In the past, the idea of a likeness between the suffering of women and the suffering of Christ was not something straightforward and even today it is sometimes perceived as something offensive. After all, was it not Eve, a woman, who had opened Pandora’s box and thus brought sin, sickness, death and eternal doom over humanity? And was it not Christ, a man, who saved mankind from the very same sin, sickness, death and eternal damnation? Obviously, the ideal role model for women was the Virgin Mary, not Christ. Visitors of the exhibition “Women in the Spotlight” in the Utrecht Museum Catharijneconvent, however, will be tempted to change their mind a bit.
In the Museum Catharijneconvent my eye fell on two drawings by the well-known Dutch artist Jan Toorop (1858-1928): “Modern Calvary” from 1913 (see above) and the book illustration “Heathen Child from a Popular Neighbourhood” from 1927. They are not so much stunning works of art as they are interesting objects of contemplation.
Both sketches show a woman with a big heavy cross on the shoulder and in both cases this woman needs to rely on herself, because her husband is an alcoholic. Interestingly, the children are aptly portrayed as victim as well. They ask for their mother’s attention. They are crying or trying to help their mother to carry her cross.
These drawings are like little time machines. As a creative artist Toorop depicted already one hundred years ago a theological reality that had not yet been properly recognised and still causes embarrassment today. In the imagination of Toorop, a mother and a wife could well be a mirror reflection of Christ. She too was an image of Christ, just as was the religious woman who had taken the vow of chastity.
In the background clearly looms the social question, which arose through the industrialisation and modernisation of the Netherlands. The oldest of the two Toorop sketches is dedicated to the work of priest and social activist Alfons Ariëns (1860-1928) and his fight against alcohol abuse. Ariëns is depicted on the right, slightly off centre.
The 1927 illustration shows a teenage girl in the foreground and her mother in the background. The mother is working hard to support her family, cross on the shoulder, while her drunken husband watches on. Here, Toorop took inspiration from the work of the Dutch religious society Women of Bethany, which was founded as a lay movement in 1919. Its members worked for disadvantaged children in the city. (FH)
The exhibition “Women in the Spotlight” is about the changed and changing role of women in church life: from the 4th century to the present, from the early Christian martyresses to the pastoral workers, pastors and priestesses of the Old Catholic Church who actively shape, explain and inspire faith today. The exhibition lasts until 7 October 2012, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht: www.catharijneconvent.nl.
The illustration was taken from the exhibition catalogue Women in the Spotlight. Sisters, Martyresses, Cleaning Angels & Pastors.