Vision 4. Cosmic Unity. Two Worlds, One Vision

By Sander Vloebergs

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.

The Visionary and the Visual: Introduction to Art Project part 2.

By Sander Vloebergs

In this part of the project I will present the result of an artistic-theological dialogue with the visionary Hadewijch and her fourth vision. In Part 1. of this art project I experienced the difficulties translating the visionary language to the visual medium of drawings. I encountered a deeply rooted intellectualistic response to the text which could partially be related to my academic training. In Part 2. I have the feeling that the art process was a long but fruitful struggle with the text, an exercise in combining both the intellectual reflection and the artistic freedom of contemplative seeing.

Blogpost: Art Project part 2: Vision 4. Cosmic Unity. Two Worlds, One Vision

Art project part 1. Vision 9 - Breaking Reason, Breaking Glass – Do you know who I am?

By Sander Vloebergs

[continuation of blogpost Art Project 1, part 1]

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 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?”

Art Project Part 1. Vision 1 - The Heart of the Matter

By Sander Vloebergs


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...

Art Project part 1: Vision 9: Breaking Reason, Breaking Glass – Do you know who I am?

The Visionary and the Visual: introduction to Art project part 1

By Sander Vloebergs

Through this and 2 subsequent blog posts I will show the first results of a project in contemplative seeing and artistic production (see Artistic Vision). This project contains visual material which is the result of a practical and theoretical exploration of the Visions of the medieval mystic Hadewijch. My reading of the texts was heavily influenced by my art process. I explored the vision and searched for images that spoke, figures that performed a story. This reading is not a rational analysis but an intuitive dialogue with the source material, a communication through images, colors, rhythm and movement rather than discourse. To perform this exchange of images, one has to open up, break down borders and pray. I call this stage of getting ready for the visual/visionary experience a silent prayer, a letting go of the self and a floating on (divine) inspiration. This contemplative state is hard to reach and rarely given. The two pieces that I will present in the subsequent posts, and which must be read in sequence, are the results of my struggle to combine the visionary experience which is given with the rational reflection which is demanded.


  1. Art project part one: Vision 1: The Heart of the Matter
  2. Art project part one: Vision 9: Breaking Reason, Breaking Glass – Do you know who I am?

Vulnerability in Art and Mysticism: Does the Loser Take it All?

By Sander Vloebergs

Vulnerability is an intrinsic characteristic of human existence. Our lives relentlessly lead towards the one inevitable fact, namely that we are going to die. The extent to which we embrace this fact - our deaths and our vulnerable existence, is our own choice. Opening up to the wounds of existence unlocks the enchanting mysteries of life, while the defense against these hostile forces supposes an indifference that can result in anhedonia and a feeling of being powerless. Vulnerability - surprisingly - seems inversely proportional to pain and defeat. How is that - when it comes to the essence of existence : the loser takes it all? What do the mystic and the artist have to teach us about this peculiar paradox? 

Pain and existential paralysis

Johan Vetlesen expresses sharp criticism against contemporary western culture in his book The philosophy of pain (2009). He addresses the absence of vulnerability and pain, of their meaning and symbols and proposes an existential openness and an existential gratitude as antidote for our culture’s paralysis. Our culture is paralyzed and bored, it lacks meaning, "nothing means anything and nothing meaningful takes place". That is why we are in desperate need for kicks and excitement, to break our everyday routine, to get the adrenaline pumping. Violence and the transmission of pain is one way to 'truly live free'.

Vetlesen's anwser is that our culture fails in its task to give all members of society good symbolic-linguistic resources for dealing with basic human emotions and existential challenges. He says:

It is a question of a lack of practice – biographically as well as symbolically, physically as well as mentally – in looking such fundamental conditions as dependence, vulnerability and mortality in the eye, i.e. the characteristics of existence one has not been in contact with for a long while (right up until the acute crisis, perhaps) and has not needed to have an attitude towards.

This existential and symbolic vacuum influences my artistic and theological perspective. This vacuum, the question for meaning, is one of the main challenges for our contemporary culture although the challenge rarely appears to the surface so explicitly. How do we beat this existential - inner and outer - paralysis? Artists and mystics could be useful contributors to this discussion, because they are trained in this exercise of tightrope walking, balancing on the edge between contemplation and action. Both seek out the existential void, the eternal abyss, the well of inspiration, the source of action.


