In the 19th century, Christian art experienced a revival. In Belgium, artists such as Théophile Lybaert and Edmond Van Hove turned to the past and allowed themselves to be inspired by the Flemish Primitives and the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.
Jacob Smits combined his religious scenes with depictions of country life. He can be regarded as a forerunner of Flemish Expressionism, with Constant Permeke as the protagonist.
Spirituality and religion are also explored in the work of George Minne. He linked these interests with universal and profoundly human themes, such as sorrow and loneliness.
Artists like Albert Servaes and Gustave Van De Woestyne reinterpreted religious themes, as did their contemporaries Emil Nolde in Germany and Georges Rouault in France. With his monumental Last Supper, the deeply religious Van de Woestyne tried to reconcile a well-established subject with the language of modern art. His controversial work was resolutely rejected by the Roman Catholic Church.
This painting occupies a special place in Van Hove’s oeuvre due to its monumental dimensions and pastel shades. Five young women personify the arts and hope to be inspired by the enthroned Virgin. They represent poetry (lyre), painting (palette and brushes), architecture (compass), sculpture (clay figure) and music (portative organ). In the Renaissance-style loggia, we recognise artists who inspired Van Hove, such as Raphael, Michelangelo and Memling.
This Madonna and the infant Jesus, who is standing upright on his mother’s lap with a hand raised in blessing, is a typical example of Lybaert’s neo-Gothic style. The detailed realism, the throne with the brocade cloth and the carpet, the use of gold and the frame with a Middle Dutch inscription in Gothic letters are all borrowed from the Flemish primitives. Lybaert’s work was very successful in Germany.
Mary sits with the infant Jesus on her lap in a richly decorated interior. The marble columns refer to the entrance hall of Van Hove’s house in Antwerp. The three white lilies symbolise Mary’s virginity, while the pink rose on the book represents Christ’s Passion. In the background, an angel places a lily in a vase, an allusion to the Annunciation.
On this monumental canvas, Christ is seated for the last time with his twelve disciples, including Judas, the man who will betray him. Jesus will break the bread and drink the wine. The disciples – who have expressive, thick-set heads and striking hands – kneel in a bare, claustrophobic space. The third disciple on the left is a self-portrait of the artist.
To reconcile the language of modern art with the essential message of Christianity: this is what the Flemish painter and devout Christian, Gustave Van de Woestyne, attempted to achieve in this monumental but oppressive canvas, as in many other works. Van de Woestyne’s innovative art was not always well received by his fellow believers...
In The Last Supper, which dates from 1927, Van de Woestyne tackled a subject with a long tradition: Christ sits at the table with his twelve apostles for the last time, including the man who will betray him, Judas. Jesus will break the bread and drink the wine. His bare feet attest to his vulnerability. The kneeling apostles are contorted, depicted in a bare space, with broad expressive heads, and extremely distinctive hands. On the left, the third apostle in the row is a self-portrait of Van de Woestyne. Despite the strange chill that this canvas radiates, the colours, scale and techniques are all reminiscent of Italian fresco paintings.
Gustave Van de Woestyne began his career in the Flemish village of Sint-Martens-Latem, as a Symbolist artist who sought inspiration in religion. The Flemish Primitives, among others, had made an early impression on him. When he painted this work in 1927, he was a well-known artist, but also recognised within the field of art education. At this point in time, he belonged to the Expressionist movement.
From the mid 1930s until his death, Permeke made large charcoal drawings. Here, he depicts a farmer and his wife interrupting their work in the fields to pray the Angelus. Their life of hard labour is symbolised by their powerful hands and feet. The dark, earthy colours emphasise the connection of the massive figures with the land.
Servaes is best known as a painter of religious scenes and landscapes. From 1904 to 1945, he lived in Sint-Martens-Latem, where he was inspired by Gustave Van de Woestyne and George Minne. He made numerous charcoal drawings of the Stations of the Cross and the Passion. Servaes did not create idealised depictions of Christ suffering in serenity, but raw and powerful expressions of his intense ordeal.
In melancholic silence, members of a holy order gather around a deathbed. They hold lighted candles in their hands. This Symbolist work in pen and ink is in keeping with George Minne’s linear drawing style. According to the Flemish poet and writer Karel Van de Woestijne, Jules De Praetere, just like Minne, was a ‘purely mystical artist’. They were also friends and stayed in the artists’ village of Sint-Martens-Latem near Ghent in around 1900.
The Ghent-born Symbolist artist George Minne expresses fear and pain, despair, vulnerability, loneliness and sorrow in his sculptures. He created this bronze group for a competition organised by the Brussels Academy on the theme of a funerary monument. The three faceless women dressed in hooded cloaks are reminiscent of pleurants, the medieval statues of mourners that were placed at the graves of prominent figures.
Fear and pain, despair, vulnerability, loneliness and sadness... These words are often associated with the work of the Ghent-born sculptor, George Minne. We see three faceless, veiled women, dressed in generous, heavy hooded cloaks. They seem to support each other and yet there is absolutely no physical contact between the women. Just deep sorrow.
The three figures are reminiscent of the medieval statues that were sometimes placed beside the graves of eminent personages, the so-called pleurants, or mourners. This is no coincidence. We are looking at the work Three Holy Women at the Tomb, a scene from the gospel that unfolds beside Christ’s tomb. George Minne made this bronze group sculpture at the age of thirty, in 1896, for a competition held by the Brussels Academy. The set theme was: ‘make a funerary monument’. His victory in the competition marked the beginning of an intense, creative period in which Minne found his own style and was discovered by prominent figures in the international art world.
George Minne is known as a Symbolist artist. Emerging around 1900, this artistic movement strove to find an escape from the industrialized world. Its members went in search of people’s deepest impulses and the things in life that, more often than not, remain invisible. This is what Symbolist artists endeavoured to represent. Many were inspired by the writings and poetry produced by their literary colleagues. As was George Minne.
The Dutch-Flemish artist Jacob Smits, a forerunner of Flemish Expressionism, settled on a small farm in the rural Campine region in 1888. He began to paint in the Symbolist style and produced many watercolours that radiate a serene and mystical atmosphere. In this work, he adds a religious element to a depiction of rural life.
Drawings occupy an important place in Jules Fonteyne’s extensive oeuvre. This Calvary was probably a commission. The intriguing combination of a classical religious depiction and a Bruges cityscape testifies to a personal vision. The intricate detailing and subtle lines make it a striking example of Fonteyne’s talent as a draughtsman.