Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 1)

Last month I undertook a contemporary art pilgrimage through Amsterdam, curated by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker and Anikó Ouweneel-Tóth under the aegis of Art Stations of the Cross, a project founded in 2016 by Dr. Aaron Rosen and the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing. (Previous city-specific editions have been in London; Washington, DC; and New York.)

Inspired by the traditional Stations of the Cross, the pilgrimage comprises fifteen stops at thirteen locations across the city, where participants are invited to spend time before a specially chosen contemporary artwork that addresses some form of human or environmental suffering. The route starts at the Basilica of Saint Nicholas (Amsterdam’s patron saint) just across from the train station and weaves through, among other places, a park, the old Jewish quarter, a former orphanage, a church-cum–rock concert hall, a hidden house church where persecuted Catholics used to worship, and the red-light district, ending inside the Oude Kerk (Old Church), the city’s oldest extant building, located right in the heart. Not only the art but also the sites themselves were selected with intention, each one a part of the journey down this via dolorosa, “way of sorrows.”

This was my first time to Amsterdam, and it was such a good way to see the city, learn about the city, and pray for the city—all through the agent of art, which functions in this experience as a series of visual laments. When I encounter suffering or read about it in the news, I am often at a loss for how to bring it before God in prayer. I feel its heaviness but lack the words to express that feeling or to intercede in any concrete way. That’s why I’m so appreciative of artists, whose work so often becomes, for me, a nonverbal prayer addressed to my Maker, as I behold and internalize what the artist has first beheld and internalized and has then shared with me through whatever their medium. This is a gift that artists offer the church: vision, long and deep, that’s sensitive to the glories but also the woes of the world and that invites others in, through the skillful crafting of materials, to see right along with them. That act of seeing—of noticing, of giving attention to—can itself be prayer.

Troubled Waters

Amsterdam was founded as a fishing village at the end of the twelfth century with the building of a dam on the Amstel River. (The name Amstelledamme later evolved into Amsterdam.) Its sixty-plus miles of interconnected canals have earned it the nickname “Venice of the North” and make it the most watery city in the world. These navigable waterways led to Amsterdam becoming, in the seventeenth century, the foremost maritime and economic power in the world, and the wealth that came through international trade also enabled the arts and sciences to flourish throughout the country; that’s why the seventeenth century is known as the Dutch Golden Age. (Think Rembrandt and Vermeer.)

Amsterdam canal

The exhibition’s subtitle, Troubled Waters, alludes to the fraught nature of Amsterdam’s identity as a historic port city into which both goods and people travel. The pioneering Dutch East India Company, an amalgamation of trading companies that is now defunct, is important in global business history as the forerunner of modern corporations, but it also cannot be separated from its involvement in the slave trade. Although slavery was formally abolished in the Netherlands in 1863, it continues in Amsterdam’s sex industry, in which a percentage of workers are victims of human trafficking; girls and women sometimes arrive in shipping containers, enslaved by pimps and even further by ignorant customers.

Other residents of Amsterdam arrive as refugees, and for many of them, water is a formidable danger that must be traversed on the way to safety.

“Troubled waters” also references the acidification, pollution, and rising temperatures of the world’s oceans, which endanger the many marine species that live there. So even the water itself bears wounds.

Although the overall tone of the pilgrimage is one of sorrow, pockets of hope are dispersed throughout, as in the empowered Surinamese painted by Iris Kensmil (station 5), Paul van Dongen’s Rising drawing that counterbalances his Judgment (station 7), Janpeter Muilwijk’s afterlife vision of his dead daughter victoriously bounding over the earth (station 9), the soothing “streams of mercy, never ceasing” that provide an auditory accompaniment to Anjet van Linge’s chiseled “Kyrie eleison” (station 12), and, of course, the inclusion of a resurrection station (station 15).

(Related posts: “Stations of the Cross at the Smithsonian American Art Museum”“Remembering Charleston”)

Though modeled loosely after a medieval devotional practice, Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters is thoroughly modern, incorporating audio and video components, 3-D technologies, and the distinctively contemporary genre of installation art. Figurative art is still present and in some cases interacts with the traditional religious images in its environs, but it often does so transgressively—for example, the photorealistic Madonna and Child wrapped in emergency blankets in station 1 and the decapitated corpus of Christ in station 13.

For more information about Art Stations, which runs through April 22, visit http://www.artstations.org/. There you can find a map, opening times, descriptions, tie-in events, and information on where you can purchase a catalog (available in Dutch or English). Most stops along the route host a stack of brochures that condense this info and that contain a stamp card on the back, where you can mark off the stations you’ve visited. All the exhibition sites are freely accessible. (Oude Kerk waives its admission fee if you present your Art Stations brochure at the entrance desk.)

Below and in two subsequent posts, I will share some of my photos and impressions of each station. Unless otherwise specified, all photos are by my husband, Eric James Jones, and are the property of ArtandTheology.org. Feel free to use them noncommercially, with credit to the artists and a link back to this webpage.

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Madonna del Mare Nostrum by Hansa
Hansa (Hans Versteeg) (Dutch, 1941–), Madonna del Mare Nostrum, 2017. Oil on canvas, 125 × 125 cm. Photo courtesy of the artist.