Vetlesen's analysis of the pitfalls of our contemporary culture points towards the experience of anxiety and our way of dealing with it. He refers to Heidegger to show that anxiety does not have to be a negative emotion. Anxiety is understood as something that - more than anything else - rouses the individual to take responsibility for and in his own life. It demands humans to actively look for meaning, although this demand can not always be fulfilled. Sometimes the paralyzing effect is greater than the rousing effect. "There are many ways out of the darkness of anxiety", he says. "But to find them and have enough strength to set out on them, a person needs allies – allies in both a physical and symbolic sense. For anxiety does not itself provide the resources required for leaving it behind". (p. 65)

According to Vetlesen, art is an excellent supplier of allies. It gives "the chance to create images, put words to, give form to the otherwise unbearable inner pressure".

This pressure hurts so much and creates such inner tension that it will turn inwards as self-destruction or outwards as destruction aimed at others if it is not released in some third way – as words or sounds, images or representations about what hurts and creates pain, thus making its underlying sources into something I can relate to as a symbol-using and commutative – i.e. social – being. (p. 88)
To watch a film, play or dance can give rise to the same experience, that of entering an artistically created human universe, a space one can enter in order to dwell on as well as marvel at the depths of the human repertoire, at who and what we are, for better or for worse. (p.91)

The philosopher George Bataille praises the experience of anxiety while he worships the horrors of the existential void, the abyss that paralyses. According to him there is only one answer to the vulnerability of human existence:

Trembling. To remain immobile, standing, in a solitary darkness, in an attitude without the gesture of a supplicant: supplication, but without gesture and above all without hope. Lost and pleading, blind, half dead. Like Job on the dung heap, in the darkness of night, but imagining nothing – defenseless, knowing that all is lost". (Bataille, p. 35)

With this statement Bataille critics the artist and the mystic who find consolation in their visions. As long as they hold on to images and divine pleasures, they have not reached the darkness that lurks inside. But this is a one sided view on mysticism and art that should be expounded or modified if we are to understand the complex relation between action and contemplation. Bataille believes (his new)mysticism is about absolute contemplation, of letting go of the illusion of existence and fall into the depths of despair, only to slumber in anxiety. Both Jacques Maritain (philosopher of art) and Hadewijch (artist and mystic) propose another relation to the abyss and the vulnerability of existence.


Maritain imagines that the artistic process is some kind of sacrifice of the human Self. In order to reach the source of poetic inspiration, the artist has to tear down his ego, his bonds with his environment and the images and symbols that he knows, in order to recreate matter and create art. This experience could be described as an experience of anxiety. Bataille searches his (absence of) salvation in the loneliness of the mystical experience of complete nothingness while Maritain proposes to meditate on and contemplate through the material, in order to act in the material realm. Poetic activity is an act of dying and resurrecting in a sacred and artistic body. These are the words of Maritain:

[Poetic activity] engages the human Self in its deepest recesses, but in no way for the sake of the ego. The very engagement of the artist’s Self in poetic activity, and the very revelation of the artist’s Self in his work, together with the revelation of some particular meaning he has obscurely grasped in things, are for the sake of the work. The creative Self is both revealing itself and sacrificing itself, because it is given; it is drawn out of itself in that sort of ecstasy which is creation, it dies to itself in order to live in the work (however humbly and defenselessly). (Maritain, p. 143-144)

The mystic Hadewijch also refers to the process of dying and resurrecting, the act of human sacrifice and the transformation of deification. Hadewijch stresses (even more than Maritain) that the mystic lives in the world and not in a divinized ecstatic state. Hadewijch's pain and agony, her anxiety for the terrors of divine Love keep her very well aware of her embodied existence, in exile far away of her beloved. 


Vulnerability assumes two entities, the one who is capable of being wounded and the one who is willing to wound. Maritain believes there is a kind of spiritual communication at the level of the human intellect, although he does not believe in a divine intervention. Nevertheless, he stresses the passivity of the artist and his receptiveness towards the experiences of life which wound and heal. In his journey towards the essence of materiality he or she suffers great losses. As Maritain says:

One would say that the shock of suffering and vision breaks down, one after another, the living sensitive partitions behind which his identity is hiding. He is harassed, he is tracked down, he is destroyed. Woe to him if in retiring into himself he finds a heaven devastated, inaccessible; he can do nothing then but sink into his hell. (Maritain, p. 140)

The passive tenses suggest that there is an entity that consumes the human sacrifice. Hadewijch describes her experience with the same expressions, calling Love (God) destructive and abusive. She even gives it the name Hell, the highest name. The mystic - the perfect lover - learns how to conquer the divine abyss, namely by loving it. Love is the key to the riddle we encountered in the beginning of this blog. By being conquered by Love, the brave lover conquers love Herself. Love demands the sacrifice of the lover, only because the beloved gives himself as well. Both lovers share in a mutual kenotic experience, a flirt at the edges of death itself where the wound becomes a heaven on earth, a sacramental sign of divine Love.

