The Religious Oeuvre of James Ensor


A tentative quantification and general characterisation 1  

Astrid Schenk is a student of art history. She devoted her internship at the Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) to studying the religious oeuvre of James Ensor. This article for the Ensor Research Project summarises her findings.

James Ensor, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, 3469/8

James Ensor, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, (1921), colour lithograph, signed bottom right: Ensor, KMSKA inv. no. 3469/13

It was 1888 when James Ensor began work on his monumental painting Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889. The painting would become one of his most iconic and eagerly analysed compositions, and is now regarded as a milestone in the history of modern art. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it has also encouraged art historians to take a closer look at the representation of religious subject matter in Ensor's oeuvre in general. The focus of this scholarly attention has been mainly on Ensor's various approaches to the Crucifixion (especially the grotesque or sinister elements in some of his renderings), as well as on the series entitled The Aureoles of Christ or the Sensitivities of the Light, which Ensor first exhibited in 1887, and on different versions of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Abbot of Egypt. Some recurrent conclusions are that Ensor, on account of the initially critical reception of his work, identified with the suffering of Christ and that the output and quality of his religious work gradually declined after 1900, when he had become more established. In 2013, Herwig Todts proposed that Ensor's religious oeuvre should be studied in relation to the artist's own religious outlook and against the background of the symbolist or decadent iconographic repertoires of his contemporaries 2. Preparatory steps to this end have already been taken within the Ensor Research Project, as reported in the present article. For the first time ever, the religious works of Ensor have been inventoried. On this basis, they have been quantified, analysed and contextualised in relation to the state of religion and religious art in Ensor’s era and environment. Not only has this opened up new perspectives on Ensor's religious work, it has also yielded valuable insights into the rest of his oeuvre.

Religious art

Previous publications on nineteenth-century religious art fail to provide an unequivocal definition of the topic at hand. In an important contribution to Beyond Belief: Modern Art and the Religious Imagination (1998), Diane Apostolos-Cappadona draws attention to the multitude of notions of and approaches to religious art. She argues that the origin of this plurality, that is relevant not only to the artistic articulation of religion, but also to the perception of religion as such, lies in the Reformation, when the “holiness” of religious art was first called into question. In 1986, Lydia Schoonbaert, chief conservator with KMSKA and a renowned expert on James Ensor, organised an exhibition on Religious Themes in Belgian Art (1875-1985). She attributed the changing approach to religious themes to the strong decline during the nineteenth century in the number of patrons of religious art. Traditional religious art used to fulfil the requirements of whoever had commissioned the work, and who would in turn have been led by the prevailing theology in whichever era he or she lived 4. In consequence of a growing secularisation of society in the course of the nineteenth century, fewer and fewer religious works were being commissioned, creating room for artists to approach such subject matter in more personal ways. In his publication Religious Art in Nineteenth Century Europe and America (2002), Thomas Buser acknowledges this evolution and associates it with two striking artistic developments: (1) the de-sacralisation of Christian themes, and (2) the application of Christian iconography in the representation of non-religious subject matter 5. In this context, Lydia Schoonbaert questions whether one can actually speak of religious art in the case of James Ensor, considering that his work effectively “desecrates” the religious atmosphere 6. In so doing, however, she would seem to ignore the fact that the very notion of religious art changed in consequence of the previously outlined evolutions, including the new and innovative approaches taken by artists such as Ensor. It was no longer necessary for art to serve a religious purpose in order for it to be ‘eligible’ as religious art. From a modern perspective, the notion of religious art had come to encompass not only all art that appeared in worship service, but also any other art featuring religious motifs, characters, events and themes. For that matter, the Getty Research Institute in LA and Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie in The Hague apply a similarly broad definition of religious art 7.

James Ensor, Still-Life with Chinoiseries, 1959

James Ensor, Still-Life with Chinoiseries, oil on canvas, 78, 8 x 98.5 cm, signed bottom right: ENSOR 89, KMSKA inv. no. 1959

Ensor's religious art does not relate to Christianity only. The title Mes Houris (1928) refers to a passage in the Koran that is often controversially interpreted as stating that the deceased, upon entering Paradise, are greeted by a number of beautiful virgins. Ensor also borrowed elements from Far Eastern religious and mythological iconographies, including the figure riding a lion in the painting Still-Life with Chinoiseries (1906). As Western religious art is essentially Christian in origin, it is traditionally interpreted in accordance with recognisable Christian motifs and themes 8. Therefore, the inventory of James Ensor's religious art is restricted to works containing recognisable Christian iconography and works whose title refers to Christian elements. Motifs and characters relating to other religions are left aside.

