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.

Social critique in two Victorian Nativity paintings

Sometimes we rush to judgment of artworks that at first glance seem dull and conventional. We assume they have nothing to show us. But if we were to look more closely, we might find something unexpected. Even subtly subversive.

Such is the case with The Nativity and its companion piece, The King and the Shepherd, which were commissioned from the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne-Jones in 1887 for the chancel of Saint John’s Church in Torquay, England. Seven by ten feet each, they hung on the north and south walls for just over a hundred years before being sold by the church in 1989 to pay for a new roof. (Copies were hung in their places.) Musical theater composer—and Victorian art collector!—Andrew Lloyd Webber bought them and, in 1997, donated them to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That’s where I saw them earlier this year.

Burne-Jones, Edward_Nativity
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (British, 1833–1898), The Nativity, 1888. Oil on canvas, 81 × 124 1/2 in. (205.7 × 316.2 cm). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Burne-Jones, Edward_The King and the Shepherd
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (British, 1833–1898), The King and the Shepherd, 1888. Oil on canvas, 81 1/4 × 124 1/2 in. (206.4 × 316.2 cm). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Nativity shows Mary reclining outdoors on a rustic bed that resembles a bier with her newborn son, Jesus, both wrapped in shroud-like garments. Her partner, Joseph, who has his cloaked back to the viewer, sits on the ground reading a manuscript in Gothic script; the text is indiscernible, but I presume it’s meant to be the scriptures that prophesy the birth of a savior or his sacrificial death. Three angels stand to the side holding symbols of the passion: a crown of thorns, a chalice, and a jar of myrrh, a traditional burial spice. The painting, therefore, links the entrance of Jesus onto the world stage to his ultimate saving act on the cross.

(Related post: “Birth and death in Lavinia Fontana’s Holy Family painting”)

Burne-Jones, Edward_Nativity (pastel)
Pastel sketch for The Nativity by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1887. The New Art Gallery Walsall, England.

Burne-Jones, Edward_Nativity (detail, angels)

This foreshadowing approach was not new in Nativity art. But in addition to gesturing toward the redemption from sin that Jesus would bring, the painting also quotes from a community lament psalm in which God’s people cry out for deliverance from those in authority who lie and manipulate. Propter miseriam inopum et gemitum pauperis nunc exsurgam dicit Dominus, the Latin inscription reads, which translates, “Because of the misery of the poor and the groaning of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD” (Psalm 12:5a). When God’s people are oppressed, God is aroused to action, and Burne-Jones’s choice of this atypical scripture text for a Nativity painting reminds us of the sociopolitical context of Jesus’s birth, which involved Roman occupation of Israel and a despotic ruler so obsessed with power that he mandated the extermination of Jewish male babies in Bethlehem, thinking he would quash the threat of usurpation. This is the reality into which Jesus was born. And though he didn’t deliver Israel from Rome during his lifetime, he did launch a new “kingdom” and declare a jubilee (Luke 4:16–21).

The biblical inscription speaks not only to Jesus’s day but also to contemporary times, which were marked by high unemployment and great hardship among London’s working class. It’s “a subtle allusion to the social miseries of Victorian Britain,” says Louise Lippincott, curator for the Carnegie at the time of acquisition. She speculates that Burne-Jones intended the painting “as his public statement, albeit a muted one, on 19th-century social horrors. . . . It is quite likely that he was thinking of reports of the bestial living conditions of the London poor that were appearing in the press in the early 1880s.” In 1886, 1887, and 1888, as Burne-Jones was planning and executing the painting, violent strikes and riots were going on in London to protest economic inequality. As people starved, those in power continued to fatten themselves with apparent disregard. The incorporation into this humble scene of a divine vow from the Psalms, where God states his commitment to the poor, expresses hope that God will again arise to deliver from affliction those who trust in him.

The King and the Shepherd extends this critique of the wealth gap by showing the two titular figures—one rich, the other poor—approaching the Christ child as equals. As was and still is common, Burne-Jones combines Matthew’s account of the magi with Luke’s account of the shepherds, showing both as welcome participants in the same event, but uniquely, he chooses only one figure to represent each group. (Traditionally, three magi attend the birth, along with a nonstandard number of shepherds.) An angel leads each traveler by the hand, reminding them to keep their voices low so as not to wake the sleeping infant.