"How they who love can shudder when they know themselves thus lost in love! They are conquered so that they may conquer that unconquerable greatness, and this at all times causes them to begin that life in new death". (Hadewijch, Poem 14)





“We are all mad here”. Inner Experience, Creative Intuition and Mysticism

By Sander Vloebergs

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” (Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland)

I ended the defense of my master thesis with this remarkable quote from Lewis’ masterpiece. So, in a sense it concluded my studies in Theology. Today, I continue the madness by exploring the twisted thoughts of artists, theologians and mystics – the best teachers imaginable. In this blog I will explore parallels between the artistic and mystical process by comparing Jacques Maritain’s ‘Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry’ and Hadewijch’s teachings, highlighting the complex relation between the intellect and the creative intuition, between the theologian’s insight and the artist’s madness.


The Creation of the Human Self

By Poetry, I mean, not the particular art which consists in writing verses, but a process both more general and more primary: that intercommunication between the inner being of things and the inner being of the human Self which is a kind of divination (as realized in ancient times; the Latin vates was both a poet and a diviner). (Maritain, p. 3)

With these sentences, Jacques Maritain introduces his readers to the peculiar world of art making and poetic activity. Art is for him the active quest that leads into the depths of Nature which always conceals herself. This quest has something sacred. He correlates the search for the essence of Matter with the finding of the Human Self and with the divinization of men. The awareness of this correlation was discovered, he notes, by the modern artist who became aware of the Self of the artist.

Accordingly, the painter (who henceforth is simply nothing if he lacks poetic vision) sees deeper into Things, though in the dark of Things and of his own Self. He grasps enigmatically an aspect or element of the mystery of the universe of matter, in so far as this aspect or element is meant to fructify into a construction of lines or colors. And because subjectivity has become the very vehicle to penetrate into the objective world, what I thus looked for in visible Things must have the same kind of inner depth and inexhaustible potentialities for revelation as the Self of the painter. (p. 29)

There are, however, some interesting parallels to be drawn between Maritain’s modern artist and the medieval mystic Hadewijch. She as well discovered the human Self, not the egocentric one but the theocentric Imago Dei. Moreover, she relies on the same imagery of the abyss to express her quest to become the perfect human (Jesus Christ), which in Hadewijch is the essence of deification. To become human like Christ in the rough desert of human existence, is “to grow to being God with God” (seventh vision). This life in exile takes place in the temporal world, a world that is ravaged by pain and the experience of divine absence. In this world, Hadewijch has to transform herself into a divine vessel, incarnating the artistic inspiration and producing works of art, sacramental signs of the Love yet to come. Hadewijch reveals that only Love can transform; only by loving Love, recreation can take place. Maritain says something similar if we are allowed to replace Beauty by Love:

To produce in beauty the artist must be in love with beauty. Such undeviating love is a supra-artistic rule – a precondition, not sufficient as to the ways of making, yet necessary as to the vital animation to art – which is presupposed by all the rules of art. (p. 59)


Illuminating Intellect and Artistic Madness

Mad Hatter: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
“No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter. (Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland)  

I personally experienced the struggle between intellectual reason and artistic inspiration (forthcoming: The Visionary and the Visual). Maritain is a useful guide to explain this struggle in greater detail. According to Maritain, the artistic process takes place in the human intellect.It is not to be understood as endued by divine forces (like the Muses) but neither is it provoked by rational reason. How then understand the role and the nature of the intellect proposed by Maritain? This is how he puts it:

I want to emphasize, from the start, that the very words reason or intellect, when they are related to that spiritual energy which is poetry, must be understood in a much deeper and larger sense that is usual. The intellect, as well as the imagination, is at the core of poetry. But reason, or the intellect, is not merely logical reason; it involves an exceedingly more profound – and more obscure – life, which is revealed to us in proportion as we endeavor to penetrate the hidden recesses of poetic activity. (p. 4)

This proposed human intellect balancesbetween supra-rational/human processes (Plato’s Muses) and rational reflexivity (academicism). Nowadays, there is a tendency to fight against the forces of academicism and rational reasoning (for example the surrealist movement). Following this tendency that promotes creative intuition (situated at the unconscious level of the mind) one has the impression that the process of creating art has something of a madman’s project. In a sense, this is true.

