“The ultimate truth is a loving one”

Theo van Stiphout en Sytske Zwart, Intermedi-Art

An interview with the publishers of our book of hours Seasons of Life about the inspiration behind their work, their Book of Hours and the ritual of reflection around it (Behold, the sun! A contemporary pilgrim’s lauds). By Damien Messing.

I’ve just entered their brand new apartment next to a care home for missionaries. All over the wall of the nursing home is a Bible quote in ornate letters about the pleasure of moderation. Their own apartment is bathed in sunlight, which shines through large windows on carefully placed, vibrant works of art.

As has often been the case lately, I share my sombre sampling of the news: the growing polarization and hatred, the unleashed economic growth at the expense of nature. Theo and Sytske recognize my concerns and share them. But we decide to reduce the world to the small lives we lead and what we can do in them. For Theo and Sytske, that means making art accessible.

Ellen Grote Beverborg
Ellen Grote Beverborg

Theo: “The earthly is imperfect, full of suffering and injustice. But there is also enchantment. I get these signals in nature, during a beautiful encounter, music or art. Take that painting by Ellen Grote Beverborg: it evokes timelessness. It transcends all the chatter. Here I see the greatness of it all, but also the goodness through its beauty.”

Goodness? I ask Theo surprised, it seems to me to be a rather religious approach to art. Theo looks at me kindly and effortlessly with my words. He tells of his Catholic upbringing and the key phrase he received from his mother: “the ultimate truth is a loving one.” Like many, he left the church in the 1980s, but he respects the unifying richness and comfort of its symbols and rituals. He prays before going to sleep: “I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but it feels good”.

Sytske: “I’m much more practical. What Theo calls God, I call nature. God has the extra charge of the predestined, something that directs and has conceived everything. But I don’t think anything was ever thought of. It just happens. ”

Funs Erens

Sytske: “This painting by Funs Erens came into being dripping: it came into being. There is control, but also coincidence. There is coherence, but no one has thought of it. That’s how I see the meaning of life: we’re just there and have to make something of it.”

Theo: “For me, it’s the other way around. Coincidence is there within the control. The creator of that painting has been searching for balance all his life. The result is a painting of tranquillity, where there is also a place for the capricious. For me, the branch represents fate and the repeating circles represent the influence of man. Something beautiful is created in that combination.”

Sytske, originally from Friesland, has little to do with the church – “I wasn’t raised with it and it’s not in my nature” – but he did go with Theo to the pilgrimage mass in Kevelaer (Germany).

Sytske: “The beauty in museums and theatres is for elites, there is a threshold. But in Kevelaer there was no such threshold. I was struck by the attention: the beautiful clothes, the well-groomed flowers and language, the beautiful choir. I really liked it and: it was free! Everyone could go right in.”

Theo: “In Kevelaer I recognized the objectives of our art: all walks of life come together, you are challenged to reflect on powerlessness and at the same time there is room for beauty. “

Jan Tergot. Theo: “With this Christ, all traces of suffering have been omitted. The scourge in the hands has become a skipping rope. Jesus doesn’t suffer from the world, he plays on it.”

For years, they themselves organized the free Summer Exhibition in the monumental heart of Nijmegen: the Stevens Church. Everyone who came in had to see something that appealed. Theo may have left the church, but he came back through art and tried to connect Nijmegen with it.

Sytske, down-to-earth: “But we are also commercial: a broad target group is more sales.” Theo: “Yes, but that wasn’t the only thing: it had to be ‘right.'” Artists with vision and craftsmanship who did not sell, but who did appeal to them personally, simply came into the exhibition. Their works now hang in Theo and Sytske’s living room.

Nijmegenpprint 2018: Diana Huijts.
An annual print in which an artist was commissioned to depict the ‘Nijmegen feeling’.

Herd animals

Theo: “There is one but to the ecclesiastical context: man as a herd animal.” Enthusiastically, Sytske adds: “People, please keep thinking for yourself!” Theo: “That’s the danger of these kinds of connections.” Sytske: “We don’t know how easily we are conditioned and run after something.” This doesn’t just happen in the church.

Sytske: “Our biggest difficulty is with knowers, people who say without a doubt: this is good. That’s wrong.” Art offers an opportunity for reflection and, according to Theo, can contribute to tolerance: people accept that there is a diversity of perspectives on art more than on words.

Theo: “Everyone is looking for what you might call ‘reality’. According to the philosopher Derrida, however, the small differences that characterize reality are so great that language cannot grasp them. We try to understand each other, but everyone has different images and feelings about the same words. The more abstract the discussion is, the more complicated it becomes. That’s why you need to put things into perspective.

The Cloud, Gea Karhof
The ‘cloud’ – Gea Karhof, miniature from the contemporary book of hours and pilgrims Seasons of Life

Behold, the sun!

It doesn’t surprise me that Theo and Sytske enthusiastically contribute to our contemporary pilgrims’ lauds in the Stevenskerk: See the sun! (agenda). They do it with care and Theo puts on a suit from the time of the Medieval Brothers of Limburg once a month especially for this purpose.

Theo: “The Nijmegen Brothers of Limburg were the first important Dutch artists to publish art under their own name.” The brothers provided famous prayer selections from the time with small works of art (miniatures), something that Theo and Sytske’s own artists did in their modern adaptation: Seasons of Life: a contemporary book of hours and pilgrims. Their own book, however, does not contain prayers, but a variety of experiences that made people personally a little wiser.

Every first Saturday, one such experience is read during the pilgrim’s lauds. Participants first take a silent tour of the intimate grandeur of the Stevenskerk (1273). After the reading, they stand in front of the large stained-glass windows behind the choir to watch the rising light – hence the title: Behold, the sun! a contemporary pilgrim’s lauds. Pilgrims present are then led out in silence over the first 700 meters of the Walk of Walk of Wisdom.

Stevenspedel at the pilgrim's lauds
Behold, the sun! A contemporary pilgrim’s lauds

Theo: “A moment of reflection at an hour of the day when the miracle takes place again: that the sun will come back after all, making the whole of life possible.”

Nice to mention: Theo and Sytske have supported the Walk of Wisdom from the beginning. They co-wrote the route guide and financed its first edition. In 2017 we also received the unique edition of the Book of Hours with all the original works of art. In the event of a sale, we may divide the estimated value (2017: €15,000) with the Stevens Church Foundation after deduction of costs. They hope that we will find a buyer who will leave the book in the Stevenskerk.

More about Theo and Sytske: Intemedi-art Kunstzaken
More about Seasons of Life: a contemporary book of hours and pilgrims: link
More about Behold, the sun! A contemporary pilgrim’s lauds:dangerous