In this series of illustrations, I explore God’s inbreaking into the virtual space of human imagination. Inspired by the book of Visions (14 visions) of the thirteenth-century mystic Hadewijch, I re-enact the visionary experience through my imaginative and artistic practice. I explore the possibilities of the human imagination in relation to the destructive and creative power of divine inspiration. I reflect on the dialectics between text and image by allowing a dialogue between Hadewijch’s imagery, captured in text, and my own associative thinking. I create a sacred and virtual space within my soul’s mnemonic faculty, mirrored by my canvas’s sacred space. This sacred space allows the Spirit to move freely, inspired by the fathomlessness of the Father and the concrete history of the Word Incarnate.
Sander Vloebergs is both an academic and an artist. He recently finished his PhD thesis in Theology (KULeuven) and Literature (UAntwerpen) on the conceptualization and interpretation of pain in the thirteenth-century mystical culture of Liège. Vloebergs’ source materials are ideas and images. His medium is located in the virtual world of the imagination. He expresses his creations through dance and drawings. Vloebergs is interested in the (re)construction of sacred art, movement and composition, and the interrelation between bodies, images, and words.
The possibilities of the human imagination in relation to the destructive and creative power of divine inspiration
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.
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?”
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…