In the mind of the poet, poetic knowledge arises in an unconscious or preconscious manner, and emerges into consciousness in a sometimes almost imperceptible though imperative and irrefragable way, through an impact both emotional and intellectual or through an unpredictable experiential insight which gives notice of its existence, but does not express it”. (p. 118)

This leads to the preconception of the artist as a poetic executor, acting without any consent and reflection.

Nevertheless, the poet’s nonsense (like the Mad Hatter’s) is not without reason, it elevates reason taking it to a deeper level. Maritain speaks of the Illuminating Intellect (Aristotle’s term) or intuitive reason, and appoints it as the source of inspiration. This intuitive reason is found “in the obscure and high regions which are near the center of the soul, and in which the intellect exercises its activity at the single root of the soul’s powers and conjointly with them”. (p. 63). This intellect is both intuitive and reflexive, covering all the capacities of the human mind. According to Maritain:  “no virtue of the intellect, even practical virtues, can genuinely develop in its own particular sphere without a more or less simultaneous development of reflectivity”. (65)

Thus a place is prepared in the highest part of the soul, in the primeval translucid night where intelligence stirs the images under the light of the Illuminating Intellect, from the separate Muse of Plato to descend into man, and dwell within him, and become a part of our spiritual organism. (p. 100)

Let me draw another important parallel: Maritain’s Illuminating Intellect comes very close to  Hadewijch’s Illuminated Intellect. These cover more or less the same existential human capacities, but Hadewijch is stressing more its given character. Hadewijch speaks in her poems about the madness of Love which drives her out of her mind, into the abyss, the divine embrace. Hadewijch nuances Maritain’s exclusive focus on the human involvement in the art process. Following the mystical tradition (mainly Willem of St. Thierry) the mystic is drawn into her essence: from the senses, into the mental faculties (memory, intellect and will), from the mental faculties into this point of existence where the complete human person stands before God. At this point divine inspiration can become incarnated art if one takes the risk to lose one’s mind – without losing one’s humanity – and become mad of Love (Richard of St. Victor). 

 “Have I gone mad? I’m afraid so, but let me tell you something, the best people usually are.” (Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland)




Artistic Vision: Hadewijch’s Contemplative Seeing and the Artistic Challenge

This blog post is part of the 'Theology & Art' project

by Sander Vloebergs

Embodiment and artistic expression are closely intertwined. To understand this relation between art, embodiment, contemplation and spirituality, one has to understand the relation between inner and outer person, between inspiration and articulation, and action and contemplation.

Inner and Outer Person: Visualizing Theology

In my previous blog I introduced the research of Barbara Newman who has proposed the concept of imaginative theology. Images are the main source for this kind of theology. Practicing this kind of theology is like writing a play, a choreography, where ideas are performed. In this blog I will develop my artistic-theological approach to my work on Hadewijch.  

Hadewijch, a Dutch female mystic (from whom we have little to none biographical information, except that she lived in the first half of the thirteenth century) is a talented writer who incorporated visions (and images) into her theology. Besides visions she also wrote letters and poems. These poems were songs, composed on the basis of existing songs of troubadours and performed for an audience. She created an interesting dialogue between the profane courtly literature and the religious literary tradition. Inspired by both traditions she started a quest to find and experience the depths of divine Love, which she calls Minne. Hadewijch is an excellent teacher, a guide who tries to capture her audience/readers in Love’s divine embrace, to walk with them the path to religious maturity. Her teaching (her School of Love) consists of images, visions, songs and art. The focal point of her mystical work is Divine Love who touches both author and reader.

In her book Promised Bodies (2016), Patricia Dailey argues that the tension between the experience and the articulation of Hadewijch’s mystical theology, or between her mystical experience and her werke (work and teaching) allows a dialectical exercise that involves the inner and the outer person. The inner person is capable of experiencing a unity between the human person and God, a unity that will become reality in an eschatological time. The outer person (the person in the world) articulates this experienced promise of eschatological unity in time and space.