Religious art in the nineteenth century

In the eighteen hundreds, religious art gradually lost the qualitative and quantitative status it had enjoyed up to the previous century, when religion was still ubiquitous and the religious genre was very much the terrain of the most prominent artists. Now, it was increasingly pushed into the background 9. Or was it? Certainly a process of secularisation had taken place since the Enlightenment. This meant, among other things, that the Church was no longer commissioning art on the scale it had previously done, so that artists were increasingly getting out of touch with the traditional iconographies for representing transcendental themes. However, that is not to say that religious art had become obsolete. Quite the contrary: artists would continue throughout the nineteenth century to produce religious art, albeit in an increasingly individualised way, selecting their own subject matter and expressing themselves a personal artistic idiom 10. So, paradoxically perhaps, religious themes continued to be revisited by artists from across the artistic spectrum: not only by the Nazarenes – arguably the last movement to profoundly connect faith and art – and the Pre-Raphaelites, but also by artists from the Romantic, Realist and Symbolist movements 11. Furthermore, the ‘revivals’ of the Gothic and Early Netherlandish styles would have been unthinkable without religious points of reference. Such nostalgic trends also led to the rise of the banal strand of religious art that is known as bondieuserie. Lydia Schoonbaert describes the latter as a new, extremely popular type of religious art that was inspired by Classicism and that represented Christian scenes in the “erroneously interpreted colours of the Romantics12. In other words, religious art as a genre had not grown extinct. Still, it is quite striking that an artist such as Ensor should have chosen to devote such a significant part of his oeuvre to religious themes. This was, after all, no longer the genre in which artists could hope to gain fame. Moreover, Ensor’s letters and interviews indicate that he was not a man of faith13, although this in itself obviously need not preclude one from producing religious art. Eugène Delacroix, for example, was a religiously controversial figure who despised the Church, and yet over ten percent of his oeuvre is devoted to religious subjects 14. For that matter, Ensor copied several of Delacroix’s works. In the nineteenth century, the artist’s choice of subject matter increasingly became an integral part of the creative process 15. So perhaps Ensor had other than religious reasons or the preferences of clients to represent religious themes. This was an era of scientific objectivity, and biblical stories, too, were being assessed for their verifiability and hence quite often rejected as "fantastic". One can therefore wonder, as Linda Nochlin does, whether it was still possible for artists to produce traditional religious art. Gustave Courbet, for one, felt he could not: he could only paint what he had witnessed with his own eyes 16. However, in addition to this sense of reality, there was a growing tendency towards the end of the nineteenth century to explore areas that eluded science or were ignored by it, and to treat them as themes in art. Now religious art came to assume many different faces and to serve a wide range of purposes. Some artists would, for example, revisit religious subjects in an attempt to offer a modern outlook on the motifs and characters while retaining traditional compositional and iconographic means. At the same time, there was growing attention for the formal aspects of art, including in religious subject matter. Nochlin refers to the example of The Dead Christ and the Angels (1864, oil on canvas), in which Édouard Manet combines religious subject matter with a nineteenth-century preoccupation with empiricism, i.e. the appearance of a corpse 17. Another approach is encountered in what Nochlin refers to as ‘religious sociological’ art: the representation of religious traditions of the people by artists such as Jules Breton and Dagnan-Bouveret. In this tendency, Nochlin sees no parallels with traditional religious art, but rather artistic attention for a changing world 18. In sum, Ensor may, at first glance, have had many different reasons for creating religious art. Perhaps his choice of subject matter can shed further light on his motives.

The size of Ensor’s religious oeuvre

Xavier Tricot’s catalogue of Ensor’s oeuvre (1992 and 2009) mentions 856 works19. Of these items, 324 also appear in the inventory of Ensor’s religious works, including 111 paintings 20. This amounts to thirteen percent of his total output in paintings. In addition to the religious paintings, Ensor produced 106 prints containing religious subject matter or references. Ensor’s oeuvre of prints was previously inventoried by August Taevernier, whose catalogue (1999) mentions 195 prints, graphic art in Ensor’s hand and reproductions 21. Of these items, 106 have religious content. Hence, approximately 54% of Ensor’s graphic oeuvre may be categorised as religious art. Apart from the paintings and prints, at least 107 of Ensor’s drawings deal with a religious subject. It is not known how many drawings the artists produced overall. Nonetheless, leaving aside Ensor’s drawings, about a fifth of the artist’s oeuvre qualifies as religious art in the previously defined sense. Ensor’s career spanned approximately seventy years; in at least fifty-five of those years, he produced one or more religious works. The longest period without him doing so lasted for barely two years (1922 and 1923). After 1941, Ensor’s overall productivity was low. Considering that twenty-eight of the works in the inventory of religious art are undated, and considering furthermore that part of Ensor’s oeuvre is known to be missing or to have been lost, it seems quite likely that he continued to produce religious work in 1922 and 1923. If indeed he did, not a single year in his career will have passed without him creating at least some religious art. The question remains, though, against which background did Ensor’s religious oeuvre take shape?

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The inventory: sources, themes and main characters

Ensor’s art with religious content or references may be subdivided according to the sources tapped, the subject matter portrayed, and the characters depicted.


Ensor’s religious art goes back to various written sources. In almost 43% of his religious works, the subject is taken from the New Testament. Examples include Judas Throwing Pieces of Silver in the Temple (1880, oil on canvas) and The Wedding at Cana (1913, pastel and gouache on paper) and of course also the miracles, the teachings and the passion of Christ. As for the Old Testament (3%), examples include The Death of Jezebel (1880, charcoal on paper). Ensor also drew inspiration from the apocryphal Christian writings (2%), as in The Harrowing of Hell (1895, copper etching on paper).
The Temptation of Saint Anthony (depicted in ten paintings, prints and drawings dated between 1887 and 1925), The Sermon of Saint Babylas (1892, oil on panel) and Joan of Arc (1888, colour pencil) are examples of hagiographic subject matter. This source comprises around 8% of Ensor’s religious oeuvre.
Ecclesiastic figures, customs and traditions (8%) inspired works such as The Procession at Gistel (1934, pencil on paper), a procession in honour of Saint Godelina, held annually on 6 July since the fifteenth century 22. Ensor is known to have attended the procession in the company of his friend Albert Croquez.
Ensor drew further inspiration from the theological category "sins and commandments" (6%) in work such as Lust (1888, copper etching on paper), which was later included in the series depicting the seven deadly sins.
Ensor also drew from his own era and environment. Belgium in the Nineteenth Century (1889, chalk on paper) is perhaps the best-known example of social criticism by Ensor. In all, some 15% of Ensor’s religious works at once refer to topical political or social issues in Belgium. The portrait of poet Claude Bernières (1939, oil on canvas) likewise refers to "current affairs". In this painting, the arch-like composition of floating figures is a reference to typical Christian representations like a Madonna in Mandorla or renderings of the ascension of Mary.
A rare example of a painting inspired by historical sources is Auto-da-fe (1891, oil on panel). It features King Philip II of Spain, hands folded in prayer, and looking on as three heretics are burnt at the stake; a clear reference to the Spanish Inquisition.
Barely 1% of Ensor’s subject matter was borrowed from non-religious literary sources. The Devil and the Windmill (1934, soft-ground etching on copper) is based on a short story by Horace van Offels about the life of Saint Charmant 23.
In some instances, the work sprung entirely from Ensor’s own imagination, yet the title or iconography refers to a specific Christian theme or tradition. This is the case in 4% of Ensor’s religious works, including The Banquet of the Starved (1917, oil on canvas), where the twelve masked figures seated at a banqueting table are reminiscent of Christ’s Last Supper.

