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Minne, George - VM - Marleen Hengelaar

George Minne: Three Holy Women at the Grave

Easter Morning

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

Three holy women at the grave. Yes, but not as usual. These women were never portrayed as dark before or after. It is a sculpture without precedent in the history of art. A unique work, completely original. What moved Belgian artist George Minne (1866-1941) to render them like this? We know he found a friend and kindred spirit in the writer Maurice Maeterlinck, who has been the only Belgian author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1911). Both found inspiration in the medieval mysticism of John of Ruusbroec (c. 1293-1381), who combined the faith of the church with a life of sobriety, self-examination and a striving for the unification with God as that of two lovers. Was it Minne’s intent to depict the overwhelming grief of these women as proceeding from their intimate and ardent love of Jesus? Women who are totally enwrapped in mourning their beloved? This is in fact the very last moment of the passion, the last moment of suffering past the Pietà and the burial of Christ. It will only be a minute before their hoods will come off and the news of the resurrection will enter their numbed minds.

Minne did not only look to the spirituality of the Middle Ages, but also to the design of its sculptures. These women with their bent backs and bowed heads are based on the pleurants or weepers of 15th-century tombs. The gothic style appealed to Minne for its intense expressiveness interwoven with the vehement emotions and fervent devotion of late-medieval mysticism. Think for instance of the deep agony in Grünewald’s famous Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516). Likewise this sculpture of the women seems to speak of contrition and a profound sense of sinfulness. The kneeling figure is a recurring motif in Minne’s oeuvre. Maeterlinck called Minne with his gothic soul ‘the grand poet of grand sorrow’.

This gothic tendency was part of the symbolist movement that came up around 1880. On the one hand symbolism wanted to countervail the rationalism and growing materialism of a time of technological innovation. On the other hand it looked for an alternative for the academic, naturalistic and impressionist styles that focused on the depiction of the exterior of things. Symbolism aimed to render the interior of human beings and emphasized subjective expression, the imagination and representation of emotions, longings and dreams. The progressive artists of Minne’s time were all searching for a new pictorial language that could show more than the eye can see, with Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and the symbolists in the frontline. Minne is often considered one of the precursors of expressionism.  

We see this quest for the representation of the inner life in the statue of the three holy women. Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – as these women are traditionally identified – come shuffling towards the grave with staggering sadness. The strongly simplified contours of the bronze sculpture emphasize the massiveness of their mourning, while the exaggerated folds of their robes point to the intensity of their emotions. Anxiously they keep their gowns shut, as if they want to shield themselves. With their hooded heads and eyes fixed on the ground they are totally turned inwards. They are in lock-down, consumed by their grief. Their dear master has died. They had not seen it coming, their hearts and heads yet unable to take it all in.

Happily they are not alone in their grief. Even though they do not actively support each other, still they keep each other standing, together forming one block of bereavement. And then they arrive at the open grave and an angel confronts them cautiously with something yet again totally unexpected. Also now their reaction is through and through human: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)

All the same the grave has been broken open. Jesus has risen in victory over death. From now on mourning will not have the last word anymore. Liberating light will press through the cracks of these shrouded women. Their dead beloved is not dead anymore. The Lord has risen! He is risen indeed!

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George Minne: Three Holy Women at the Grave1896, bronze, 44.5 x 62.0 x 20.5 cm. Groeningemuseum, Bruges, Belgium.

George Minne (1866-1941) was a Flemish sculptor, painter and draughtsman. From 1882 to 1884 he studied at the Academy of Ghent in Belgium. In 1886 his friendship with Maurice Maeterlinck (Nobel Prize in Literature 1911) started. In this period he also became known as a book illustrator. In 1890 he exhibited some of his sculptures with Les XX in Brussels and in 1891 he became a member of this important artists’ group. His strongest and most original creative period falls in the years 1890 to 1900. In 1898 he settled with his wife and children (eventually seven) in Sint-Martens-Latem near Ghent and became the leader of the artists’ colony there, which included the painters Albijn Van den Abeele, Valerius De Saedeleer, Albert Servaes and Gustave Van de Woestyne. The main intent of this so-called first school of Latem was the search for meaningful spiritual art. Around 1905 the second school of Latem followed, which had a more expressionist focus. Especially this second group had a great influence on the development of later modernist movements in Belgium. Minne lived a life of sobriety in Latem, while gaining international fame and commissions. In 1912 he became a teacher at the Academy of Ghent. During the war he found refuge in Wales. After the war he took up his teaching position again. On 25 April 1931 he was given the title of baron. In 1941 he was buried in the graveyard of Sint-Martens-Latem.

For an article on ArtWay by Jonathan Evens about Sint-Martens-Latem, click here

Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is editor-in-chief of ArtWay. She has a background in musicology (University of Amsterdam) with minors in art history, philosophy and liturgical studies (Free University, Amsterdam). For many years she worked as an editor, translator, researcher and writer. She edited the Complete Works of her father (art historian Hans Rookmaaker) and has written about popular music, liturgy and the visual arts. She contributed to over twenty books. In 2019 she was co-curator of Art Stations of the Cross in Amsterdam. At the moment she is working as co-editor on a book about (neo-)Calvinism and art, which will be published in Dutch and English in 2020. She lives in Langbroek in the Netherlands.

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Listen to the music here

May God Keep You

Psalm 150

May God keep you on your road
Send blessings upon your head
May Jesus share your heavy load
And bring you peace and rest
May his face shine down upon you
May you feel his grace
May He never remove his steadfast love from you

Let everything that has breath
Praise his holy name
Praise Him for his mighty deeds
Praise Him all that He creates
Praise Him in his sanctuary
Praise Him all the earth
Praise Him throughout all the ages
For his faithfulness.

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Words and music: Peter la Grand. Performed by Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time is an independent folk acoustic trio rooted in the Christian tradition. Comprised of Ben Keyes (guitar, piano, mandolin), Peter La Grand (guitar, banjo, dobro), and Jill McFadden (guitar, violin), Ordinary Time presents extraordinarily rich vocal harmonies, skillful instrumentation, and thought-provoking lyrics.  The band’s oeuvre seamlessly weaves the hymns of generations past with their own new songs—often indistinguishably—producing a sound that ranges from bluegrass-tinged Americana to sacred harp hymn arrangements.  The band has released three records and tours semi-annually. http://www.ordinarytimemusic.com/

ArtWay Visual Meditation Easter 2020