My first interest in theology and the fine arts (both as individual disciplines and their interaction) first emerged in the late 1970s. It was my freshman year in college. By God’s generous provision, I was provided a mentor—an understanding Intervarsity staff worker—who patiently helped me to see that the Christian faith is intellectually sound and that the study of any academic subject (art included) could be glorifying to God because every good thing was created by our heavenly Father and could be used to serve him.
God also brought me into a robust Christian community—a Covenanter church located in Pittsburgh’s East Side—who not only reinforced the idea of the Lordship of Christ in all areas of life, but who lived it. I was privileged to see Francis Schaeffer at a screening of his How Should We Then Live? film series and hear him challenge me and the rest of the gathering that our Christian faith must direct what we did in the workplace. I was able to attend some of the first Jubilee conferences (sponsored by Coalition for Christian Outreach) in downtown Pittsburgh and heard for the first time fellow believers talk about a distinctly Christian understanding of the arts and aesthetics. These were exciting times for me. But for the most part, I had no idea how exceptional my circumstances were.
I was first introduced to Christian thinking on the arts by Schaeffer’s Escape from Reason. This “little” book chronicled the gradual deterioration of Western culture as it left its biblical foundation and grew more secularized, pagan, and irrational. Schaeffer used the arts, literature, and examples from history to demonstrate this shift in worldview. The idea that culture reveals the beliefs and values of its makers was brand new to me. It was as if a light was suddenly switched on in the room that I had been living in all my life. For the first time I could really see the culture I was living in for what it was: the vast and varied products of materialism, pleasure-seeking, unfounded optimism, and despair.
It became obvious to me (and many of my believing friends) that a Christian alternative to this bankrupt culture had to be established. Many a mealtime and late-night discussion centred on how to bring this about. Exactly what would Christian art look like? We didn’t have a clue how to do this. But we ambled ahead anyway, excited by the prospects.
The number of readily available books to help fledgling Christian artists and art historians in this quest could be counted on one hand. Besides the portions of the two or three books by Francis Schaeffer which analyzed art as a barometer of the philosophical climate of the West (and the film series which did the same), my mentor late gave me Schaeffer’s booklet Art and the Bible where I saw for the first time that it was possible to apply biblical principles to art making. I also remember thumbing through an intriguing book owned by an artist friend by a Dutchman named Rookmaaker. Modern Art and the Death of a Culture surveyed Western art history from a Christian perspective and even had pictures. Another fellow church member gave me a copy of an obscure slim book by Calvin Seerveld, A Christian Critique of Art and Literature (which sadly was way over my head!).
A turning point in my life came in 1979. A speaker at a meeting suggested I read Rookmaaker’s brand new book Art Needs No Justification. I bought it the next day. Though less than 100 pages, this book convinced me that more Christians needed to be involved in the arts and that included me.
Even though the resources were scarce, at least we had something. If I had begun my quest 10 years before, the situation would have been very different. The books by Schaeffer, Rookmaaker, and Seerveld would not yet have been published. Schaeffer’s revolutionary The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason first appeared in 1968. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture came out in 1970. Before then, there was very little readily available on Christianity and the arts, especially from an evangelical perspective. (The lone exceptions were two slim books by Clyde Kilby and Derek Kidner. Few Christian bookstores stocked them.)
Today, the situation could not be more different for young Christian artists. There are several dozen books on art and aesthetics from a Christian perspective currently in print. Even though Christian (and mainstream) bookstores still don’t usually stock them, they can be easily obtained through online sources. Christian art fellowships now meet in several large cities in North America and Europe (and many smaller cities as well). There is a professional association of evangelical artists and art historians (CIVA). And there are a handful of Christian commercial galleries that showcase artworks crafted by Christians and scores of churches and Christian-owned coffee shops that also display Christian art.
None of this existed in the mid-1960s. How things have changed since then! What few people realize is that the seeds of this flourishing arts movement began on an otherwise ordinary August evening in Amsterdam some 56 years ago.
Henderik Roelof “Hans” Rookmaaker was born in The Hague in 1922. His father was a colonial administrator in the Dutch Indies (now Indonesia) rising in the ranks to become Resident (regional governor). Henderik, Sr. was also an amateur naturalist of some renown. For most of his early years, Hans lived with his family abroad, returning to the Netherlands permanently in 1936. He attended a technical high school in Leiden and then enrolled at the Royal Netherlands Naval College putting him on a trajectory to become a career officer, or perhaps an engineer or naval architect.
