The Other Religious Art

Di Massimo Introvigne (translated by L. Pavese)

Joseph Gillain (1914-1980), also known as Jijé, one of the greatest authors in the history of comic-books, was born one hundred years ago in Gedinne, Belgium. He’s being remembered in an exposition at the Maison de la Bande Dessinné (House of the Comic Strip) of Brussels, Belgium, (which is very near the downtown train station).

Jijé by Jijé
The exhibit is very rich with previously unpublished works and original drawings. Rino Cammilleri already wrote about Jijé on La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana at the time of the reprinting of the Italian edition of Jijé’s Don Bosco (ReNoir - Nona Arte, Milan, 2013); but the Brussels show places Jijé in the right context and helps us to understand him better. The Belgian school of comics, whose other famous representative was Hergé (Georges Remi, 1907-1983), the creator of Tintin, is known as the school of the “clear-line,” as opposed to the two other great tendencies, the American and the Japanese. 
But the Belgian school has another peculiarity: it arose in the Catholic environment and was actually explicitly promoted by the Church, with the intent to bring back young people to faith. Among the priests who promoted the work of the Belgian comic-books artists, Father Norbert Wallez (1882-1952), had a prominent role. Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier (1851-1926) gave Fr. Norbert the job of restructuring an important part of Belgian Catholic press, including the portion intended for the young. Today, Father Norbert Wallez is remembered with a certain amount of embarrassment because, being a fervent anti-communist, he ended up becoming too close to the Belgian pro-Nazi movement of Léon Degrelle (1906-1994), and after the Second World War he had to serve four years in jail for collaborationism. Nevertheless, it was Fr. Norbert who caused Hergé to take up comic-books.

Tintin in trouble (by Hergé)

Fr. Norbert considered Hergé like a son, especially after Hergé married the secretary of the priest.  When the artist divorced his wife after the war, he also distanced himself from the Church, and described the Catholic aspect of Tintin’s golden age like a mere happenstance due to Belgian tradition. According to experts though, this was a late reconstruction on the part of an embittered man who was fighting with his ex-wife: Hergé’s engagement in Catholic associations, and the faith of the creator of Tintin before the second world war, leave very little doubt about their sincerity. But Jijé, the other master of the Belgian school of comic-books (who was also one of the authors of Spirou) remained faithful to a militant Catholicism till his death.
The comic-book school created by Jijé, the school of Marcinelle, owes a lot to the Benedectine Abbey of Maredsous and to its Abbot, the blessed Irish Dom Columba Marmion (1858-1923). Jijé, and many other artists, learned visual arts in the school of Maredsous. But it wasn’t just a matter of technique. The Belgian school, whose majority of members came from Catholic associations and schools (including Peyo, Pierre Culliford, 1928-1992, the creator of the Smurfs) remained impregnated for a long time with the values of Catholicism, through the story lines involving the Catholic Scout movement, the exotic lands in which Catholic missionaries always appear, the rediscovery of the Christian Middle Ages, and the lives of the saints.

Charles de Foucauld by Jijé

Jijé’s 1943 “Don Bosco,” translated in many languages, is probably the best selling religious comic-book story ever. But Catholic values emerge also in Jijé’s Western stories (that are being rediscovered today) and even in his funny series. The Brussels exhibit also shows Jijé as a pretty good painter, with a very good technique, but maybe just a little too anxious to imitate the Impressionists and van Gogh.
Luckily Jijé understood early that his calling was the comics. Belgium and the Church lost an average painter and gained one of the greatest comic-book artists of the 20th century.

The original article appeared on the Italian on-line daily La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, and it was translated and posted here with their permission (I'd like to thank J.J.P. for reviewing the English text).

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist and author, who runs the Center for Studies on New Religions and writes about the sociology of religion. There are other interesting articles by Dr. Introvigne in this blog. For example, here there's one that analyzes the painting of the Wedding at Cana by Giotto. From this post you'll be directed to the other articles by Dr. Introvigne.
Your comments will be greatly appreciated. Thank you,
L. Pavese


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