On the trail of Zadkine and controversy

You wouldn’t expect a village church in la France profonde to house a startlingly original and monumental work of art. But that is exactly what you’ll find if you visit the church in Caylus. A wooden sculpture of Christ is the work of the Russian émigré sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967), who had a house in Caylus for a while. And it caused some controversy during its installation and afterwards.

I had long been aware of Zadkine’s association with Caylus, and we have seen the sculpture on a number of occasions. Yesterday, we joined a Tourist Office guided tour, part of the Journées du Patrimoine taking place this weekend. I learned a lot more, including a few anecdotes about Zadkine and this work in particular.

Zadkine in France and Quercy

Zadkine first came to Paris in 1910 to learn sculpture, following a sojourn in England. He entered l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but, never a conformist, he rejected its academic constraints a few months later to pursue his own ideas. When war broke out in 1914, he was starting to achieve recognition.

During World War I, Zadkine served on the French side as a stretcher-bearer. In late 1916, he was gassed and then invalided out of service a year later. He returned to Paris, his health in tatters and his morale at rock-bottom.

It was at this low point that an artist friend invited him to stay in Bruniquel, and his long association with our region began. He married the painter Valentine Prax there in August 1920. [Aside: I’ve looked up the record in the Archives Départementales online, and his name had been modified from Ossip to the more French-sounding Josselyn.]

Zadkine was very taken with the area, and he and Valentine Prax bought a house in Caylus during the 1920s, funded by the sale of one of his sculptures.

In 1934, they moved to Les Arques in the Lot for two reasons. First, he couldn’t find a workshop big enough for the kind of monumental works he envisioned. Second, he found the traffic that passed his house in Caylus too noisy. He wouldn’t care for it now, then.

Zadkine’s Christ

Since he was of Jewish descent, friends prevailed upon Zadkine to leave France in 1941, and he took the last ship from Portugal to America. The sculpture of Christ that is now in Caylus dates from after his return and was sculpted between 1950 and 1954.

Zadkine chiselled the work from a single elm trunk, which dictated its size (5.4 m) and compositional elements. He sculpted his works straight from the material, unlike other sculptors who made a clay or plaster model first. He said, “Basically, I’ve always been a carpenter who, instead of making a table or a door, has been led to make images out of wood.”  

This Christ is notably different from other, more traditional, representations of Christ on the Cross. There is no Cross, no Crown of Thorns, no loincloth. Instead, both arms are raised, and the elongated body is suspended from one hand by a giant nail embedded in the wall.  The other hand is opened in a blessing. Christ’s diminutive head lolls sideways, the angular face conveying an almost serene expression.

Zadkine sculpted the work in his atelier in Les Arques but wanted to give it to Caylus as a memento of his stays there. The French State bought the work, but it was up to Zadkine to transport it to Caylus. En route, one of Christ’s fingers was broken off, but Zadkine put it in his pocket and said he would glue it back on later.  


Following its installation, the sculpture raised considerable passions among the conservative and devout folk of Caylus. The parishioners had never seen anything like this. Not only were some of the traditional iconographic elements missing, but Christ was naked as well. There is even a story that Zadkine agreed to shave bits off Christ’s penis to placate the “disgusted of Caylus”. Fortunately, the curé of Caylus was convinced of the work’s artistic merits and allowed Zadkine to decide where in the church it should be installed. Eventually, the dissenting voices subsided.

However, controversy has continued even into our time here. In 2001, an outraged priest who had been on a retreat in the area, wrote to the Bishop of Montauban demanding that the work be removed and destroyed as an abomination. Thankfully, the Bishop didn’t agree. Even so, for fear that fanatics might damage the sculpture, the local gendarmerie was on alert for a while for suspicious activity in or around the church.

Photographic exhibition

Zadkine’s Christ is certainly worth a visit. Unfortunately, the lighting in the church is poor. This and the work’s size make it difficult to discern the detail. Photos taken at close quarters by Amélie Boyer are currently exhibited until 1st October 2021 in shop windows along the rue Droite, which leads down to the church. These reveal some of the fine detail that Zadkine teased from the wood.

Zadkine museums exist in Paris and in Les Arques. The latter is on my list to visit.     

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  1. We visited Les Arques way back in 1991 and were thrilled by the wooden Christ by zadkine there. I hadn’t realised there was one in Caylus too. Thank you for your wonderful photos and description. Thank goodness it wasn’t destroyed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The one in Caylus is a well-kept secret. A trip to Les Arques is long overdue, and we hope to rectify that this autumn. You must have been there not terribly long after the museum opened. This is a treat to which we’ve been looking forward for a long time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I absolutely LOVE this. I would travel to view this exhibition. Didn’t know about it and can’t travel now. Thanks for this fascinating post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Vanessa.Fascinating story and most amusing in parts. I can’t imagine what some of the more devout church goers made of quite such a graphic sculpture – hard to concentrate on the sermon!!

    Liked by 1 person

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