Thorns and resurrection with Paul van Dongen

Thistles, seaweed, ivy, and other plants and flowers appear often in the work of Dutch artist Paul van Dongen [previously], whose creative output includes a series of etchings titled Crown of Thorns. Made in 2004–5, shortly after his return to the Christian faith, each of these pieces portrays a ring of twining briars that evoke the headpiece forced mockingly on Jesus prior to his execution.

Dongen, Paul van_Crown of Thorns (2)
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Crown of Thorns (2), 2004. Etching, 25 × 37 cm. All photos courtesy of artist.

Dongen, Paul van_Crown of Thorns (3)
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Crown of Thorns (3), 2004. Etching, 28 × 40 cm.

Dongen, Paul van_Crown of Thorns (4)
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Crown of Thorns (4), 2004. Etching, 25 × 37 cm.

Dongen, Paul van_Crown of Thorns (5)
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Crown of Thorns (5), 2005. Etching, 25 × 37 cm.

“I think all nature is not just botanical,” the artist told me in an email when I inquired about the series. “It’s also a sign—a signal, if you please—of something or Someone supernatural.” Some items found in nature, like these thorn branches, even have a Christological association, thorns having been an instrument of Christ’s passion.

Etching is a printmaking process in which a metal plate (in van Dongen’s case, zinc) is first coated in an acid-resistant ground of wax. The artist then draws a picture or design into the plate with an etching needle, exposing the bare metal so that when the plate is dipped into an acid bath, the acid bites into the exposed areas to create recesses that can retain ink. Next the artist removes the wax ground, inks the plate (letting the ink settle into the etched grooves), wipes clean the surface, and finally rolls the plate through a press with a sheet of paper, to which the reverse image adheres. Voila!

Van Dongen collects organic materials from his surroundings in Tilburg, bringing them back to his studio. His drawings on the plate are done directly from life, with no sketches beforehand or photographs. “Everything has to be present before me,” he says.

For his Crown of Thorns etchings, he gathered thorny twigs and branches from bramble bushes and bent and wove them into circular forms—“a painful job”! One of these crowns he keeps on the wall of his studio, next to a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Portuguese corpus (body of Christ) that his aunt gifted to him.

Paul van Dongen studio with crown of thorns

Continuous in some ways with this somber series and yet visually and thematically distinct is van Dongen’s vibrant Verrijzenis (Resurrection) etching, made with colored inks and, using a process of his own making, printed watercolor. I and the Daily Prayer Project team chose this image for the cover of our Easter 2021 periodical, which is available for purchase in print or digital format. (As a side note, I contributed a written piece to this edition, “Praying with the Eyes.”)

van Dongen, Paul_Resurrection
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Verrijzenis (Resurrection), 2006. Watercolor etching, 70 × 33 cm.

I appreciate how van Dongen finds a unique way into the subject of Jesus’s resurrection, taking a nonfigural, conceptual approach that invites contemplation. His etching shows a thorny stem with a few withered shoots bisecting a crown of thorns, breaking it in two, evoking the breaking of Jesus’s body on the cross and, moreover, the breaking of the curse of sin and death, of which thorns are a symbol (Gen. 3:17–19). Consider, too, the covenant of the pieces that God made with Abraham (Gen. 15:1–15), wherein God, manifest as fire, passed between the animal sacrifices Abraham had cut in half, ratifying the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey for all his descendants.

The spherical forms in the background are skulls, an allusion to human mortality and to Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull.” (Van Dongen has worked with this vanitas motif par excellence several times, and even participated in the Skull Show at the ACEC in Apeldoorn in 2019–20; see, e.g., here and here.) But the skulls are dissolving. They and the other organic matter are rendered in red, yellow, green, blue, violet—colors of the rainbow, that ancient sign of God’s promise. The brokenness of creation is being transformed into new life, and even the orientation of the artwork invites us into that “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14), its strong verticality lifting our eyes in a rising motion.

“For me there is no fundamental difference between my explicitly religious works and my more profane, earthly works of art,” van Dongen says. “Nature with its cycle of growing, flowering, dying, and sprouting out again is symbolic to me of Christ and his resurrection. And the other way around.”

Each of the etchings on this page, excluding Resurrection, is from an edition of 15. There are still a few impressions left; contact the artist using the contact form on his website, www.paulvandongen.com, if you wish to inquire about a purchase. Follow him on Instagram @paulvan.dongen.

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