The time of the mystic’s body thus needs to be read – and is often read by the mystic and hagiographer – along the syncopated measure of a time that is not its own, the time of the inner person that animates the body and the memory of an experience or consciousness of divinity that recalls an atemporal moment to which the mystic is bound and seeks to return. This atemporal moment orients and punctuates the mystic’s texts and persons, in turn providing an underpinning that sets a measure for the work. (p. 22)

Dailey argues that the expression of this theological experiential knowledge is a task the mystic needs to perform. She can do this by translating her ecstatic experience into comprehensible language, in stories full of imagery that invoke new divine experiences in her surroundings. Hadewijch uses images in her visions and poetic language in her songs in her quest to incarnate the eternal divine and transform the material bodies of time into divine promised bodies.

I agree with Dailey that the mystic experiences an urge (like the need for expression after a traumatic event) to express her divine encounter. This event wounds the mystic existentially (this vulnerability is also a part of the artistic process). Dailey writes:

In the register of historical time, this unlived experience continues to haunt the mystic, often in the somatic form of bodily pain, and assumes a structure similar to that of the unassimilated memory of a traumatic event. The body’s pain or even the body’s memory of passing away into blissful indistinction carries within it the force of recall of what the soul could not sustain, that is, the affective and spiritual “overflow” of divine essence, what Hadewijch calls the “abyss”, at the moment of the vision itself. (p. 83)

Nevertheless, for Dailey this mystical encounter only implies the apophatic moment of supra-rational rupture which is experienced in the visions. The privation and the painful absence of the divine Love experience in the post-ecstatic state would be the main topic of Hadewijch’s poems. So the inner person’s experience seems to belong to the realm of vision while the outer person’s werke seems to belong to the realm of the poetic aftermath in time. But I don’t believe Hadewijch’s work allows such black-and-white division. For me, Hadewijch’s imagery crosses the borders between genres. The innermost mystical experience includes images and painful moments while the outer person finds divine inspiration in the temporal world. Hadewijch uses the genres of poems and visions as a means to create an imaginative world that challenges the reader/audience/viewer to transform (like a good art piece does).

Active Contemplation: Becoming Human through Art

Christopher Dustin and Joanna Ziegler present in their work Practicing Mortality (2016) a refreshing perspective on the modern practice of art and philosophy. The authors are interested in philosophy as a way of life in contrast with an academic (often scholastic) philosophy. They imagine philosophy as a kind of practice and argue that contemplation also has an active component. They want to teach their readers (and students) a way of seeing that can only be accomplished by embracing creativity.

... the recovery of the inner, we shall argue, requires faithful attention to and a certain kind of reverence for the “outer”. The spirituality that comes to the fore here is coupled with a renewed sense of, and appreciation for, materiality – both our own and that of the world around us (p. 4).

I see this renewed sense of materiality as necessary to understand Hadewijch’s contemplative seeing. Furthermore, we can see a similarity between the locus of creativity in the everyday life (that Dustin and Ziegler propose) and the realm of werke (that Dailey places after the vision). According to Dustin and Ziegler creative activities are woven into everyday life.

It is difficult for us to conceive of craft in anything but aesthetic or utilitarian terms, or some awkward combination of both. This may be part of the reason why we have so much trouble acknowledging any inherent connection between craft (what is man-made) and the divine (or what is God-made)… We may be prepared to think that art can bring us closer to God, but , we seem to find craft too burdened by practical purposes and utilitarian aims, too human or everyday, to allow us access to “the hidden ultimate reason of the living universe.” (p. 144-145)

Might not this prejudice about the material everyday life have led to Dailey’s division between the divine ecstatic encounter and the temporal realm of werke? I think the bodily division between outer and inner world is much more porous, allowing a constant flux of inspiring images that form and are formed by the artist/mystic. It is hard to imagine that Hadewijch herself was not inspired by the world around her, her relationship with her fellow humans and the cosmos. With the words of Dustin and Ziegler, I would call Hadewijch a theoros: someone who sees, an active participant of sacred spectacles.

By harboring mystery, such spectacles move us to wonder. It may be worth noting here that the ancient sources often use theoros to refer to a person who travels to a sacred place to consult an oracle. Oracular sayings are not simply informative. They are revelatory, but also notoriously obscure. The wonder to which they give rise is inseparable from the illumination they promise. (p. 10-11)

We can easily imagine Hadewijch’s visions as a sacred journey to an oracle. It would be a crucial mistake to separate the apophatic moment of divine revelation from the sacred journey that leads to it and returns from it.

