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Art, like prayer, is always an expression of longing. Wendy Beckett

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Toorop, Jan - VM - Jonathan Evens

Jan Toorop: Apostles Window

Lines Suggesting Faith and Hope

by Jonathan Evens

Maurice Denis, in an address on ‘New Directions in Christian Art’ given to the Revue des Jeunes in February 1919, cited the Apostles Window by Jan Toorop at what is now the Titus Brandsma Memorial Church in Nijmegen as a source of hope for a renaissance of religious art.

Toorop was a significant and influential Dutch artist who used a great diversity of styles including Realism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Art Nouveau, Pointillism and Catholic Symbolism. He worked with James Ensor, Fernand Khnopff and Johan Thorn Prikker whilst being an influence at different points on Piet Mondrian and Gustave Klimt. Mondrian said of him, “I could tell that he goes to the depths and that he is searching for the spiritual.” Across his career he designed book bindings, illustrations, ceramic objects and advertisements. His church commissions can also be found at the Sint Bavo Cathedral in Haarlem and Sint Bernulphuskerk in Oosterbeek. During the later phases of his career, he distributed reproductions of his saints' prints that ended up in countless households.

For both the Apostles Window and his popular reproductions such as Pietà, Toorop moved beyond the arabesques of his Symbolist works to take his linearity in a more geometric and monumentalized stylistic direction. Kees Veelenturf in writing about the Apostles Window notes the extent to which artists of that time had been searching for a universal grammar of form, emanating from a wish to make genuine ‘Christian’ art.

Critic Mieke Janssen said about this style, “... the severe mathematics and the clean lines make it seem to have the form of a building .... In the structure of this work, the lines give a suggestion of the Infinite." These are compositions that have a strong orientation toward the vertical. Christ is always the central figure, flanked by varying groups, occasionally mirroring each other. Yet, as Eileen Toutant has written, beneath “the hieratic rigidity and stylized stances there is a force and emotional intensity that cannot be ignored.”

In the Apostles Window, Toorop has set the 12 symmetrical standing apostles in characteristic clear lines, two by two, each looking devoutly upwards to Christ, who is set in a round rainbow fringed window above. The apostles’ faces are realistic with one bearing the features of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, a key figure in Toorop’s faith journey, and another that of the artist himself. The rainbow is the sign of God’s promise of faithfulness and the hands of Christ are stretched out in a sign of blessing. On each side are the Alpha and Omega but reversed, so that the end is the beginning.

Veelenturf summarises, “Looking upward, the apostles see their Lord and in the act of looking they themselves are seen by him, with the beholder invited to join in this interaction.” So, “the determining geometrical principle seen in the solemn, hieratic tranquillity of the composition and the simple vertical treatment of the human bodies, unites mystical inspiration and calculated angles.”   

Both works feature in the exhibition ‘Toorop: Between Faith and Hope’ (until October 24, 2021) at Museum Villa Mondriaan in Winterswijk. A unique feature of the exhibition has been the collecting of stories from the owners of prints by Toorop. These enable us to understand the impact of his work on the faithful. Around 1930 Toorop was one of the most reproduced artists of his time.

The impact can be sensed in this story about the Pietà: “This print was in a 'junk box' that I received after the death of an aunt and uncle. The picture was in a hideous and damaged frame and was glued to a black cardboard with a page from a 1946 newspaper on the back. The work really appealed to me, because I know the Passion of Christ and because I love Jan Toorop. I think it's lovingly made. That's why I had it framed. The print has been in my possession for five years and has been given a beautiful place in the hall and I look at it every day.”

To this day, these accessible reproductions – in series or separately, as Christmas cards, picture postcards or prayer cards – remain popular collector’s items and an accessible way for the owner to be surrounded with ‘works of art’. Many of those who have loaned their prints for the exhibition inherited them from relatives, meaning that there are personal associations as well as an appreciation of Toorop’s style and, often, an identification with the sentiment depicted.

Someone else remarked about Surrender: “The image refers to my own family history and especially to the family home. In her simplicity, the woman in prayer pose radiates a sincerity and surrender that can still inspire and silence me.”

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Jan Toorop, Apostles Window, 1911, Titus Brandsma Memorial Church Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

Jan Toorop, Pietà, lithographic postcard.

Jan Toorop, Surrender, 1927

Jan Toorop (1858, Purworejo, Indonesia - 1928, The Hague, The Netherlands) was a Dutch-Indonesian painter, who worked in various styles including Symbolism, Art Nouveau, and Pointillism. From 1882 to 1886 he lived in Brussels where he joined Les XX (Les Vingts), a group of artists centred on the Belgian painter James Ensor (1860-1949). After his marriage to Annie Hall (1860-1929), an English woman and model, in 1886, he alternated his time between The Hague, England, and Brussels, and after 1890 also the Dutch seaside town of Katwijk aan Zee. During this period he developed his unique Symbolist style with dynamic, unpredictable lines based on Javanese motifs, highly stylised willowy figures, and curvilinear designs. From 1897 he lived for 20 years in the seaside town of Domburg in Zeeland where he worked with a group of artists including Marinus Zwart (1882-1970) and Piet Mondrian (1877-1944). In 1905 he converted to Catholicism and began producing primarily religious works. He also created book illustrations, posters, and stained-glass designs. Toorop died on 3 March 1928 in The Hague in The Netherlands.

Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar for HeartEdge at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, England. Through HeartEdge, a network of churches, he encourages congregations to engage with culture, compassion and commerce. He is co-author of The Secret Chord, an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life written through the prism of Christian belief. He writes regularly on the arts for a range of publications and blogs at https://joninbetween.blogspot.com.

ArtWay Visual Meditation September 19, 2021