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Part 3. Vision 4 : Cosmic Unity – Two Worlds, One Vision

The fourth vision is a complex text which brings a lot of different characters upon the stage. The spectacle is not that well defined as the scenes, the characters, spectators and performers start to blend. What struck me most was the overall performative character of this vision. Hadewijch is violently interrupted by the spirit that draws her inwardly, to the center of the cosmos. Suddenly she is the protagonist of a cosmic event that is paradoxically dynamic and static at the same time. An angel comes forth and bows over Hadewijch. At the same time he orders the cosmic movement and the salvific history to come to a sudden stop in order to draw attention to the revelation that takes place. Nevertheless, the revelation is about a process of growth, a spiritual growth, that is enacted in the temporal world: it’s about growing in likeness with the humanity of Christ.

The angel presents two different worlds to Hadewijch and she is ordered to choose the most graceful one. In the next passage, Hadewijch deliberately confuses the spectator/reader. There seems to be a distinction between both words, between the angel and Hadewijch, between the angel and Christ, and finally between Christ and Hadewijch. These distinctions collapse and at the cosmic center a union takes place, between Hadewijch and Christ, between humanity and divinity. Love is the divine force that drives everything towards it, yet it is static as it is eternal and perfect.

The vision ends with four tasks that Hadewijch needs to fulfil in order to grow in likeness with Christ, to reach the perfect union that she experienced during this revelation. This path contains suffering and torture. She has to learn how to love even when her Divine Lover is most absent. When she can face the darkness of Love’s abyss, she is ready to experience what it is to be truly human like Christ.

The idea of the cosmic spectacle inspired me the most in this vision. I decided to depict a female figure (Hadewijch) in the center. Her body has taken the shape of the crucified body; it also reminds me of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, who resembles man at the center of the universe. After that, I added the angel whose wings blend with the woman’s hair and whose body touches hers as in a perfect choreography. His tears mingle with the blood of the wounds on the cross and penetrate the soil of the cosmos.

The depiction of the two worlds was the most difficult part of the drawing. I wanted to work with gothic architecture to resemble the world of the Church, Christ’s Body. The final composition where this gothic cathedral is contrasted with the trees was the result of many sketches, every sketch revealing a new and interesting image, every image demanding further reflection. This is how the world of the intellect grows in likeness with the world of artistic inspiration. The trees grew in the drawing as a result of contemplative seeing, a moment of inspiration, that can only be achieved during a dialogue between the artist and the work in process. 

Finally, I added the dynamic movement that blows through the drawing like a breeze, by opening the background and showing a sky full of eyes/stars, giving the image depth. The rosette of the cathedral is placed on the female figure, drawing attention to it. I broke one of the windows, making it a site of wounds, a threshold to another world.

This blog was originally posted on the Theological Anthropology Blog (Research Group Anthropos).

Part 2. Vision 9: Breaking Reason, Breaking Glass – Who Do You Think I Am?

It was only the day after writing the first part that I figured out that another drawing that I developed some time ago, is an answer to the intellectualism that I faced at the beginning of my project. Hadewijch herself assigns a character and a body to her own reason, so she can fight with her. The vision takes place during the night of the liturgical celebration of Mary’s Nativity. Hadewijch is very conscious of the liturgical time and allows it to penetrate the content of her visionary experience. Already at the start of her vision, she encounters a majestic queen, dressed in gold.  It is a dress, moreover, covered in flaming eyes. She is assisted by three maidens. I decided to leave the maidens out of the picture because I wanted to concentrate exclusively and intensively on the relation between Hadewijch and this imposing queen. With the liturgical time in mind, could this be Mary whom Hadewijch is talking too?

Soon the vision takes a violent turn as the queen attacks Hadewijch and puts her foot on Hadewijch’s neck, screaming: “Do you know who I am?” I was rather shocked at first sight, Hadewijch was not. She knew. Hadewijch was battling her own reason. It tortured and grieved her during her whole life by holding her back from a complete (and naïve) union with God and by pointing out the difference between the eternal God of Love and the weak creature that she was (defectus amoris). But this time, queen Reason is not there to hurt Hadewijch only to reveal her majesty, or only to show the precious clothes with the thousands of eyes that shine with bright flames, and the thousands of tiaras that she is wearing. Rather, it was Hadewijch’s own suffering and pain that clothed reason, that made her a queen. In the last part of the vision this Enlighted Reason unveiled her true identity. She was Hadewijch and Hadewijch was the Queen. After that she surrendered herself.  

In the ninth vision there is surprising amount of violence which influenced the dynamics of my drawing intensively. As a dancer and choreographer I draw inspiration from body language. I wanted to capture the sadomasochistic relationship between Hadewijch and the mysterious figure. I was fortunate to have revealed to me an image while I was just wandering around before starting the art process. I believe this revelation to be part of contemplative seeing. I decided to work with the broken mirror and the shattered glass, the intellectual insight to correlate the drawing and the vision were unveiled only after the drawing took shape.