Finally, the sources of some works remain elusive, while there is also a small group of images simply containing Christian attributes. One example of the latter category is The Good Judges (1891, oil on panel), where the wall behind the judges features a painting of the crucified Christ.


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Scenes from the Life of Christ (1921, series of lithographs) is the only series of works where Ensor drew systematically from a single religious source, i.e. the New Testament. One could say that Ensor’s interest stemmed more from the theme than its source 24. One of the themes that clearly appealed to Ensor was the suffering of Christ (11%), as exemplified by The Man of Sorrows (1891, oil on canvas) and Christ between the Malefactors (1921, lithograph).

James Ensor, Man of Sorrows, 3320

James Ensor, Man of Sorrows, 1891, oil on panel, 108.8 x 132.8 cm, signed and dated bottom left: Ensor/ 1891, KMSKA inv. no. 3320

Other favourite subjects are the miracles and teachings of Christ (10%), including The Multiplication of the Fish (1891, copper etching) and Christ among the Doctors (1919, oil on canvas).
Punishment, penitence and fall (6%), as in The Fall of the Rebellious Angels (1889, oil on canvas) and Mary Magdalene (1887, drypoint on zinc plate), are recurrent themes in the religious work of James Ensor. He also produced several works (5%) representing fiendish temptations, including the Temptation of Christ (1888, black chalk on paper).

James Ensor, Fall of the Rebellious Angels, 2176

James Ensor, Fall of the Rebellious Angels, 1989, oil on canvas, 108.8 x 132.8 cm, signed and dated bottom left: ENSOR 89, KMSKA inv. no. 2176

What we refer to as the theme of a literary text or an artistic impression may, of course, also be referred to as its subject. Identifying such themes is both essential to and highly dependent on our interpretation of the image. What, for example, is the actual theme of the Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889? Is it the naive superstition of Ensor’s contemporaries who participated in a ritual evocation of their faith during a procession? Is it the beginning of the story of Christ’s passion? Or perhaps the painting is an evocation of the suffering of the alter ego of the Christian Saviour, i.e. the contemporary artist. Or possibly Ensor was alluding to a forthcoming social revolution that would bring an end to the suffering of the masses.

Main characters

Apart from his preferences for certain sources of inspiration and particular themes, Ensor also had a preference for specific characters. In approximately 40% of his religious works, the main character remains undetermined, yet, as indicated previously, in many other cases the protagonist is Christ (34%). Examples that come to mind are Christ Insulted (1886, coloured etching), Man of Sorrows (1891, oil on canvas) and Christ on the Cross (1900, pastel on paper). But he also frequently painted, drew or etched demons and angels (approx. 9%), as in Demons Tormenting a Monk (1940, oil on canvas), and the Virgin Mary (5%), as in The Virgin of Consolation (1892, oil, gold paint and colour pencil on panel). Other recurrent characters are Ensor himself (4%), as in Ensor and His Muse (1937, colour pencil and gouache on paper), and Saint Anthony (approx. 3%), as in The Tribulation of Saint Anthony (1909, oil on canvas).

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Religious and artistic trends in the nineteenth century

Ensor’s sources of inspiration and his preference for certain themes and characters tie in with more general trends and evolutions during his era. His work, including his religious art, is after all associated by art historians with various (late-)nineteenth-century artistic movements, including Realism, Symbolism and Decadentism. These movements touch upon religious aspects in various ways. Realism created room for the humanisation of Christ; Symbolism found in Christianity various stories and characters that could represent the materialisation of an idea; and Decadentism recognised in the Christian iconography an urge towards exaltation and a fascination with decay and torment.
Artists such as the members of the Belgian society of Les XX, of which Ensor was a co-founder, stood for an anti-academic strand of art 25. Traditionally, religious painting was a subgenre of history painting, which still enjoyed the greatest academic prestige and was governed by strict formal rules regarding composition and style. Possibly avant-gardists such as Ensor took pleasure in shocking the academist establishment by representing "moribund" religious subjects in untraditional ways.
Another relevant evolution in the nineteenth century was the rationalisation of religion, a trend that had sprung in the seventeenth century, and that had gained momentum during the Enlightenment. Das Leben Jesu (1835) by David Friedrich Strauss and La Vie de Jésus (1863) by Ernest Renan were two nineteenth-century exponents of this emphatically empirical approach to religion and the bible 26. Darwin’s theory of evolution was likewise at odds with the Christian myth of creation. This rational trend, whereby religious characters and events were increasingly placed in a historical rather than a religious context, was obviously also reflected in painting. Artistic issues such as the process of creation and origination were after all directly at stake. However, science could not provide all the answers. Hence, the positivist trend coincided with an anti-positivist tendency, which was articulated artistically in spiritual and mystical subject matter 27. Certain artists began to represent religious subject matter for its spiritual content; in other words, religious themes became a vehicle for evoking a state of mind rather than religious content as such 28.
The fact that Ensor reserved ample room in his oeuvre for religious characters and themes ties in neatly with contemporary philosophical evolutions and their impact on the arts 29. The question therefore arises whether Ensor’s choice for specific religious motifs and protagonists also fits into this context, and, if so, how. Perhaps the best way to find an answer is by studying a number of concrete examples in the artist’s body of work.