STATION 1. The route starts at the neo-Baroque Church of St. Nicholas, which temporarily houses one of my favorite and arguably the most confrontational of all the works on the tour: Hans Versteeg’s Madonna del Mare Nostrum: Of, Mantel der Liefde (Our Lady of the Mediterranean Sea: Or, Cloak of Love). A young dark-skinned mother holds her toddler son, both of them wrapped in a thermal blanket like the ones given to refugees to prevent hypothermia. Replacing Mary’s traditional ultramarine robe with a “robe” of metallized polyethylene terephthalate, whose gold surface glints in the sun, emphasizes how she and her boy are clothed not only in holiness but also in need. Because of how the artist chose to frame the composition, we don’t know if the figures are standing in a boat that’s still at sea or on the shore. Regardless, their strongly frontal positioning and their direct stares seem to ask the viewer, “Will you receive us?”  Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 1)”

Roundup: Memento mori; works of mercy; ring shout; The Seventh Seal

Affiliate links: Art & Theology is now a participant in the Amazon Associates program, an affiliate marketing tool that enables me to potentially collect a little change by hosting Amazon links on my website. I already do that anyway—link to Amazon product pages when I mention books, movies, or less often, music (I try to drive sales directly to the artist’s website, if one exists)—so you will not notice any change in blog post appearance or the frequency of links. But now that I’m registered, if you were to click through one of those Amazon links (for example, Shout Because You’re Free or The Seventh Seal below) and make a purchase, any purchase, I would earn a referral fee of 2.5% to 5% of the purchase price. I have to generate at least three purchases every 180 days to stay in the program. As of now, this is the website’s sole income stream.

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EXHIBITION: “The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe,” June 24–November 26, 2016, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine: Skeletons, skulls, and other dark images of death from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were meant to remind their owners of life’s brevity and thereby prompt repentance. Some target specific sins, like clinging too tightly to one’s wealth or good looks. “This exhibition represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the rich visual culture of mortality in Renaissance Europe. The appeal of the memento mori, featuring macabre imagery urging us to ‘remember death,’ reached the apex of its popularity around 1500, when artists treated the theme in innovative and compelling ways. Exquisite artworks—from ivory prayer beads to gem-encrusted jewelry—evoke life’s preciousness and the tension between pleasure and responsibility, then and now.” A symposium, “Last Things: Luxury Goods and Memento Mori Culture in Europe, ca. 1400-1550,” will be held November 3–4. You can read a review of the exhibition at Hyperallergic.

Memento mori (prayer bead)
Ivory prayer bead, France or southern Netherlands, 1530. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On one side of the carving is a man, on another a woman, and grinning sardonically between them is a skull, worms crawling through its bared teeth.
Vanitas (16th century)
Vanitas, Germany, ca. 1525. Boxwood. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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ART COMMENTARY: The Seven Works of Mercy (+ Part 2) by the Master of Alkmaar: The corporal works of mercy, seven in number, are a traditional Catholic practice of serving the physical needs of others. Derived from Matthew 25:31–46 (cf. Isaiah 58:6–10) and Tobit 1:16–22, they are to: (1) feed the hungry, (2) give water to the thirsty, (3) clothe the naked, (4) shelter the homeless, (5) care for the sick, (6) visit the imprisoned, and (7) bury the dead. Earlier this month Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker wrote a two-part visual meditation on a Netherlandish polyptych (altarpiece with four or more panels) from the sixteenth century that treats this topic. In the background of each contemporary enactment of mercy stands a silently affirming Jesus. To view the panels in high resolution, visit the Rijksmuseum website.

Seven Works of Mercy
The Master of Alkmaar, The Seven Works of Mercy, 1504. Oil on seven panels, 120 × 472 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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ALBUM: Spirituals and Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast by the McIntosh County Shouters: The McIntosh County Shouters from coastal Georgia are the last community in America to perform the traditional ring shout, a shuffle-step devotional movement, accompanied by singing, that is rooted in the ritual dances of West Africa and was forged by the Atlantic slave trade. Shouting differs from traditional black religious music in repertory, style, and execution, Art Rosenbaum writes in Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia. In 1980 two folklorists, astonished to find the form still in use, encouraged practitioners to take it public. The community thus assembled a small touring group, and in 1984, under the Smithsonian Folkways label, they released their first album. This year they released their second, with a mostly new selection of songs (all but three) and all-new performances. You can watch “Jubilee” below. (Thanks, Global Christian Worship, for the tip!)

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FILM: The Seventh Seal (1958): After receiving several recommendations, I finally watched this classic of world cinema, directed by Ingmar Bergman, and actually enjoyed it more than I expected. It follows the medieval knight Antonius Block as he returns, disillusioned and exhausted, from a decade-long Crusade, only to encounter Death, whom he challenges to a fateful game of chess. (This central image, Bergman said, was inspired by a church fresco, reproduced below.)

Death Playing Chess by Albertus Pictor
Albertus Pictor (Swedish, ca. 1440–ca. 1507), Death Playing Chess, 1480s. Fresco, Täby Church, Uppland, Sweden.

The movie’s title is taken from Revelation 8:1—“And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”—establishing the silence of God as a major theme. Antonius’s monologue in the chapel confessional evinces his struggle between doubt and belief:

I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams. . . .

Is it so hard to conceive God with one’s senses? Why must He hide in a mist of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear Him out of my heart, but He remains a mocking reality which I cannot get rid of. . . .

I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge. I want God to put out His hand, show His face, speak to me. . . . I cry to Him in the dark, but there seems to be no one there.

But along his way he ends up meeting a “holy family”—simple and with pure faith and hope—whose names, Mia and Jof, are diminutives of Mary and Joseph. Bergman presents their worldview as a contrast to the bitter skepticism of Antonius.

For reviews that trace themes of faith and doubt in The Seventh Seal, see David Nilsen and Steven D. Greydanus.