Burne-Jones, Edward_The King and the Shepherd (detail, king)
Burne-Jones, Edward_The King and the Shepherd (detail, shepherd)

“The pairings visually suggest the equality, in the face of divinity, between the wealthy king and the humble peasant,” reads the museum wall text. “In the context of the enormous social inequalities rife in Victorian England, this message smacked of social and political radicalism.” The Latin inscription—Transeamus usque Bethleem et videamus hoc verbum quod factum est quod fecit Dominus [et ostendit nobis]—comes from the New Testament description of the journey of the shepherds. “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem,” they say, “and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us” (Luke 2:15b).

God chose to reveal his Son’s birth not only to bookish scholars or, as tradition has it, royalty, but also to a bunch of blue-collar laborers. The shepherds’ and kings’ mutual presence at Christ’s bedside was only the beginning of the reconciliation across lines of division that Christ came to enact.

For further reflection on the inclusion of rich and poor in the biblical narratives of Jesus’s birth, see “Shepherds vs. Magi: Dynamics of Privilege within the Nativity Story” by Tony Kriz.

All photos, except for the pastel sketch, are by Victoria Emily Jones / ArtandTheology.org.

The Dead Christ Supported by Angels: A Thematic Survey

A type of “Man of Sorrows” image, the Dead Christ Supported by Angels is a devotional trope originating in the late Middle Ages. It typically shows a naked, half-length Christ standing up in a sarcophagus, his wounds prominently displayed so as to invite meditation on his suffering. One or more angels tend to him—they may embrace him, mourn his passing, unwrap his burial shroud (to give viewers a better look), display instruments of the passion, keep him propped up in the tomb, or, as we will see below, prepare to welcome him back to life.

(Related post: “Bill Viola’s Emergence as a Picture of the Resurrected Christ and the New Birth of Believers”)

One of the earliest examples of this imagery is the marble relief at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Originally a lectern adornment for the pulpit in Pisa’s cathedral, it shows two angels unveiling Christ’s body, presenting it to us like a eucharistic host. Their raised arms and slanted legs form a mandorla-like frame around him.

Angel Pieta by Giovanni Pisano
Giovanni Pisano (Italian, 1245/48–1314), Angel Pietà, 1300. Marble relief, 44 × 45 × 36 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Staatlichen Museen, Berlin, Germany.

Dead Christ Supported by Angel (ivory)
Pendant: Imago pietatis. Elephant ivory. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo: Jean-Gilles Berizzi/RMN-Grand Palais.

The fifteenth-century alabaster sculpture shown below was formerly partially painted, and the angels formerly wore diadems on their foreheads (one survives). “This is an immensely virtuoso carving for such a small scale,” writes art historian Kim W. Woods—notice the texture of the angels’ wings and hair, the lining of Christ’s ecclesiastical robe, and the plants at Christ’s feet. Notice, too, the intricately carved emblem on Christ’s brooch: a pelican pecking at her breast. Reputed to have fed her young with own blood, the pelican was a common medieval symbol of Christ’s sacrificial love.

Christ as Man of Sorrows (alabaster)
Christ as a Man of Sorrows, mid-15th century. Alabaster, 40 cm high. Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium. Photo: Jean-Luc Elias/KIK-IRPA, Brussels.

In the Leipzig Man of Sorrows by Master Francke, Christ and three angels stand in a shallow space in front of the cross. It’s unclear whether Christ is on the edge of death or has already crossed over. In his left hand he holds the scourge—or tries to (his hand is either weak and cramped with pain, if alive, or if dead, afflicted rigor mortis). His other hand gestures to his side wound, still wet with blood, as if, like Thomas, he’s about to probe it. Peeking up over Christ’s shoulder is a full-size angel, who tenderly drapes him with a diaphanous veil. At the bottom of the painting two smaller angels kneel on either side, the one holding the birch, the lance, and the sponge-topped reed, the other holding the pillar of flagellation; they both struggle to support the dead weight of Christ’s arms.

Man of Sorrows by Master Francke
Master Francke (German, 1380–1435), Man of Sorrows, ca. 1430. Tempera on oak, 42.5 × 31.3 cm. Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig, Germany.

The angels at Christ’s waist in Master Francke’s Hamburg Man of Sorrows, instead of holding instruments of torture, hold a lily and a sword, symbols of the Last Judgment. (In visualizations of that event, Christ is often shown with a lily coming out of his right ear, signifying an “innocent” verdict for the faithful, and a sword coming out of his left ear, declaring guilty those who did not know him.) Three angels at the top remove the cheap, mock kingly garment the Romans had thrown on him to replace it with his due: a finely embroidered robe befitting a true king.

Man of Sorrows by Master Francke
Master Francke (German, ca. 1380–ca. 1435/40), Man of Sorrows, ca. 1435. Tempera on oakwood, 92 × 67 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.

Continue reading “The Dead Christ Supported by Angels: A Thematic Survey”