The cover of the month

“Receive my soul and guide it before my Redeemer” by Pierre-Marie Dumont

Pierre Marcel-Béronneau was 28 years old when he executed this pastel sketch in 1897. Five years earlier, he had joined the studio of Gustave Moreau († 1898), who considered him among his finest students—a group that included, notably, Desvallières, Matisse, and Rouault. Later joined by Maurice Denis and Odilon Redon, they formed the group of artists at the Catholic core of the Symbolist movement. This movement is initially defined by its rejections: a rejection of positivist philosophy, rejection of materialism, rejection of the ideology of “progress,” especially when it contributes to an ugliness in our life and surroundings; then, on the artistic level, a rejection of naturalism, of impressionism, of academic art. Basically, the Symbolists refused to resign themselves to the loss of the values of civilization, that is, values based on a recognition of the sacred dimension of nature and, eminently, of the human being, in his existence, his history, and his creations.

A human form of eternal youth

The initiators and theorists of the movement were often poets, foremost among whom were Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Apollinaire. Musicians such as Wagner, Schoenberg, and Debussy joined them, and sculptors like Rodin, Camille Claudel, and Bourdelle as well. And of course the many artists—those mentioned above, to whom we should add Doré, Burne-Jones, Segantini, Klimt, Picasso (Blue Period), Gauguin, Vuillard, Bonnard, Ensor, and Munch.

In painting this Guardian Angel, Marcel-Béronneau drew on all the most beautiful resources of art and put the teachings of his master, Gustave Moreau, into practice. “To be modern isn’t necessarily about seeking something beyond what has gone before…. On the contrary, it’s a matter of giving order to all that previous ages have left us, to show how our century has received and makes use of this heritage.” It is in this spirit that Marcel-Béronneau took direct inspiration here from the angels of Filippino Lippi († 1504). Under the guidance of his master, Botticelli, Lippi created the archetypal angelic representation, then adopted by Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and others: taking the human form of eternal youth, neither masculine nor feminine but uniting the beauty of both, through its physical and sartorial grace, the angel displays a refinement pushed to a mystagogical timelessness. The iridescent wings are however very Moreau-like, formed as they are by an emanation of divine light flowing from the heavens. Our guardian angel is, so to speak, a spiritual expression making present, close to each one of us, the solicitude of the Father’s love. As it eternally contemplates the face of God in heaven, our angel becomes a divine presence by our side, ever close, loving, helpful, and consoling.

Now and at the hour of our death

This protective presence will culminate in our final hour and our death. Then our guardian angel will stand guard over the mortality that is ours. He will be the valiant knight warding off the assaults of the malevolent dragon to ensure us a good death, that is, a death opening onto blessed Life rather than the dreaded second death. Finally, when we have breathed our last, it is our guardian angel who will take our soul in his hands and bear it up to the bosom of God—just as we see here, at the bedside of this little child who has just passed away, whose angel receives his soul, incandescent with love.

As we contemplate this work by Marcel-Béronneau, we are invited to recite this prayer of Saint Gertrude: “O my most holy guardian angel, never forsake me until the last moment of my life, that my soul may then be borne up on your wings to find eternal peace among the elect.”

 

The Guardian Angel (1897), Pierre Amédée Marcel-Béronneau (1869–1937), Pastel, Private collection. Photo: © Heritage Images / Fine Art Images / akg-images.