Catching the sun with Frans Claerhout

Boy and Cart by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Boy and Cart. Oil on canvas laid down on board, 37 × 45 cm.

Father Frans Claerhout (1919–2006) was a Belgian Catholic missionary to South Africa as well as a self-taught artist whose painting sales helped support the church’s work in and around the impoverished towns of Bloemfontein and Thaba ‘Nchu. For him, painting was an extension of his mission, for through it, he said, he sought to communicate joy and beauty. He often depicted the everyday scenes he observed around him—farmers harvesting grain, women carrying water or flowers, children playing, donkeys, chickens, sweethearts. Sometimes he transformed such scenes into biblical ones, such as the Annunciation, the Flight to Egypt, Peter’s denial, or the Good Shepherd.

Claerhout understood himself as having a dual vocation. In a 1999 interview with Esté de Klerk, he said, “I am a priest, but I am also an artist, and I have always combined the two. I am one and the same, Father Claerhout—priest and painter. Not two sides of a piece of bread but the whole piece.” In other words, he saw the two as perfectly integrated. He couldn’t turn over his priestly duties for part of the day to focus on his art, nor vice versa, because they were one and the same. In both roles, he administered the gospel.

With the money Claerhout made from his paintings, he funded the building of twenty churches and several houses for families in addition to the purchase of eight vehicles for the transport of schoolchildren, the sick, and the elderly. He liked to think of himself as “a breadwinner for the church.”

One recurrent motif in Claerhout’s work is what he called the “sun catcher” (sonnevanger): a person cradling the sun in his or her arms or toting it by hand or by cart. “Catching the sun” is a phrase that Claerhout used often in his teaching and poetry in reference to possessing joy—warmth, light—in Christ. It engages a theological wordplay that’s been in use since the earliest developments of the English language: sun/Son. Christ is both.

Sun Catcher by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), The Sun Catcher. Bronze sculpture.
Sun Catcher by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), The Sun Catcher.
Woman with Sun by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Woman with Sun. Mixed media on paper, 60 × 42 cm.

The Sun Catcher by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), The Sun Catcher. Oil painting, 92 × 76 cm.
The Sun Catcher by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), The Sun Catcher. Charcoal on paper, 21 × 15 cm.
People Attending Church by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), People Attending Church. Acrylic on board, 50 × 60 cm.

Sunflowers also figure heavily into his oeuvre, an extension of the sun symbolism. I especially like the ones of the harvesters, reaping joy.

Man with Sunflower by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Man with Sunflower.
Sunflower Girl by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Sunflower Girl. Acrylic on card, 92 × 61 cm.
Man Carrying Sunflowers by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Man Carrying Sunflowers. Acrylic on asbestos, 149.5 × 120 cm.
Man with Sunflowers by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Man with Sunflowers. Oil on board, 49 × 59 cm.
Harvesting Sunflowers by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Harvesting Sunflowers. Acrylic on canvas, 50 × 153 cm.
Harvesters by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Harvesters. Oil on board, 49 × 65 cm.
Going to Church by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Going to Church. Oil on board, 50 × 60 cm.

The image of Die Sonnevanger so well encapsulated Claerhout’s life philosophy that it became the title of a book of his art published by Tafelberg in Cape Town in 1983. It also inspired an orchestral suite by Hans Roosenschoon. (Listen to a sample here.)

Here are a few quotes from Claerhout on the subject:

  • “The secret to life is to catch the sun and share its warmth with others.”
  • “The sun will shine in your heart if you give support to the stumbling person.”
  • “If you catch the sun, you will never die.”

And a poem:

Joy I will find.
I’ll catch the sun.
I’ll yawn at moonlight—
the night will pass.
I’ll spit the vulture from my throat.
Africa is more
than blossoms and birds,
vultures and lions.
Man needs the sun,
warmth.
I’ll be your sun.
I no longer fear death.

“I’ll be your sun,” he imagines Jesus saying, an invitation reminiscent of Jesus’s words in John 8:12: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Or the declaration of God to Israel in Isaiah 60:19–20: “The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended.”

(Related post: “Jesus as Sun-Face: A Panel Carving by Don Froese”)

When the light of the gospel shines into our lives, it overcomes the darkness. Sin-wrought death and decay and all that feeds on it give way to life.

Claerhout’s ministry—in art and poetry, in preaching, and in service—was to point people to the Son so that they too could catch him and carry him wherever they went.

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