The suffering of Christ

Ensor’s paintings, etchings and drawings featuring Christ as the main character are generally interpreted in terms of the artist’s identification with Christ’s suffering 30. During the first ten to twenty years of his career (i.e. the final decades of the nineteenth century), Ensor, or so it is argued, suffered increasingly under the rejection of his work by art critics and fellow artists, as well as under his familial circumstances. As a coping strategy, he may have pictured himself in his art as the suffering Christ. Of course, it is hard to measure the extent and the significance of Ensor’s sense of personal suffering. What one can study is his tendency to identify pictorially with Christ, and, as Herwig Todts has previously demonstrated, there are just two works in Ensor’s oeuvre where this is definitely the case. In Calvary (1886, chalk on prepared panel), the sign at the top of the crucifix bears the name of Ensor. And the standard flying from the lance that is planted into Christ’s (i.e. Ensor’s) side bears the name of one Ensor’s critics. The second work in which Ensor unequivocally identifies with Christ is Ecce Homo (1891, oil on canvas). In this picture, three figures appear half-bodied: those on the left and the right represent art critics, one of whom is Fétis, while the figure at the centre is recognisable by his features as Ensor himself. The crown of thorns on Ensor’s head and the title of the painting refer to the mocking of Christ 31. Besides these two paintings, Ensor produced around three dozen renderings of the suffering Christ without any clear references to himself. Nonetheless, the two exceptions suggest that, when Ensor wanted to represent an amalgamation of his own person and Christ, he was quite unequivocal about it. General features such as a beard and dark hair, as seen in the figure riding the donkey in The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889, therefore provide insufficient evidence to conclude that Ensor intended to portray himself as Christ. While it is certainly true that Ensor identified to some extent with the suffering of Christ, it would be premature to interpret the image entirely in this manner. Ensor’s religious work has not been adequately studied in the context of his era and the work of his contemporaries to warrant such an interpretation. He was, for example, not the only artist to represent Christ in his paintings. Numerous contemporaries of his, including Fernand Khnopff, Gustave van de Woestijne and Gustave Moreau did likewise. Moreover, Ensor was not the first painter to identify his own artistic struggle with the suffering of Christ. The previously mentioned Delacroix became increasingly aware of his own genius and what he felt was a lack of recognition on the part of his critics. The resulting sense of isolation led him to equate his creative impulse and its rejection by others with the suffering of Christ 32. Again, though, this is not a self-standing example. In fact it was quite common in the nineteenth century for art to be associated with religion. Whereas the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel still considered religion to be of a higher order than art, writers such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and E.T.A. Hoffmann felt that the two merged entirely. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer saw art as the highest attainable good, while an author such as Charles Baudelaire sought to attain the absolute in poetry 33. It is in this nineteenth-century context, which M.C. Schuijer characterises as ‘art religion’, that a strong association developed between artistry and martyrdom. The artist, like a martyr, undergoes suffering in trying to fulfil his goal in life. As a martyr sacrifices himself for his faith, so an artist does for his art, even if he is criticised or opposed in the process by the outside world. Biographers would describe the lives of composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Gustave Mahler and Richard Wagner in religious terms, as if they were writing a hagiography. Franz Liszt was characterised as the bearer of humanity’s cross; Wagner was God; and others yet were said to have lived a life of self-sacrifice. Some artists, including the author James Joyce, reflected on their own lives and work in terms that were suggestive of a parallel with martyrdom. As the suffering of Christ was connected with the salvation of humanity, so the work of art was seen as the ultimate fruit of the artist’s suffering. Like Christ, the artist was seen not just as a tragic figure, but also as a visionary. This gift of foresight was, in itself, seen as a cause of suffering, as the artist inevitably had to bear his own visions 34. As the nineteenth-century artist was attributed divine traits, those same traits were gradually taken away from Christ. Increasingly, his human nature was being emphasised 35. Consequently, it also became easier, of course, to associate different human experiences with those of Christ. From this perspective, too, it is understandable that the crucified Christ came to be seen as a symbol for expressing personal suffering. Yet, it would be too easy to surmise on this basis that Ensor identified with Christ. The artist probably saw his suffering as part of a larger whole, i.e. the fate that lies in store for him. In the late nineteenth century, the theme of the artist as the chosen one assumed an additional dimension, as a fascination grew with the ‘essence’ underlying visible reality. Christ now came to symbolise not just the martyrdom of the artist, but also the artist’s quest for spiritual truth 36. The ‘motif of the artist and Christ’, as Joan Eileen Greer calls it, was applied by painters such as Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Johan Thorn Prikker, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. Like Ensor, they represented Christ in their own likeness, or at least in a manner that is suggestive of such an identification. And they did so in a way that magnified a particular role of Christ. Vincent van Gogh, for example, associated his artistry with Christ the servant. Others, like Prikker, chose to explore the motif of Christ as a revolutionary 37. Ensor, for his part, probably identified most readily with Christ the visionary. Bearing in mind the foregoing, it seems plausible that Ensor’s take on the suffering of Christ was not only about an identification of Christ with Ensor, but also, perhaps even primarily, about the identification between Christ and the artist in general.

Miracles and teachings of Christ

Ensor’s interest in Christ was not restricted to Christ’s suffering, but also extended to his miracles and teachings (10%). This is remarkable, because here were subjects that – with the exception of the healing of the paralytic – were rarely visualised by his contemporaries. Some miracles appear several times in Ensor’s oeuvre, as in Christ and the Cripple (1880-1886, black chalk, charcoal and gouache on paper), Christ Exorcising the Devil from a Possessed Person (1921, lithograph), Christ Calming the Storm (1906, oil on canvas), The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1917, oil on canvas), The Multiplication of the Fish (1891, engraving on Japan paper, heightened with watercolours), Christ and the Scribes (1921, lithograph), Let the Little Children Come to Me (1921, lithograph), The Silver Pieces of Caesar (1888, coloured etching), in which Christ teaches the elders that he does not concern himself with politics or taxes, only with God, Merchants Expelled from the Temple (1886, black chalk on paper), and Christ Walking on Water (1885, oil on canvas).

