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‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ – that is what art does. Phyllis Novak

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Kort, Kees de - VM - José Verheule

Kees de Kort: Bartimaeus

The Scream

by José Verheule

Some days feel like a heavy dark mantle hanging around your shoulders. Depressing thoughts, sadness or pain drain life of all its colour. Sometimes a moody grey sky makes things even worse. Fortunately, most of the time things will brighten up the next day. But sometimes a mood like that may linger, caused by an incurable illness, an evolving depression or a remaining handicap.

This is how Kees de Kort draws Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), who one ill-starred day lost his sight, in his illustrated Bible: wrapped up to his neck in a drab black-brown cloak. The ragged loose end of a brown band recalls the swathes of a mummy, just like his white bandana.

Bartimaeus has not always been blind. This we may conclude from his answer to Jesus’ question what he would like Jesus to do: ‘Rabbi, let me recover my sight.’ He knows what he is missing and that only aggravates the pain. In those days without braille and voice computers, a blind man had no perspective whatsoever, doomed as he was to spend his life as a beggar, in exchange for lodging in the house of a benign family member.

A life like this makes one helpless and dependent. Strangely enough the surroundings will quickly get used to the man’s new blind situation. In no time they grow accustomed to the sight of him begging near the gate, without even entertaining the question if his situation could be different. But the man himself never gets used to it. Then one day, when through the unusual bustle around him Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is approaching with his disciples, all of his frustration and helplessness burst forth. A gruesome, desperate scream pierces the air: ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’

But more gruesome than Bartimaeus' cry for help is the reaction of the people around him. His cry for help arouses irritation instead of sympathy! From all sides people snap at him that he should hold his tongue. How can they be so heartless?

Kees de Kort has depicted the screaming Bartimaeus in a way that reminds one of the incisive painting The Scream by Edvard Munch, his hands covering his ears. Is he protecting himself against the ruthless snarling surrounding him? His mouth is dilated in a cry for help, even louder than at first. His head turns red. A white bandage is wrapped around his head, covering his eyes, as if the artist means to tell us that this concerns not only this blind man but everyone wounded by life.

The result is an image that repels us just as much as it moves us, just like certain war pictures or the sight of someone suffering without hope. It confronts us with our own helplessness and vulnerability. Is this why we often react the same way as the people around Bartimaeus: warding ourselves off in order to protect ourselves? Jesus interrupts them and instructs them to call the blind man to come to him. This causes an odd shift in their reactions. The scolding makes way for encouragements: ‘Take heart, he is calling you!’

Bartimaeus throws off his gray cloak, the burden of his existence, jumps to his feet and runs towards Jesus, as if he can already see. And then Kees de Kort shows us what was hidden underneath that cloak: a sky-blue garment (like the garment of Maria, Jesus' mother). In all his blindness Bartimaeus never lost sight of heaven. Sickness and misfortune bring little good, but they can make you wiser. It was Bartimaeus’ blindness that made him experience the true faces of men. And by hearing about Jesus he recognized in him the Messianic king who brings salvation, calling him reverently ‘Son of David, Rabbi.’ Who else should he follow on the path from death to life?

When I look again at Bartimaeus' scream, I think: how fortunate that you did not allow yourself to be silenced! Then I notice that loose end hanging from his suffocating garment: a beginning of deliverance…

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Kees de Kort: Bartimaeus, illustrations in the The Big Picture Bible Book, 1992, a hard cover edition with illustrations taken from 28 volumes of Bible stories that first appeared as part of the series ‘What the Bible tells us’, Dutch Bible Society.

Kees de Kort (b. 1934) is a Dutch painter, designer and illustrator, living in Bergen, NL He started his career 40 years ago with the series ´What the Bible tells us´. The series, commissioned by the Dutch Bible Society, consists of individual Bible stories issued in separate little volumes and was originally intended for children with mental disabilities. His powerful, clear and colourful style has always appealed to a much larger audience, and now, 40 years later, there are entire generations that have grown up with the illustrated Bible stories of Kees de Kort. His drawings have captured the hearts of millions of children, not only in the Netherlands but also in 90 countries over the whole world. The strength of his work is found in the pictures as they tell the story. After 'What the Bible tells us' Kees de Kort worked on three books aimed at an adult audience. There the paintings depict the prophet Amos, Job and the Song of Songs. Commissioned by national and international organizations, Kees de Kort has painted stained glass windows, altarpieces and triptychs with religious themes. http://www.keesdekort.eu

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 June 5, 2016