With mysticism playing such a central role in his work, the other Nabi artists referred to Denis as Nabi aux belles icônes: the Nabi of the beautiful icons. His deep appreciation for the 15th-century painter Fra Angelico was the impetus for a lifelong dedication to art inspired by Christianity. At the age of just 16, he noted in his diary that painting was essentially both religious and Christian, and this idea is reflected in his extensive oeuvre of paintings, murals, graphic art and illustrations in which biblical and liturgical representations are dominant. His intimate family portraits and household scenes also have religious connotations, even in the absence of any overt reference to Catholicism. Denis himself set out his artistic ideals and art-historical opinions in countless articles, a number appeared in volumes entitled Théories. 1890-1910. Du Symbolisme et de Gauguin vers un nouvel ordre classique (1912) and Nouvelles Théories. Sur l’art moderne, sur l’art sacré. 1914-1921 (1922).
In ‘The Communicants’, Maurice Denis depicts a celebration of First Communion in the parochial church of Saint-Germain, in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye where he lived and worked throughout his life. The scene is bathed in an atmosphere of contemplation and restraint. Under the watchful eye of a nun from the order of the Daughters of Charity, identifiable by her broad wimple, the girls appear as floating figures, sketchily drawn and resembling the figures d’âme as the artist himself described them: fragile, immobile female figures associated with the specific aesthetics of the plays of Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949). This was a frequently recurring element in Denis’ work between 1890 and 1900. The gentle, harmonious colours, combining shades of blue, green, yellow and pink, reinforce the solidarity among the communicants as they take this next step in their spiritual development. In 1904 the painting was purchased by the French collector Arthur Fontaine (1860-1931), who was also a friend to Denis, Edouard Vuillard and other Symbolist artists such as Eugène Carrière (1849-1906) and Odilon Redon. It remains in his family today.
The acquisition of ‘The Communicants’ represents a significant addition to the museum’s collection. For one thing, it is a meaningful supplement to the existing collection of works by Maurice Denis. For another, its religious, intimate nature allies it to other works by Denis’ Belgian contemporaries, including Charles Doudelet (1861-1938), George Minne (1866-1941) and Gustave Van de Woestyne (1881-1947). But it is also a historically valuable work in the larger context of cross-pollination between Belgium and France in the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. This interaction is omnipresent in the MSK’s collections and exhibitions throughout its history, and Maurice Denis was a prominent participant in this dialogue as long as he lived. For him, Belgium was full of friends, a source of commissions and a place where his work was frequently exhibited and sold. It was also a favourite travel destination, as demonstrated by his visits to Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent, and an arena for the exposition of his theories and beliefs, both in magazines and at conferences. As he himself put it: On y était reçu par de charmants amis de l’Art français qui s’appelaient Edm[ond] Picard, Octave Maus, Devillez, Carton de Wiart, Fierens-Gevaert. […] C’était une véritable renaissance du lyrisme, du sentiment religieux et de l’art idéaliste ! Nous étions fier d’y être mêlé.