James Ensor, Let the Little Children Come to Me, 3469/10

James Ensor, Let the Little Children Come to Me, (1921) colour lithograph, signed top left: Ensor, KMSKA inv. no. 3469/10

The miracles of Christ lost much of their appeal as an artistic theme in the course of the nineteenth century. This evolution coincided with the rationalisation of faith and a humanisation of Christ, as a result of which people were able to identify with him more easily 38. On the other hand, artistic movements such as Romanticism and Symbolism, to which Ensor’s work is considered to belong, may be seen as a reaction against an excessively rational attitude towards life. In terms of content, the miracles of Christ may have appealed to Ensor in much the same way as the suffering of Christ did: in this theme, he may have recognised a parallel between the artist and Christ. After all, the miracles and teachings contain elements of both wisdom and self-sacrifice. Time and again, Christ was required to prove and explain his faith and his wisdom by demonstrating his gifts. And, of course, here also lies an unmistakable element of triumphalism. Christ’s miracles proved beyond doubt that he was able to practise what he preached, much as the criticised artist who stays faithful to his art shall ultimately triumph. Ensor’s documented comments on Christ in any case confirm that he admired him: he regarded him as a great figure and an inescapable symbol 39.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

Among the late-nineteenth century artists who depicted religious subjects, there were traditionalist believers as well as sceptics, non-believers and recent converts. They had in common that they saw Christian iconography as a suitable language for capturing their era and expressing their ideas visually 40. The Symbolists connected with religious themes in two ways: such themes provided a visual idiom for translating ideas pictorially, and, vice versa, those ideas were often of a religious-mythical nature in the first place 41. Biblical stories were combined with anachronistic elements, with underlying themes of social injustice, art criticism, abuse of power, or the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie 42. Christ on the cross may have been the most powerful religious image at their disposal, but it was by no means the only one: there were other religious themes from which artists could borrow symbols in order to express their views on the arts and society. One such theme that Ensor revisited throughout his career, though not as frequently as that of the suffering of Christ, was that of the ‘temptation’ of either Christ or Saint Anthony (approx. 4.5%).
The story of the abbot who is confronted in the desert with countless temptations was popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. New translations of the life story of Saint Anthony were published, and it appeared frequently as a theme in literature and paintings 43.
Temptation unto ‘lustfulness’, the main theme in the story of Saint Anthony, struck a chord in Ensor’s era, for various reasons. Avant-gardist artists and writers like Gustave Flaubert accused the bourgeoisie of moral hypocrisy: they lived their lives with apparent decency as long as they were under the watchful eye of their peers, but in private they abandoned themselves in lechery and lust. In Pleasure Wars (1998), Peter Gay describes the bourgeoisie as a socially heterogenous group, consisting of the petty bourgeoisie of shopkeepers and clerks, the middle tier of craftsmen, and more affluent industrialists and bankers. Fear of sliding down the social ladder and the hope of ascending it were the driving force behind the stifling etiquette that prevailed 44. Diametrically opposed to the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie was the fortitude of Saint Anthony, who, despite being faced with fiendish temptations, holds on to his faith. The story provided artists with excellent material to lay bare both the human conscience itself and our growing awareness of it 45. Moreover, the nightmarish temptations of Saint Anthony tie in neatly with the late-nineteenth-century fascination with psychoanalysis and its preoccupation with dreams, anxieties and repression of lust and emotion 46.

Visual experimentation and ecstasy

Thus far, we have focused on why religious content may have appealed to Ensor. His personal motives for representing biblical and other religious subjects most probably interacted with prevalent contemporary views on religion, developments in religious art in general and the recognisable symbolism of the Christian iconography. However, the appearance of Ensor’s religious works also suggest quite strongly that there was a visual impulse for integrating religious themes into his oeuvre. Indeed, it appears he used religious subject matter as a basis to experiment with different techniques and styles. In Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise (1887), for example, Ensor uses the biblical story as a vehicle for rendering a synthesis of meteorological and spiritual light effects. And in Christ Calming the Storm (1891, oil on canvas), he applies innumerable seemingly parallel coloured lines to create a paradoxical image of flux and stillness.

James Ensor, Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, 2072

James Ensor, Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise, 1989, oil on canvas, 206 x 245 cm, signed and dated bottom left: ENSOR 89, KMSKA inv. no. 2072

Herwig Todts was the first to systematically study the oeuvre of James Ensor in the light of what Ensor himself is documented to have said about it – and about art in general – in letters, writings and interviews. Todts’s research has demonstrated that Ensor had very clear ideas about the purpose of art, and about what drove him in producing it. The purpose of art, according to Ensor, was to induce "ecstasy" in both the viewer and the creator. By ecstasy, Ensor meant the opposite of banality. He was concerned with expressing feelings of “unrest, strife, sorrow, enthusiasm or poetry”. Ecstasy, in the sense of Ensor, refers not so much to beauty as to exaltation. The distinction lies in the fact that exaltation can transport the viewer, not just to ‘heavenly’, but also to ‘infernal’ universes, like Goya’s. In so doing, the artist, Ensor felt, must aspire to a personal artistic vision. This vision had to be modern, and it was attainable only through experimentation 47. The exaltation that Ensor sought may not have been forthcoming in the streets of Brussels, but it certainly was in the bible. And hence he chose resolutely to depict demons, angels, exorcisms, tribulations and miracles. Religious subject matter was, after all, ubiquitous in Ensor’s era and environment. It was available all around: in popular traditions such as processions and carnivals, as well as in the ontological struggles that occupied the intellectual elite. Religious customs, stories and symbols offered Ensor ample opportunity to study both soothing and agitating forms of exaltation, as well as naturalist and spiritual light effects. The exaltation could be induced not just by the religious themes rendered or by the state of mind evoked. After all, it has been claimed that the comforting effect Van Gogh’s paintings is due not to the subject matter, but to the very manner of representation 48. Perhaps this also holds for Ensor’s religious works: Ensor sought to exalt, not by means of religious content, but by means of the lines and colours with which he chose to render a subject.

The production pattern

James Ensor, The Baptism of Christ, (1921), colour lithograph, signed bottom right: Ensor, KMSKA inv. nr. 3469/7 

James Ensor, The Baptism of Christ, (1921), colour lithograph, signed bottom right: Ensor, KMSKA inv. no. 3469/7

The decade from 1880 to 1890 was Ensor’s most productive period in terms of religious art. In these years, he produced a total of 83 paintings, prints and drawings featuring religious subject matter. In the next three decades up to 1920, his production of religious works declined to respectively 45, 24 and 18 pieces. Subsequently, however, it increased substantially, to 49 in the 1920s and 56 in the 1930s. This pattern of creative peaks in the 1880s and 90s, followed by a lull and a resurgence after World War I, is not dissimilar to the pattern in Ensor’s overall artistic production, as ascertained by Herwig Todts in 2013 49. In other words, Ensor’s production of religious works fluctuated rather than declined, as has previously been claimed. He also continued to experiment, as evidenced by the airy and rather unexpected realism in over thirty images in the 1921 series Scenes from the Life, as well as by the novel subject matter and exceptional iconography in Moses and the Birds from 1924. As Herwig Todts remarks in relation to Ensor’s oeuvre in general, he was never satisfied with creating endless variations on the same themes. This observation holds equally for Ensor’s religious oeuvre.

