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He Was One of Us

March 12, 2018 by

Lent, the six weeks leading us to Easter, is a time to deepen our relationship with Christ. Prayer – listening and talking to Jesus, meditating, simply spending time with him – is the most direct and necessary route. Other opportunities abound. One of my treasured Lenten portals to Christ is the book, He Was One of Us, illustrated by Rien Poortvliet.

Poortvliet, a twentieth-century Dutch painter in the deeply expressive tradition of Rembrandt, captures the life of Christ in forty-plus richly rendered paintings. He dared this because he felt Bible texts easily lose their meaning through over-familiarity or, on the flip side, remain incomprehensible no matter how many times we read them. In Poortvliet’s own words, “I have tried to tell the story of Jesus by letting faces and hands do the talking.” He does so compellingly.

Image of Mary

Hans Bouma has written an accompanying text that emphasises the humanity of Jesus – that he really is one of us, but for me (all apologies to Bouma) the book simply is the paintings.

Poortvliet wisely begins in the beginning. There would be no Jesus without his mother, Mary. The artist presents her as young, uncertain, tender, and not iconically beautiful.

Poortvliet focuses on the unresolved moments that follow the angel Gabriel’s disconcerting announcement to this unmarried woman, “You will conceive . . . and bear a son . . . who will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1: 31, 32). Gabriel directly responds to Mary’s initial dumbfounded response, “How?” (Luke 1: 34) and then confirms for a second time, “The child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1: 35).

Gabriel leaves no doubt to whom this child belongs, nor that he will be both God and man. The messianic verses between (32-33) suggest to a young Jewess that this child will also be Israel’s Saviour; Poortvliet paints the Messianic references into the base of a cross behind Mary. The angel’s words overwhelm Mary, of course, undoubtedly frightening her as they hang in the air, momentarily completely incomprehensible.

Image of a child

The universe and its creator teeter on the cusp of redemption. Mary cannot be commanded nor coerced to participate; God’s love promises free choice. Tantalizingly Poortvliet holds Mary right here on the edge. Only she can say, “I am a handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Thankfully she eventually does.

The next painting captures an incident in the middle of Christ’s ministry when Jesus throws his disciples an unanticipated answer to yet another of their blundering questions, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:1-14). In their whole-hearted abandon to their master, they probably think he will say they are. But no, Jesus calls for a child. “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Here is the child, trusting and open, yet gazing at the disciples uncertainly, probably reflecting their own freshly felt insecurity. The child is secure with Jesus however, a perfect stranger, whom he allows to unrestrainedly hold him. He drinks in what Jesus says, understanding it little more than the disciples do, if at all, but then he doesn’t need to; he lives it. Jesus will bless him, leaving the disgruntled disciples to puzzle over what he, their ever enigmatic master, has just told them.

Even a glimpse into this book would not be complete without including the crucifixion. Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece may come to mind as you study Poortvliet’s rendering below.

Image of hands

This painting needs no comments. It is important though for you to know that on the book’s facing page of crucifixion sketches there are bloody fingerprints blotched haphazardly about. They are made by the soldier who swings the mallet that drives the nails; it’s an exacting but messy business and the centurion’s fingers slip into the blood – Jesus’s blood of salvation already touches him.

Following more sketched and painted moments of Good Friday, Poortvliet gives us an unsettling picture of Christ’s face in his agony. It is the work of art that communicates to me what Jesus suffered for us. You will need to find it for yourself, however, as it is too precious to splash into a blog.

And at last it is Easter Sunday.

On the page opposite to the victorious picture below, Poortvliet portrays a strikingly tense moment. A despairing Mary Magdalene, dejectedly bent and mourning, turns away from the empty tomb. Her indistinct dark figure is counterbalanced dramatically by Christ, blindingly white, standing solidly behind her, calm and patient; Jesus is poised to reveal himself to her. “Mary” is all that it takes (John 20: 16).

Image of a woman

This electrifying painting shouts its own story; Bouma’s text grasps its significance - "It's Jesus He's alive! She's afire with joy!" Based on both the painting and the words, I hazard to guess that Poortvliet and Bouma recognize this moment, albeit weeks before the blaze of Pentecost, as the first miraculous step of the mission church: “Go and tell” (John 20:17). Typically, Christ chooses neither a pristine character nor an important person for such an historic task.

He Was One of Us was published at different times in the nineteen-seventies through the nineties, and if it has captivated you, I trust you will find your way to it. What I have offered here is only a smattering of its riches. Poortvliet suggests we read the Gospel stories he visualizes for us; the Bible and the paintings deeply enrich each other.

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About the author

a photograph of Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey

Ann Morrissey lives in Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England, with her husband, Dave. They delight in the English countryside...

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  • When you brought this message to me, it wasn’t with art prints and words but through your love and prayers. Thank you, Beth. Ann

    Ann Morrissey
  • Carole, thank you for your response. It’s a humbling wonder to me how God works. Ann

    Ann Morrissey
  • Thank you, Anne, for the beauty of this article, represented in words & art prints. What lovely reminders of the humanity of Jesus- and the many people His life touched!

    Beth HARVESON
  • A truly moving article, a beautiful combination showing the paintings and reading the words of Ann Morrissey. Such devotion to our beautiful Saviour. I cried tears of pure joy. Thank you and God's richest blessings to Anne.

    carole