If theoria involves an attentive seeing, with wondering eyes, of a divine or beautifully made thing, techne involves the making visible, in a thoroughly materialized way, of something that is seen as divinely made, even if it is man-made. The skilled craftsman was himself a theoros. His making is grounded in and provides an occasion for contemplative seeing … If we fail to understand the practicality of contemplative seeing, it is because we fail to understand how it is originally related to craft: not in the way that it produces a useful result, but in the way that techne itself was originally understood as both a revelation and a realization of the divine. (p.146)

From Theory to Practice, and back again

Hadewijch is a theoros who wants to guide us on a sacred journey towards Divine Love. Her work is often studied as a literary masterpiece (by analyzing the literary methods) and theoretical discourse (by studying the imagery and the mystical theology). But would it not be interesting to combine both theoretical methods of studying art and theology with a practical exercise of contemplative seeing and craft making? For contemporary scholars, art is a foreigner in the academic disciplines, interesting as all exotic products are, but rarely practiced and rarely taken serious. My feeling is that we cannot ignore the process of art-making in our contemplative theoretical education, definitely not if we study authors such as Hadewijch. We have to follow her guidance and engage in the same dialogue between theory and practice, inspiration and actualization

Under the section 'Theology & Art' a series of blog posts can be found that were generated on my journey into imaginative theology.

Art, Imagination and Theology

This blog post is part of the 'Theology & Art' project

by Sander Vloebergs

In my previous blog posts (This Sister now cries out to us, When Mother became Mary, A Composition of Compassion) I explored the possibilities of an artistic theology which I would intuitively describe as a dialogue between the artistic process of creating art on the one hand, and theological reflection on the other. In preparation for the upcoming Anthropos conference ‘Relation, Vulnerability, Love: Theological Anthropology in the Twenty First Century’ I decided to elaborate on the idea of an artistic theology and its methods. In this blog I will briefly reflect upon the artistic relation between the vulnerable human (and creation more broadly) and the loving Creator by engaging the work of Maureen O’Connell (who will participate as respondent at the conference) on the one hand and with the work of Barbara Newman who has been studying medieval imaginative theology. Her work on medieval imagination and spirituality has been an important source of inspiration in my own project. Both projects bring theology and art (imagination) in relation, but do so in interestingly different ways.

Murals as ‘living theology from below’

In her book If These Walls Could Talk. Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice (2012) Maureen O’Connell analyzed the theological, aesthetic and ethical implications of murals in Philadelphia. She focuses on the artistic and communal process (the event, as David Tracy would call it) of making murals in a context of oppression and injustice. Creating murals is a means for empowerment, resistance and hope. The artists create a multilayered ‘sacred’ space that contradicts the politics of oppression and challenges the viewers’ indifference. The murals are a figurative and literal locus of theological reflection, embodied religious practices and serve as a touchstone for moral conversion and action. The beauty of the art combines the aesthetic reaction and the ethical response.

By studying the murals and their aesthetic-ethical-theological influence on/in the context, O’Connell tries to discover a living theology, a “theology from below”. She describes the theology from below as follows:

 Characteristics of any systematic theology “from below” – Christology, ecclesiology, and anthropology – include a distinct emphasis on the organic and dynamic rather than the authoritative and immutable nature of religious belief and theological reflection. Belowness attends to the collective experiential wisdom of persons in concrete context rather than appeals to external authorities or universal truths. (p. 13)

The murals tell the story of people: their hopes for a better future, their longing for justice and their wish for liberation and salvation. The story of the mural interrupts the ongoing process of oppression. Art creates a safe haven, a sacred space where God’s salvific presence becomes tangible.

The artistic construction of the sacred space relies on imagination. According to O’Connell the imagination provides the primary means to encounter and be in relationship with a God who cannot be fully understood and grasped by human reason.