Tabel productie per jaar


Our tentative inventory and general description of James Ensor’s religious oeuvre has yielded some valuable new insights. The most significant is arguably that Ensor had a structural artistic interest in religious subjects. The size of his religious oeuvre, the great variation in religious subject matter, and the fact that he continued throughout his life to produce religious work are strong indications that, to Ensor, religious sources of inspiration were key to achieving his artistic goals. This relevance went well beyond the supposed identification of the artist with the suffering of Christ and the exploration of particular visual effects. Ensor borrowed from the Christian iconography in order to be able to visualise his ideas in a recognisable idiom and to conduct visual experiments in his quest for exaltation. Ensor was by no means unique in his choice of subject matter. Despite the undeniable change in the status of religious art in general, religious subjects continued to be of interest to academicians as well as avant-gardists from different artistic movements, for a variety of reasons. However, the size of Ensor’s religious oeuvre and its relevance to his experimental approach to art call for a comparative study of his oeuvre and those of his contemporaries. Is the religious oeuvre of other avant-gardists similar in size and equally consistent as Ensor’s? And did the appeal of religious subjects to other artists likewise extend beyond mere content to include visual or artistic aspects, or was Ensor an exception in this respect?

As it stands, the inventory of Ensor’s religious oeuvre is incomplete. For one thing, at least twenty-eight works remain undated 51. Moreover, in many cases the precise visual or textual sources are still unknown. In the literature on Ensor, reference is made to artists such as Joseph Mallord William Turner, Gustave Doré, Rembrandt and Jacques Callot as possible examples or sources of inspiration for Ensor’s religious oeuvre in general or for specific pieces of work, but a comprehensive overview is as yet lacking. As for the religious themes that Ensor revisited in the course of his career, these were generally treated in changing styles and techniques, entirely in keeping with the artist’s notion of the necessity to develop a vision. In order to ascertain whether the previously formulated hypothesis that Ensor also chose to depict religious subjects for the purpose of artistic experimentation, it is necessary to examine the relationship between style and Christian iconography. Certainly there is evidence elsewhere in his oeuvre that this may have been the case. Herwig Todts has previously noted, for example, that changes in Ensor’s treatment of form, lines, light and colour often went hand in hand with the introduction of new subject matter.

The iconographic analysis and interpretation of Ensor’s religious oeuvre is quite a challenging proposition. As Thomas Buser recalls, some art historians have pointed at difficulties in describing the iconography of nineteenth-century religious art in general. They argue that it is still too close, too much the subject of iconographic discovery for art historians to be able to correctly interpret its true meaning. However, Buser correctly concludes that this tends towards circular reasoning: religious art is, fundamentally, an iconographic category. Searching for meaning without attempting to understand is a contradiction in terms 53. Be that as it may, the iconography in many of Ensor’s religious works is screaming to be studied closer. These images are by no means easy to interpret. According to the hermeneutic method, deeper insight into the full meaning of a work of art can be attained by giving due consideration to the interaction between parts and the whole. However, besides the subjectivity of this approach – which is inevitable in the Humanities – there are a number of complicating factors in the case of Ensor’s religious art. As was customary in his time, Ensor infused his religious images with contemporary flavours as well as ingredients born from his own imagination. Moreover, he tended to give away very little regarding the meaning of individual compositions and quite often wrapped his themes in a veil of satire 54. Here we recognise another important aspect of Ensor’s religious oeuvre: his tendency to put things into perspective through mockery. As Herwig Todts has previously argued, research into the work of Ensor should take (more systematic) account of the artist’s rather frivolous attitude towards faith and the faithful 55. In future research, the element of satire in Ensor’s work may well hold the key to a better understanding of an otherwise quite elusive iconography.

