calvary, rising up like a lighthouse defying the wrath of the ocean. The procession unfolds according to an unchanging ritual: at its head, the processional cross, immediately followed by the banner with an image of Our Lady of the Assumption. Bringing up the rear, surrounded by candles, comes the stretcher bearing the gilded statue of Our Lady of Clarity. The honour of carrying it on their shoulders goes to girls rewarded for and exemplified by their piety and purity. Surrounded by altar servers, the officiants close the march with consecrated relics of the patron saints of various parishes and confraternities. In the crowd, women wear traditional costume with their distinctive headdresses. In this ­painting, bathed in the pale light of late afternoon, the artist depicts the Virgin Mary raised up to heaven by two angels. She lifts her arms to the sky in intercession as well as stretching them out over the world as a sign of her perpetual protection.

To celebrate their unity in Christian fraternity

“Pardons” have their origin in the charities and confraternities to which the faithful belonged, according to their trades or their personal vocations. The confraternities placed themselves under the protection of a saint whom they venerated with particular devotion. They owed each other friendship, solidarity, aid, and assistance, and extended their acts of generosity to all the needy. Confraternities soon established the tradition of gathering once a year on the feast day of their patron saint to offer each other forgiveness, to bury old quarrels, and to celebrate their unity in Christian fraternity. This dimension of mutual forgiveness, inspired by the second petition of the Our Father, was later ­enriched by the clergy by a more penitential approach. To this end, patronal feasts were invested with generous indulgences as a sign of the forgiveness granted to the faithful through the ministry of the Church and acquired through sacramental ­confession. Thus, in practice, “pardon”, “confession”, and “indulgences” became quasi-synonymous.

Banned during the French Revolution on pain of death, Pardons subsequently enjoyed renewed fervour, which lasts to our day, thanks to the spiritual revival that marked the second half of the 19th century. Although their sacredness is now ­diluted by the accretion of folkloric, touristic, and cultural dimensions, Pardons essentially remain respected, popular, and lively “­festivals of the soul”.


Procession of 15 August, Evening or Assumption, Maurice Denis (1870-1943), Private Collection. © Catalogue raisonné Maurice Denis, photo Marc Guermeur / ArtGo, Paris.