It was during these years in school and college that Hans developed a keen interest in African-American spirituals and jazz. He used every extra penny he earned to add to what became an impressive collection of recordings. But Rookmaaker’s life was to radically change with the Nazi invasion of Holland and the tragic events of the Second World War.
After the German authorities closed the Naval College, Hans returned home and attended Delft Technical University until he was arrested in 1941 by the authorities for possession of “seditious” anti-Nazi literature. He spent nine months in nearby Scheveningen Prison, and only five months after his release, he became a prisoner of war since he was still technically a midshipman in the Dutch navy. It was during his first years as a POW in Nuremburg that he began reading the Bible. As he later wrote,
there were no other books available and, as a cultured man with cultural interests, I thought it would be good to know something about it. As I was reading, I gradually came to the conviction that the Bible reveals the truth to us. . . . The Bible comes to us, and it came to me, with the demand to accept the gospel as a joyful message, God as Father and hence also his Son as Savior. That is not to say that a person, such as I was at that time, pondering everything the Bible was telling me and trying to understand the biblical world picture . . . did not see any problems. On the contrary, I still find it rather striking that at that time I personally experienced a dogmatic struggle, similar to the struggle of the early church, and finally came to a insight that turned out to be called “orthodox biblical Protestant.”
Rookmaaker studied his copy of the Bible intensely, filling the margins with notes. He even wrote a brief treatise on the relation between the Old and New Testaments.
A second key event in Rookmaaker’s early life was his transfer to Stanislau prison camp in what is now present-day Ukraine, which turned out to be a virtual university. Besides having access to a wide range of books on philosophy and history, and being tutored in Latin and Greek, Hans was introduced to a unique individual, J. P. A Mekkes. Twenty-five years his senior, Mekkes had deep, life-long Reformed convictions and had worked on a doctorate in philosophical law even though he was a career officer in the Dutch army. Mekkes loaned Rookmaaker his copy of Herman Dooyeweerd’s De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee ( A New Critique of Theoretical Thought) which Rookmaaker devoured. Mekkes became a mentor to Hans and encouraged him to apply the insights of neo-Calvinism—the thought of Abraham Kuyper and Dooyeweerd—to his interest in culture.
Rookmaaker returned to Holland in 1945. He now wanted to study music history (including African-American music—his great love) but could not pursue this subject because he could not play any musical instruments or even carry a tune (both were required). Instead, he took up studies in art history at the University of Amsterdam. He also was baptized into the Liberated Reformed Church (the same denomination that Mekkes was a member) and started a fellowship of Reformed university students in Amsterdam (the VGSA).
At this time, Hans began a long friendship with Anky Huitker who he had met in The Hague before the war. Like Hans, Anky had grown up in a nominally Reformed home. He patiently shared his belief in Christianity with his friend, who gradually came to faith in Christ. They became engaged in 1947. Anky moved to Amsterdam and found a job as a secretary for the organizing committee of the founding assembly of the International Council of Christian Churches (ICCC, a conservative alternative to the World Council of Churches). It was during a visit to Anky’s office one summer early evening that Hans met an American delegate to the Council who he hoped could answer some of the questions he had about jazz music. Reverend Francis Schaeffer looked at his watch and said he could spare a half an hour. They ended up talking until four in the morning!
This meeting between Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker was to have a profound impact on the history of the modern evangelical church. Schaeffer, 10 years older than Rookmaaker, had grown up in an atheistic home near Philadelphia and had become a Christian as a teenager. He had served as a successful pastor of several Bible Presbyterian Churches and had a particular passion for evangelism. His missionary calling had led him to take his wife Edith and their three young daughters to Lausanne, Switzerland to begin a ministry to children. Schaeffer was also a representative of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, and it was in that capacity that he was present at the ICCC in Amsterdam.
Hans and Francis never ended up talking about American music. Instead, Schaeffer probed the younger art history student on the meaning of modern art, and the two of them pondered together the impact that post-Christian ideas and values had on European art and culture. Schaeffer already had an interest in culture and had begun visiting art museums after arriving in Europe. Rookmaaker might have been the first Christian Schaeffer had ever met who had seriously studied contemporary art and had the philosophical tools (via Dooyeweerd and his reading of philosophy in prison camp) to analyze and critique the arts from a biblical perspective. It turned out they both had a strong common interest in the relationship between art and Christianity and immediately became close, lifelong friends. Later, after Schaeffer had established L’Abri in the village of Humoz, Switzerland in 1955, Rookmaaker was a frequent visitor and lecturer to the Swiss community. Hans and Anky opened a Dutch branch of L’Abri in 1971.