Astrid Schenk


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1 Ik dank het KMSKA en in het bijzonder dr. Herwig Todts voor de mogelijkheid van deze onderzoekstage. Dr. Herwig Todts heeft het onderzoek naar Ensors religieuze oeuvre begeleid. Met behulp van zijn ideeën en adviezen heeft dit onderzoek richting en vorm gekregen. Door zijn waardevolle en gulle commentaar op het onderzoeksverslag heeft hij mij bovendien in staat gesteld om mijn onderzoeksresultaten zo scherp en concreet mogelijk te verwoorden.
2 Herwig Todts, James Ensor, occasioneel modernist. Een onderzoek naar James Ensors artistieke en maatschappelijke opvattingen en de interpretatie van zijn kunst, proefschrift 2013, p. 41.
3 Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, ‘Beyond Belief: The Artistic Journey’ in: Rosemary Crumlin, Beyond Belief. Modern Art and the Religious Imagination, Melbourne 1998 (pp. 21-24), pp. 21-22.
4 Raymond Pouilliart, Lydia Schoonbaert en Eugène van Itterbeek, Religieuze thematiek in de Belgische kunst. 1875-1985, Brussel 1986, p. 15.
5 Thomas Buser, Religious art in the nineteenth century in Europe and America, New York 2002, p. viii.
6 Pouilliart, Schoonbaert en Van Itterbeek, o.c., p. 22.
7 Definitie van het begrip religieuze kunst volgens de Art en Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) van het Getty Research Institute en het Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (RKD), volgens de website Art & Architecture Thesaurus <> (geraadpleegd op 13 december 2013).
8 Apostolos-Cappadona, o.c., p. 21.
9 Buser, o.c., pp. v-vi.
10 Buser, o.c. pp. 2-3.
11 Buser, o.c. pp. 39-180.
12 Pouilliart, Schoonbaert en Van Itterbeek, o.c., p. 17.
13 Todts, o.c., pp. 219-234.
14 Buser, o.c. p. 139.
15 Buser, o.c. p. 35.
16 Linda Nochlin, Realism, London 1971, pp. 81-82.
17 Nochlin, o.c., pp. 82.
18 Nochlin, o.c. p. 90.
19 Xavier Tricot, James Ensor. Leven en werk. Oeuvrecatalogus van de schilderijen, Brussel 2009, p. 422.
20 Dit aantal is niet definitief. Om een voorlopige stand van zaken te kunnen opmaken is besloten om tijdelijk geen religieuze werken meer toe te voegen. Waarschijnlijk zijn er in het oeuvre van Ensor nog wel een aantal, wellicht zelfs enige tientallen, werken met een religieus thema te ontdekken. Deze zullen op een later moment in de inventarisatie en analyses worden verwerkt.
21 August Taevernier, James Ensor: geïllustreerde catalogus van zijn gravures, hun kritische beschrijving en inventaris van platen, Gent 1999, pp-9-10. Taevernier heeft 142 prenten opgenomen en beschreven en noemt daarnaast het aantal van 22 prenten in de serie La gamme d’amour en 31 prenten in de serie Scènes de la vie du Christ.
22 Website Godelieveprocessie Gistel <> (geraadpleegd op 16 januari 2014).
23 Website James Ensor. Een online museum <> (geraadpleegd op 18 december 2013).
24 Met thema wordt hier bedoeld: een zichtbaar christelijk iconografisch onderwerp. Het gaat hier dus uitdrukkelijk niet om een eventuele diepere, dubbele, tegenstrijdige, satirische of persiflerende betekenislaag.
25 Todts, o.c., pp. 64-66.
26 Brand Blanshard, ‘Four Waves of Religious Rationalism’ op de website Britannica, entry ‘Rationalism’ < > (geraadpleegd op 23 december 2013).
27 Michel Draguet, Het Symbolisme in België, Brussel 2004, pp. 30-43.
28 Henri Dorra, Symbolist Art Theories. A Critical Anthology, London 1994, pp. 339-340.
29 Diane Lesko, James Ensor. The Creative Years, Princeton 1985, pp. 132-134.
30 Onder andere in: Susan M. Canning, ‘Visionary Politics. The Social Subtext of James Ensor’s Religious Imagery’, in: Carol Brown (ed.) et al, James Ensor 1860-1949. Theatre of Masks, London 1997 (pp. 58-73), p. 58. Rosemary Crumlin, Beyond Belief. Modern Art and the Religious Imagination, Melbourne 1998 (catalogue entry, pp 42-43), p. 42. Patrick Florizoone, ‘ Negentiende-eeuwse historische thema’s en onbekende bronnen in het oeuvre van James Ensor’, in: Patrick Florizoone en Norbert Hostyn, Ensorgrafiek in confrontatie, Gent/Antwerpen 1999 (pp. 17-40), p. 29. Julius Kaplan, ‘The religious subjects of James Ensor, 1877-1900’, Revue Belge d’a rchéologie et d’histoire de l’art 1966 no. 3-4 (pp. 175-205), p. 200. Gisele Ollinger-Zinque, Les Auréoles du Christ ou les Sensibilités de la lumière de James Ensor, Bulletin Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België 17 (1968) nr. 3/4 (pp. 191-202), p. 195.
31 Herwig Todts, ‘Christus’ op de website James Ensor. Een online museum <> (geraadpleegd op 24 december 2013).
32 Buser, o.c. p. 140.
33 M.C. Schuijer, ‘Richard Wagner en de kunstreligie’, in: André Klukhuhn, De eeuwwende 1900. Deel 1. Geschiedenis en kunsten, Utrecht 1993 (Studium Generale reeks, de eeuwwenden), pp. 37-43.
34 M.C. Schuijer, ‘Gustave Mahler, martelaar’, in: André Klukhuhn, De eeuwwende 1900. Deel 1. Geschiedenis en kunsten, Utrecht 1993 (Studium Generale reeks, de eeuwwenden), pp. 135-138.
35 Buser, o.c., p. 379.
36 Alexander Sturgis e.a., Rebels and Martyrs. The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century, London 2006, p. 139.
37 Joan Eileen Greer, The Artist as Christ. The image of the artist in the Netherlands, 1885-1902, with a focus on the christological imagery of Vincent van Gogh and Johan Thorn Prikker, Academisch proefschrift 2000, pp. 120-121.
38 Buser, o.c. p. 331; p. 379; pp. 457-458.
39 Todts, o.c., pp. 225-226. Todts verwijst daar naar J.P. Hodin, A Visit to James Ensor, in Far and Wide, (september 1948), pp. 28-32.
40 Draguet, o.c., p. 40.
41 S. Dresden, Symbolisme. Synthese, stromingen en aspecten, Amsterdam 1980, p. 154.
42 Florizoone, o.c., p. 32.
43 Theodore Reff, ‘Cézanne, Flaubert, St. Anthony, and the Queen of Sheba’, The Art Bulletin 44 (1962) 2 (June), pp. 113-125. Canning, o.c., pp. 64-66.
44 Peter Gay, Pleasure Wars, New York 1998, pp. 4-21.
45 Draguet, o.c. p. 103.
46 Reff, o.c. p. 115.
47 Todts, o.c. pp. 292-297.
48 Evert van Uitert, Het geloof in de moderne kunst, Amsterdam 1987, p. 24.
49 Todts, o.c., pp. 389-392.
50 Todts, o.c. p. 531.
51 Als in een later stadium nog werken aan de inventarisatie worden toegevoegd, kan dit aantal nog oplopen.
52 Todts, o.c. pp. 37-38.
53 Buser, o.c., pp. ix-x.
54 Todts, o.c. p. 220.
55 Todts, o.c. p. 530.

