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Fuciková, Renata - VM - José Verheule

Renata Fuciková: The Promise

Look at the Stars

by José Verheule

‘Hope springs eternal,’ we often say. And there is a lot to be said for that. But an expression from Proverbs may be just as true: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick.’ I had to think about both of these sayings, when I looked at this image of Abraham and Sara under a night sky filled with countless stars.

Two elderly people with wrinkled faces look up. Abraham with raised eyebrows and open mouth, as if his head still echoes the voice of God: ‘Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them. Your offspring will be that numerous.’ Full of expectation his right hand is stretched forward, with the open side facing up in a Jewish gesture of prayer. In Eastern-Orthodox icons Mary is often portrayed in similar fashion, holding her child with her left hand and with her right hand opened to receive.

With this stylized gesture Renata Fuciková renders Abraham as an icon of astonished anticipation. Next to him, at his right hand, stands Sara. She also looks up, but the frowning face seems worried rather than hopeful. With her right hand she pulls her cloak tightly around her, as if the cold night makes her shiver. What is she thinking?

Now that I think about it, I realize that she did not stand next to Abraham at all, when God gave him his promise. In the text in Genesis it says that ‘God appeared to Abraham.’ Sara knows everything only by hearsay and has to do with only this as a basis for believing, while in the mean time the years pass by without child. Abraham and Sara are 75 and 65 when they arrive in Canaan, an age at which they would humanly speaking no longer be able to have children. Now they are ten years older, so that it must have seemed even more impossible.    

‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick.’ Sometimes you hope fervently for something for such a long time, without any sign of it coming any closer, that it literally makes you sick. This is what has happened to Sara. I can sympathize with her, when she starts to wonder whether Abraham may have taken God’s promise too literally. Does Abraham not also look a bit naïve with his mouth half open? At the time it was not unusual for prominent people, if the wife proved unable to have children, to have another woman as a surrogate mother in her place. Sara’s name makes clear that she is of high birth, as it means ‘princess’ or ‘noble woman’. 

And this is where Hagar comes in. In the image she is probably totally unaware, sleeping peacefully in one of the tents that stand under the oaks of Mamre. But it will not remain this peaceful. When Hagar becomes pregnant and feels herself literally grow beyond her mistress, all hell breaks loose! In desperation Hagar flees into the desert, where she is found at a well by an angel. God looks for her and cares for her in her inhumane situation. He promises her that she will remain the mother of her child. 

Just as Sara Hagar will become the arch-mother of countless offspring, consisting of rough desert folk. Is this how God shows that he does not give up, when we handle his promise in too human a fashion? Does he understand that we often grope in the dark? And does his covenant with us also entail that he takes our irresolute attempts and let them take a turn for the better?

In Sara’s time it usually was the man who was addressed. But God does not always adjust himself to the spirit of the times. Many years later three men arrive at the tents of Abraham and their first question is: ‘Where is your wife Sara?’ In the end God sends no less than three angels to tell her personally that in a year she will bear a son.

From that moment onwards I see her standing together with Abraham looking at the night sky filled with stars.

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Renata Fuciková: The Promise, 1996, coloured inks, illustration in VyprávÄ›ní ze Starého zákona (Stories from the Old Testament), 1996, published in France and the Czech Republic (republished in 2009). The book was awarded a Prize in the Biennial of Illustration in Tehran, 1999 and it was listed on IBBY Honour List in 1998. 

Renata Fuciková was born in 1964 inPragueCzech Republic. She graduated in illustration and graphic design from the Academy ofArts, Architecture and Design in Prague. Her primary field of expertise is book illustration. She has illustrated, among others, the fairy tales of Brothers Grimm, H.C. Andersen and Oscar Wilde, the ethnic fairy tales of ChinaArabia and the ancient Celts and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. She has produced various authored books, such as Vypráníze Starého zákona (Stories from the Old Testament, 1996), Vyprávníz Nového zákona (Stories from the New Testament, 1997), Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (2006) and Jan Amos Komenský (2008), in which her dramatic literary-visual form was put in the service of narrating the life stories of some of the key figures of Czech and world history. So far her opus magnum, the voluminous Historie Evropy (The History of Europe, 2011) traces the chain of crucial events in European history in the form of a very evocative word/image combinations. Her latest project is the comic-book biography of Antonín Dvorák (2012). See www.czechlit.cz/en/authors/fucikova-renata. 

José Verheule is a theologian based in Zaandam, NL. She has worked as a minister in the Protestant Church in the Netherlands

ArtWay Visual Meditation December 7, 2014