In our lives there is a colour like that on a painter’s palette, which gives meaning to both life and art. It is the colour of love. Marc Chagall

Paul van Dongen: Judgement and Rising

 ArtWay Visual Meditation May 7, 2019

Paul van Dongen: Judgement and Rising   

Ecce Homo

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

Contemporary art does not only consist of installations, but also figurative art is still abundantly present. Paul van Dongen’s work, with its craftmanship and classical leanings with a touch of baroque drama, falls within a rare subgroup of figurative representation. Two of his drawings are now part of Art Stations of the Cross (6 March – 22 April) in Amsterdam. After the six preceding stations they shift the attention from the suffering of the world to our own suffering and our own part in the problems of the world. They form a station or stop to literally stand still for a moment and reflect on our own life.

After a long search the two pen drawings found their temporary home on the façade of Paradiso, well-known to all Dutch people as a church that was converted into the rock concert hall of Amsterdam in the sixties and onward. One of the drawings is hanging in the Small Museum, which is housed in the former announcements’ cabinet of the Free Congregation. The second drawing is hanging in a similar cabinet that is used for Paradiso’s own posters and advertisements. One could call this pop temple a daring location for these explicit works, while at the bottom of left one the title Judgement is attached and underneath the other one Rising. No wonder that these works are observed to conjure up a lot of discussion among staff and ‘pilgrims’ alike.

Together these two works form Station #7, at which traditionally Jesus falls for the second time. ‘Falling’ is also the theme of the left drawing. We see a tangle of falling naked men, not fallen women for once. Actually the gender does not really matter here. The work is about human beings, male and female and everything in between. Jesus fell under the weight of his cross, these men fall under the conflated weight of their own egos. We see men who push, grab, shove aside. We see a hand which reaches into a vacuum. At the right we see figures who try to fight their way up but are pushed down by the man at the top. It is the lonely hell of every man for himself and nobody for me. Paul van Dongen remarks, “This drawing is part of a series which has the fall of man as its main theme. I did not want to portray the fall literally as in Genesis but rather, as a choreographer, to make a composition with naked male figures who together express the fall, an existence without solid ground, being lost beyond redemption. In an ornate whirling, the men turn, fall and tumble over one another.”

We see men in all their nakedness, without a concealing façade. Naked is not nude here. It is not about offensive or erotic nudity. Naked is used symbolically for the naked truth about the human condition. The judgement element is present not so much in a tyrannical judge who allegedly directs the fallen ones to hell, but rather in human beings who create their own hell by what they do and leave undone. Hence the drawing is not initially about the wicked world of the godless, but about you and me.

But thanks be to God there is also a way up, just like Jesus got up after his second fall. This we see in the right drawing. At the bottom left we see a man on his knees, one piteous pile of gloom. With the figures above and right of him an upward movement sets in, with in the middle of the drawing a man who holds his arms up in a help seeking gesture (or is it also a gesture of worship?). At the top a man floats in a crucified position, in complete surrender, in total vulnerability, a Jesus-like figure or Jesus himself. The artist: “This drawing is about human figures who, after falling down into the depth, are being pulled up by a single person who initiates the upward movement. It is about getting up again and being pulled up.” In this drawing the men also grab each other, but this time they seek connection, beyond loneliness. Here it is no longer about our own gain, but – like the figure at the top – about our willingness to take up our cross for the benefit of others.

To take up our cross, that does not sound very contemporary. For some it may sound like something from ages past. Yet it is the way up out of human misery. It means that we are prepared to give priority to loving others. Just like Jesus. Thanks to his willingness to carry his cross, God forgives all our misdeeds and opens new vistas. This too is Lent: not only a time of remorse and repentance, but also a time of celebration of the joy of God’s grace.


Paul van Dongen: Judgement, 2012, pen and ink, 35 × 25 cm. Rising, 2013, pen and ink, 35 x ×5 cm. Photos: Ton Hartjens.

Location: The Small Museum, Paradiso, Weteringschans 6-8. In 2016 the music venue and cultural center Paradiso, housed in a converted former church building from the nineteenth century, opened The Small Museum. The smallest museum in the Netherlands, it is located in one of the cabinets where the Vrije Gemeente (Free Congregation) used to display its announcements. The exhibitions regularly link to the religious past of the building.

Paul van Dongen (1958) is a Catholic artist living in Tilburg, the Netherlands.

Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is editor-in-chief of ArtWay and co-curator of Art Stations of the Cross.



1. ENGLAND - 18 May, 10.30 – 16.30 h, Winchester Cathedral, 9 The Cl, Winchester: Altars: Texture and Tradition. Art and Christianity’s fourth Visual Communion symposium. We'll be examining the development of altar design, the frontals and vestments and the role they play within the liturgical and visual traditions of the Eucharist. We will also hear from Julian Stair and Nicholas Mynheer, two artists recently commissioned to make new altars.

2. IRELAND - 13 April, 9 – 17 h, Glenstal Abbey Library, Garranbane, Murroe, Co. Limerick: Exploring selected scriptural passages, as they have been interpreted through icons, art, drama, liturgy, music and cinema.  Entry into Jerusalem, Triumph & Passion. Entry into Jerusalem: A Lukan Liturgical Drama (Lk 19:28-40), Luke Macnamara OSB. The Triumphal Entry: Giotto & Pietro Lorenzetti, David McBurnie. Luke’s Passion: Thunder and Light (Lk 22:54-23:56), Cyprian Love OSB .  My Song is One of Mercy, Columba McCann OSB. Palm Sunday Liturgy in Medieval Dublin Colmán Ó Clabaigh OSB.,       

3. ITALY - 16 July – 6 August, Orvieto: ART in Orvieto. This is an advanced summer studies program in art, religion, and theology located in Orvieto, Italy, a magnificent hill town 90 minutes north of Rome. The program offers an ecumenical exploration of Christian understandings of the arts. It provides a three-week residency designed for artists, graduate students in relevant fields, and other adult learners interested in engaging the intersection of art, religion and theology. ART IN ORVIETO is a program of the Institute for Christian Studies, an affiliate of the Toronto School of Theology, Toronto, Ontario. THE ART IN ORVIETO PROGRAM occupies superbly renovated facilities in the medieval monastery of the Servite Order in Orvieto. The facilities are leased by Gordon College of Wenham, Massachusetts, and its affiliate Studio for Art, Faith, and History. The Institute for Christian Studies and the Studio for Art, Faith, and History share the same mission: to engage in integrating thought and practice in the arts with theology and the life of faith. There are two components: a graduate seminar for all participants entitled Art, Religion, and Theology: Theologies of Art in the Christian Tradition and an artists’ workshop for practicing artists.

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