There are two protagonist in my drawing, Hadewijch who is held captive under Reason’s foot. I chose to picture the two figures as living dolls (to refer to the female art of the Middle Ages and its naïve and childish style). Hadewijch cannot do anything, except to see, to stare at Reason. I placed a layer of glass on Reason and broke it where her face used to be. The mysterious figure who Hadewijch artfully hid under many layers of interpretation (Mary – Reason – Herself, it even reminds me of the story of Jacob and the angel) allows Hadewijch and the reader to wonder about her identity. Hadewijch tells her correspondent that she has to see for herself how many tiaras the queen is wearing, implying that looking is not only related to observing but to experiencing as well. Later I understood that I was not drawing shattered glass but that I was drawing a mirror, allowing Hadewijch to look into her own reflection. The many eyes and tiaras are reflected on all the broken pieces. They are scars of the many painful encounters she experienced with the sharp edges of human finite reason. Only when she completely surrendered she conquered and became queen herself. 

At this point I see the many layers in my own art/thought process. The curious choice to put both of these drawings (in this and and the previous blog post) together, demanded me to reflect on the process I went through. By reading the ninth vision again, I discovered that Hadewijch herself was fighting with human finite reason and the intellectualism that suppresses art and mysticism. She made me look in the mirror and answer the question: “Who do you think I am?”

This blog was originally posted on the Theological Anthropology Blog (Research Group Anthropos).

Part 1. Vision 1: The Heart of the Matter

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Hadewijch’s visions started when she was still young, young in years and young in spiritual growth. At the end of the visionary cycle she claims to have reached spiritual maturity. At this point she is capable of teaching others the mystical path. The fourteen visions that she presents were written to her friend who sought her spiritual guidance. In the first vision Hadewijch gives a general introduction to the imagery and the themes that will reappear in the remaining texts. In it she is guided by an angel through different landscapes where she sees different trees. At the end the angel shows her the way to a throne where she meets Christ who reveals to her his humanity.

It is safe to say that Hadewijch sums up an excessive amount of images, making it difficult for the visual artist to embrace all of them. For me, the text is very noisy, very intellectual because Hadewijch was explaining and interpreting all the visual stimuli herself. It was nearly impossible at that time to cancel out all the noise and the constant flood of ideas. Her own moment of divine inspiration was well hidden behind a multiplicity of allegorical imagery. The first feeling after reading this text was to tone it down, to start looking for the essence, the heart of the matter.

I related immediately to the contrast between the natural organic imagery and the semi-eternal material of the throne (precious stones). I don’t believe that this contrast is the theological core of Hadewijch’s visionary experience, but these images resonated in me and clung to me. I experienced a kind of dissonance: the inner discussion between my own rationality (my knowledge about the theology of Hadewijch) and the aesthetic images that demand attention and speak to me from an unconscious level. In this drawing I tried to compensate and use both, and in the process let reason dominate the process.

I decide to work with the heart, which appeared on the leaves of the last tree, but I made it less corny, more dramatic and material in order to contrast our emotional interpretation of the heart shape and in order to stress the materiality and the embodied reality of the vision. The veins I turned into roots which grow upwards like the tree which stands upside down, rooted in heaven. These organic vertical lines are interrupted by a horizontal line, the wood of the cross. With this image I recall the medieval topological relation between the tree of life and the wood of the cross. Both lines cross at five points, which refer to the five wounds of Christ on the cross. At the crossing points I placed stones, referring to the materials of the throne.

At the bottom we find one rose. This rose is the point of gravity. It is the only point which has a fixed place – next to heaven (where the roots are going) and the wood of the cross – marking a cosmic event. The roots flow between heaven and the heart, which is closest to the rose. Hadewijch uses the image of the rose in the last lines of the vision but also refers to it in her poems. The rose is Love itself, given by Christ (through his humanity). The last thing Christ says to Hadewijch is : “Love will give you the power (the rose), give all cause all is yours”.  Following the dynamics of the drawing and the vision, we can detect a kenotic movement, the incarnation. This is the theological core, the essence of her mystical thinking and the keystone in the wish Hadewijch expresses at the beginning of the visionary cycle: She wants to become human like Christ and to be taken up into the love relation of the Trinity. In this drawing the most important element is the space between the heart and the rose which marks the distance between the human heart and Christ’s humanity. It enacts a dynamic of desire.


When the drawing took its final shape, I realized that both the process and the product of my work were very intellectual. It reminded me of a theoretical discourse were words are replaced by images, but which is rational nonetheless. I was not really pleased with the end result because there is no spontaneity that breaks the rational control of the intellect. I felt the colors (which the drawing on paper demanded, but which I was not really comfortable with) were needed. They partially regained this playful character that is intrinsic to good art work.