It would appear that Rookmaaker and Schaeffer each had a profound influence on the subsequent career of the other. Rookmaaker helped Schaeffer to see the impact that the loss of faith had on contemporary European art and music. Dooyeweerd had recently published a series of newspaper articles (later published as The Roots of Western Culture) that demonstrated how philosophy had impacted contemporary culture. Rookmaaker may well have had this in mind (and other similar ideas from the Reformational thinkers at Amsterdam’s Free University (VU)) as he discussed art and culture with his American brother. (The VU was founded by Abraham Kuyper in 1880 and was the home of Herman Dooyeweerd.)
Rookmaaker later encouraged Schaeffer to publish his unique ideas and insights, which bore amazing fruit. Beginning in 1968, Schaeffer unleashed a barrage of best-selling books on cultural criticism, applied theology, and biblical exegesis. Schaeffer, for his part, steered Rookmaaker away from the theoretical tendencies then common among neo-Calvinists and encouraged him to adopt a more missional approach. He encouraged the Dutchman to apply his scholarly insights in practical ways to help the church. Schaeffer later encouraged Hans to complete his doctorate, which solidified his career as a professor, first at the University of Leiden and later at the VU.
Together, they were a formidable team who pushed the then insular evangelical church in Europe and North America out of its cocoon and into cultural and missional awareness. For the first time in centuries, Christians on a large scale were encouraged to be involved in the arts, science, and politics. They also taught Christians how to confront the post-Christian society with its philosophical inconsistencies and offer the gospel as an alternative of hope.
Hans Rookmaaker enjoyed a solid career as a scholar and a professor. While working on his doctorate degree at the University of Amsterdam, he worked as an assistant for professor Henri van der Waal at the University of Leiden. Van der Waal was in the midst of a large scale project to develop a classification system for the subject matter (iconography) of Netherlandish painting (The Decimal Index of Art of the Low Countries or DIAL). He was also assembling a comprehensive set of images to be published on cards that would be organized by subject. It was one of the first attempts to organize a body of art works in this way.
Besides being acquainted with the daily research habits of a cutting-edge art historian, Hans came in contact with an extensive number of art works. Van der Waal’s work also brought him face to face with many of the leading art historians in Europe.
Rookmaaker completed his dissertation “Gauguin and Nineteenth-Century Art Theory” (later published as Synthesist Art Theories) in 1959. His choice of a “modern” subject was unusual for the time. But as Laurel Gasque notes in her brief biography on Rookmaaker, he “was convinced by everything he had experienced so far in his life that the crisis of the modern condition, which had reaped chaos and devastation for most of the twentieth century, could be understood through modern art, which presented a way of disclosing what was at stake in assuming the validity of modernity’s presuppositions.”
Rookmaaker’s thesis grew out of the ideas of another Dutch Reformed thinker, Groen van Prinsterer, who wrote a brilliant analysis of the impact of the French Revolution on subsequent European history and thought. For Rookmaaker, unpacking the art and ideas of Gauguin became an opportunity to show how the artist’s philosophical beliefs worked themselves out in his art making. As John Walford, one of his art history students at the VU observed:
Rookmaaker saw the history of art as a direct reflection of the history of philosophy and religion. This seemed quite novel in a critical context that seemed to view art as sequence of stylistic developments. He used to say “A work of art is obvious.” To him, the obviousness was a work’s philosophic co-ordinates.”
This presuppositional approach to art history was later employed on a broader historical scale in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. The same basic strategy was utilized by Francis Schaeffer in his cultural critiques.
In 1965, Rookmaaker was invited to join the faculty at the Free University of Amsterdam as its inaugural professor of art history. Working at a Christian university sparked something new in his approach to teaching. Before his tenure at the VU, Rookmaaker gave talks at local churches and lectured occasionally at L’Abri, but his time at his new job made him more focused than ever on the need of Christian students to be encouraged to work through the challenges of understanding art from a Christian perspective.
Besides his students at the VU (many of which he recruited to join him from England and the United States), Rookmaaker began a series of regular trips to England to give talks to students at art schools. He also taught summer courses at Regent College in Vancouver beginning in 1970 and made several tours through the United States speaking at Christian Colleges and Intervarsity college fellowships about art, contemporary music, culture, and the faith.
Rookmaaker was intense and tireless in his teaching of art history to his VU students. Paul Clowney, who studied with Rookmaaker from 1972 to 1976, recalls that
the most important session was a weekly trip to the RijksMuseum in the morning before it opened to the public. We would spend several hours looking at one picture. I got very restless the first time, but soon came to appreciate the way such a focus enables a “slow release” of value. Rookmaaker was very good at asking difficult questions. It was always a hunt for meanings beneath style, and quite stimulating.