Geraadpleegde literatuur


  • James Ensor, Ferrara (Palazzo Massari) 1986.
  • Becker, Jörg, James Ensor (1860-1949). Visionär der Moderne. Gemälde, Zeichnungen und das Druckgraphische Werk aus der Sammlung Gerard Loobuyck, Albstadt 1999.
  • Bodt de, Saskia, Doede Hardeman en Herwig Todts, James Ensor. Universum van een fantast, Antwerpen 2011.
  • Brown, Carol, e.a., James Ensor. 1860-1949. Theatre of Masks, London 1997.
  • Buyle, Daniël, James Ensor in Brussel, Brussel 2010.
  • Canning, Susan M., ‘Visionary Politics. The Social Subtext of James Ensor’s Religious Imagery’, in: Carol Brown (ed.) et al, James Ensor 1860-1949. Theatre of Masks, London 1997, pp. 58-73.
  • Florizoone, Patrick, ‘Negentiende-eeuwse historische thema’s en onbekende bronnen in het oeuvre van James Ensor’, in: Patrick Florizoone en Norbert Hostyn, Ensorgrafiek in confrontatie, Gent/Antwerpen 1999, pp. 17-40.
  • Giménez, Carmen, James Ensor, Madrid 1996.
  • Geyer, Marie-Jeanne, James Ensor. Oeuvre Gravé. Collection Mira Jacob, Strasbourg 1995.
  • Grewenig, Meinrad Maria, e.a., James Ensor. Sterben für die Unsterblichkeit. Meisterwerke der Grafiek, Heidelberg 2011.
  • Hostyn, Norbert, Ensor. De verzameling van het Museum voor Schone Kunsten Oostende, Gent 1999.
  • Hoozee, Robert, Sabine Bown-Taevernier en Jan Frederik Heijbroek, James Ensor. Tekeningen en prenten, Antwerpen 1987.
  • Jole van, Marcel, James Ensor 1860-1949. Grafika I Malarstwo, Krakow 2002.
  • Lesko, Diane, James Ensor. The Creative Years, Princeton 1985.
  • Madeline, Laurence, James Ensor, Paris 2009.
  • Swinborne, Anna (ed.), James Ensor, New York 2009. Geraadpleegd via Google Books.
  • Taevernier. August, James Ensor: geïllustreerde catalogus van zijn gravures, hun kritische beschrijving en inventaris van platen, Gent 1999.
  • Todts, Herwig, ‘Christus’ op de website James Ensor. Een online museum.
  • Todts, Herwig, Goya Redon Ensor. Groteske schilderijen en tekeningen, Tielt 2009.
  • Todts, Herwig, James Ensor, occasioneel modernist. Een onderzoek naar James Ensors artistieke en maatschappelijke opvattingen en de interpretatie van zijn kunst, proefschrift 2013.
  • Todts, Herwig, James Ensor ontmaskerd, Brussel 2011.
  • Todts, Herwig, James Ensor. Paintings and drawings from the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Schoten 2008.
  • Tricot, Xavier, James Ensor. Leven en werk. Oeuvrecatalogus van de schilderijen, Brussel 2009.
  • Zegher de, Catherine, Between Street and Mirror. The Drawings of James Ensor, New York 2001.

Religie en religieuze kunst in de negentiende eeuw

  • Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane, ‘Beyond Belief: The Artistic Journey’ in: Rosemary Crumlin, Beyond Belief. Modern Art and the Religious Imagination, Melbourne 1998, pp. 21-24.
  • Blanshard, Brand, ‘Four Waves of Religious Rationalism’ op de website Britannica, entry ‘ Rationalism’.
  • Buser, Thomas, Religious art in the nineteenth century in Europe and America, New York 2002.
  • Crumlin, Rosemary, Beyond Belief. Modern Art and the Religious Imagination, Melbourne 1998.
  • Greer, Joan Eileen, The Artist as Christ. The image of the artist in the Netherlands, 1885-1902, with a focus on the christological imagery of Vincent van Gogh and Johan Thorn Prikker, Academisch proefschrift 2000.
  • Kaplan, Julius, ‘The religious subjects of James Ensor, 1877-1900’, Revue Belge d’archéologie et d’histoire de l’art 1966 no. 3-4, pp. 175-205.
  • Ollinger-Zinque, Gisele, Les Auréoles du Christ ou les Sensibilités de la lumière de James Ensor, Bulletin Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België 17 (1968) nr. 3/4. pp. 191-202.
  • Pouilliart, Raymond, Lydia Schoonbaert en Eugène van Itterbeek, Religieuze thematiek in de Belgische kunst. 1875-1985, Brussel 1986.
  • Reff, Theodore, ‘Cézanne, Flaubert, St. Anthony, and the Queen of Sheba’, The Art Bulletin 44 (1962) 2 (June), pp. 113-125.
  • Schuijer, M.C., ‘Gustave Mahler, martelaar’, in: André Klukhuhn, De eeuwwende 1900. Deel 1. Geschiedenis en kunsten, Utrecht 1993 (Studium Generale reeks, de eeuwwenden), pp. 135-160.
  • Schuijer, M.C., ‘Richard Wagner en de kunstreligie’, in: André Klukhuhn, De eeuwwende 1900. Deel 1. Geschiedenis en kunsten, Utrecht 1993 (Studium Generale reeks, de eeuwwenden), pp. 37-54.
  • Small, Lisa, Telling Tales II. Religious Images in 19th-century Academic Art, New York 2001.
  • Sturgis, Alexander, e.a., Rebels and Martyrs. The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century, London 2006.


  • Dorra, Henri, Symbolist Art Theories. A Critical Anthology, London 1994, pp. 339-340
  • Draguet, Michel, Het Symbolisme in België, Brussel 2004.
  • Dresden, S., Symbolisme. Synthese, stromingen en aspecten, Amsterdam 1980.

Kunst in de negentiende eeuw

  • Gay, Peter, Pleasure Wars, New York 1998
  • Nochlin, Linda, Realism, London 1971.
  • Uitert van, Evert, Het geloof in de moderne kunst, Amsterdam 1987.

België in de negentiende eeuw

  • Kossmann, E.H., De Lage Landen 1780-1980 (2 delen). Agon, Amsterdam 1986. Geraadpleegd op de website DNBL.

Overige bronnen

  • Website Artprice, schilderijen, prenten en tekeningen van James Ensor.
  • Website Art & Architecture, Thesaurus Art en Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) van het Getty Research Institute en het Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (RKD).
  • Website Godelieveprocessie Gistel.
  • Website James Ensor. Een online museum.



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