It was only the day after writing the first part that I figured out that the second drawing that I developed some time ago, is an answer to the intellectualism that I faced at the beginning of my project…

This blog was originally posted on the Theological Anthropology Blog (Research Group Antropos).

United in One Body: Dancing Christina

DANCING MEDIEVAL BODIES

But for those who died and were destined to be saved, she danced so joyfully that it was a great marvel to see her so happy. (Christina 26, p. 142)

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This project begins with the body. The body moves; it uses its own language and creates its own laws and dynamics. The role of the body has been reevaluated over the last several decades, and its intrinsic value for the human person has been acknowledged. This celebration of the human body is not new. Reading late medieval mystical sources, I discovered the dancing bodies of female saints, women from the Archdiocese of Liège (modern day Belgium). Those women not only praised the body as part of the human person (on an intellectual level), they also experienced a divine presence rushing through their veins, opening up their bodies as vessels for the divine to incarnate.

It is only natural that a dancer would gravitate towards these extraordinary moments of bodily extravagance, I believe. But why? How does my contemporary male body relate to a medieval female body? Is the language of dance enough to connect us, and to bridge eight centuries of embodied history? In this dance I try to discover the identity of these women and reflect on the bodily experience of dance that we share in common.

CHRISTINA

JOY AND PAIN IN CHRISTINA’S LIFE

For one night when the divine Spirit came upon her, the chains with which she was bound were loosed and, healed from all hurt, she walked around the cellar and danced, praising and blessing him for whom alone she had chosen to live and die. (Cristina 18, p. 138)

The woman who inspired me the most, at least as an anchor point and as a point of departure for this artistic and academic enterprise, was Christina the Astonishing, Christina Mirabilis. Christina was born in 1150 in the city of Sint-Truiden where she lived an extraordinary life, as her name suggests. Her body resembled the resurrected body, although it was not free of pain. On the contrary, the theme of bodily pain dominates the vita (saint’s life) of Christina. Nevertheless we cannot forget – as Amy Hollywood pointed out in her book Acute Melancholia – that there is also a strange sense of joy in Christina’s life, interwoven with all the horrific pain events.

“Often what is unspeakable is not Christina s suffering but her joy. Her ineffable song”. She poses the critical question: “Are we no longer capable of telling stories in which the unspeakable is the site of jubilation rather than lamentation, of beautiful voiceless song rather than inarticulate screams, of a body spinning with delight rather than one twisted in agony? (Amy Hollywood, Acute Melancholia)

I was inspired to experience this joy, felt by Christina and known to dancers who really engage in the transcendent sensation of becoming dance itself. Christina’s ecstatic rapture often translates to her moving in inexplicable ways, as she is taken up into a heavenly choreography.

When she wanted to pray, she shad to flee to treetops or towers or any lofty spot so that, remote from everyone, she might find rest for her spirit. And again when she prayed and the divine grace of contemplation descended upon her, all her limbs were gathered together into a ball as if they were hot wax, and all that could be perceived of her was a round mass. (Cristina 16, p. 137)

Christiana’s divinized dancing body was the source of inspiration for this particular choreography. I imagined her being weightless. I pictured the saint on the rooftop of the Church, defying gravity while being moved by the divine spirit. As a dancer I desire the same weightlessness and envy the saint’s privileged experience of this graceful unification with Dance itself. Through my choreography I tried to at least catch a glimpse of Christina’s experience. I believe this opportunity could not be taken by an academic reading of the text, simply because the body is not involved in this process of academic reading.

BEING MOVED

Now she was very familiar with the nuns of St Catherine’s outside the town of Sint-Truiden. Sometimes while she was sitting with them, she would speak of Christ and suddenly and unexpectedly she would be ravished in the spirit and her body would whirl around like a hoop in a children’s game. She whirled around with such extreme violence that the individual limbs of her body could not be distinguished. When she had whirled around for a long time in this manner, it seemed as if she became weakened by the violence of the rolling and all her limbs grew quit. (35, p. 145)

On the dance floor, one experiences when the body is moved. When the body opens up its register and starts speaking, one is moved. I used this feeling of being moved and combined it with flowing movements, feeling the air/the spirit moving through my veins, like a soft breeze leading the way. The body awakens and is carried through the first phrase of dance, until the wind leaves the body and the dancer is left on the floor, lifeless until his body resurrects again – although this time more careful, conscience of the pains of the world. Sometimes the cross is evoked in the body of the dancer to refer to Christ, who – to Christina – is the source of life. Phrases of ecstatic joy and vulnerable intimacy coexist, intertwined in their unique pas de deux, until they fade out and the dance finds its disclosure in a position of prayer.

This blog was originally posted on the Theological Anthropology Blog (Research Group Antropos).

See also the blog posts about the music and the video of CHRISTINA – Project 1.