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.