Imagination is central to Christian anthropology. It is the capability through which we accept our inherent dignity that comes with being made in the image of a widely imaginative and creative God; through it we express our freedom or our ability to build purposeful lives and to enter into meaningful and life-giving relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God. (p. 72)

The artist is a guide in the world of imagination. He/she reveals what might be and empowers us to dream of a different future. He/she gives us a vision, offers us the imagination

to liberate us from the paralysis of being overwhelmed by the immensity of our social problems and unleashes a desire to become something more than we are or to participate in something greater than ourselves that can shake up our passivity. (p. 73)

Maureen O’Connell's analysis of the murals is very inspiring. Particularly important is the attention she pays to the role imagination in the process of art-making and theological reflection. Nevertheless, I would like to complement her contribution to the interesting debate about art and theology in two ways. First, whereas O’Connell still focuses on art from an outsider’s perspective, I’m exploring an insider perspective. She is an observer who engages in a dialogue with artistic communities. She retells the stories of their murals. I would like to tell the story from within my own creative work. Second, I’m a white male theologian who cannot claim to be oppressed, who is not confronted with social injustice in his personal context. My context of art-making is completely different from the context of the Philadelphian murals. Still I feel I have to deal with another kind of paralysis. I would call it the existential void that ‘terrorizes’ my own context (although this void could also appear in a context of oppression). I believe that this existential void is related to the feeling of ethical powerlessness. There seems to be an emptiness where there were dreams before. It haunts us and silences us. There is no dream left to fight for. [*]

Medieval imaginative theology as ‘theology from within’


We are in desperate need for imagination, for images and the sacred power of art that makes us dream again. In this part I explore the role of imagination and its importance for contemporary theology. But I do so through a focus on medieval imaginative theology (and in later blogs more specifically on the visionary theology of Hadewijch, a Flemish mystic). As I see it, medieval imaginative theology could be a useful complement to the socially-engaged art theory of O’Connell, precisely because it focuses our attention on the inner life while O’Connell’s art-based ‘theology from below’ explores the ethical-aesthetic dynamics in society and contemporary culture. It would be a major mistake to oppose these two approaches to artistic theology. Inner experience demands an outflow, an expression, a performance in everyday reality. Our social/ethical experiences influence our inner life, they ask for reflection and enrich our spirituality and/or artistic process. They are both sides of the same coin, as medieval spirituality was well aware (actio-contemplatio).

Barbara Newman uses the concept of imaginative theology to describe a medieval method that aims to assist believers in their quest to find and to talk about/with God. This medieval practice helps me to make sense of my own artistic-theological experience and allows me to frame it within the larger mystical movement that took place in late medieval western Christianity.

Barbara Newman in her book God and the Goddesses. Vision, Poetry and Belief in the Middle Ages (2003), describes imaginative theology as follows: “The imaginative theologian, like the poet, works with images and believes, with Christine de Pizan, that ‘the road of the imagination… reveals the face of God to whoever follows it to the end” (p. 297). She argues that imaginative theology is an important medieval mode of theological writing next to the scholastic, monastic, mystic and pastoral mode. It is often overlooked by medievalists who are mainly interested in the scholastic tradition.In this theological method, images are both the source of theological reflection and the means by which theology is communicated. The aim of this method is to enable both writer and reader to visualize, conceptualize, and interact with emissaries of the Divine. Newman shows in her research how theological abstract ideas gain concrete form because they are personified by theologians(/artists) using images, more in particular, by imagining them as goddesses.

This kind of theology is not so much an objective recollection of theological dogma’s knitted together by rational reasoning – rather it is an active imagining, an artistic process of creating images drawing from personal experience and from the mnemonic space of imagination. Practicing this kind of theology takes the shape of writing a play, a choreography, where ideas are performed. These ideas are enlisted in one’s own imagination, taken up within one’s own inner self, rather than studied from an academic distance. Rather, picture this method as an attempt to access an exchange of imaged ideas, written down or visualized or performed; as traveling through an imaginative landscape; as becoming a vessel through which theological images/ideas incarnate.

A Short Initial Personal Reflection

My artistic process makes my theology personal, tactile and a matter of imagination. I experienced that the artist becomes a vessel through which an artistic incarnational movement reshapes creation. I would describe the artistic process as an incarnational movement as the words of the theological reflection become flesh, they engrave divine images in matter. Creating art is an intimate encounter between theological knowledge and my own lived experience. Art makes theological speculation suddenly very personal. To create art, you have to sacrifice your own being, expose your own lived experience which is the source for artistic expression. To express theological knowledge trough the medium of art means revealing your own inner self, your own personal poetic work of imaging/imagining the relation with God. To me, this form of theology - speaking about and to God – draws from a personal and experiential source which is the inner person of the artist. By engaging in this personal adventure to recollect dreams and to re-enchant creation with art and vision, we can find a stepping stone towards an antidote to the existential void that paralyses our context.  


[*] I will elaborate on this feeling and how it relates to my artwork in an upcoming blog.