Rookmaaker would usually begin with an obvious question, such as “What are you looking at?” He would then steer his students to observe various aspects of the work. Linette Martin, in her biography of Rookmaaker, recounts about one time that he had his students methodically study a single painting for several days! One of his favourite sayings was, “you see what you know.” Only by the patient scrutiny of an art work—getting to know each of its details and qualities and the view of reality that was communicated by the artist—could one accurately see the art work for what it truly was. In addition to the regular museum sessions, traditional lectures, and seminars, Rookmaaker’s greatest impact may have come at the regular evening discussions he hosted. Clowney fondly remembers that
students interested in Christianity and the arts had fortnightly meetings in Rookmaaker’s home. There was quite a lot of homework associated with these sessions. We talked about the place of aesthetics in culture, perceptions of the arts in the church, iconography and more. The modest sitting room was dominated by Rookmaaker’s huge jazz and blues record collection—mostly original 78s. After a session he would often play a record (the amplifier was connected to the tiny speaker in his TV—”This sounds scratchy because so many people have danced on it,” he would say.)
Mary Leigh Morbey, another VU student, remembers that “Hans emphasized learning together in Christian community, with respect and care of others in one’s community(ies). I continue to work and live as a scholar with this Christian philosophical approach to all that I do.”
Though he only taught at the VU for 12 years, many of his students went on to have productive careers in academia and the art world. John Walford (quoted above) is professor of art history at Wheaton College and published a major study of the Dutch landscape painter Jacob Ruisdael and the survey Great Themes in Art. Other students who became professors include Graham Birtwistle, who joined Rookmaaker on the faculty of the Free University (an expert in the COBRA art movement); William Dyrness at Fuller Seminary, who has published several books on the interaction of art and theology, including Rouault: A Vision of Suffering and Salvation and Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue; and Mary Leigh Morbey, who has taught at Redeemer University College in Ontario and now is professor of culture and technology at York University in Toronto. Another one of Rookmaaker’s art history students, Lee Hendrix, has had a distinguished career as Curator of Drawings at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Perhaps the most profound impact Rookmaaker had was on the generation of artists he came in contact with during the 1960s and 1970s. Though trained as a scholar, Hans never lost sight of the practical application of his knowledge. Early in his career, he was an art critic for the Christian newspaper Trouw. This experience brought him into regular contact with the latest art trends and challenged him to communicate and analyze contemporary art for a non-scholarly audience. He also wrote newspaper articles on popular music (always an interest of Rookmaaker!) and film, and acutely observed other cultural trends, including avant garde literature. His regular discussions with Francis Schaeffer sharpened his cultural understanding even further. This, combined with his art historical training and Reformational roots, made Rookmaaker uniquely qualified to minister to young Christians who were trying to find their way among the artistic Philistines of the day.
Hans Rookmaaker took his show on the road beginning in mid-1960s, invited by the UCCF to speak at English art schools. His ability to connect with art students was astounding. Paul Clowney recollects the first time he heard him lecture before he transferred to the VU:
He lectured with considerable animation about the Rolling Stones, Jackson Pollock, Paris in May 1968 and how perspective in pictures worked like a “spiritual vacuum sucker.” It was a slick presentation and unlike anything I was hearing at art school. He talked about big themes and their philosophic underpinnings.
Dressed in a three-piece suit, Rookmaaker looked more like a banker than an art historian. Laurel Gasque then explained that
when the lights went down and he started to show slides of great works of art of the past or startling contemporary art and comment on them, his audience was fascinated, whether they agreed with him or not. His lecturing style was highly unusual for a continental professor, as he spoke not from a written manuscript but extemporaneously and with full attentive engagement with his listeners. It was an art form, a performance. Like a Jazz musician playing inventively with themes, he would improvise within a given structure (the lecture topic) with mastery and control, skill and intensity. He would bait and shock, amuse and bemuse.
After his lectures, Rookmaaker would spend hours talking with small groups of students, patiently listening and answering their questions about art-making, contemporary art, or whatever else they wanted to talk about. His advise to artists was to work hard, to learn to be proficient in their chosen craft, to avoid being too comfortable, and above all, to refrain from being preachy or sentimental in their art. (Rookmaaker hated sentimentality.) “Paint what you love!” was his oft-repeated piece of advice. But he generally avoided commenting on a student’s art works, a position that made him feel very uncomfortable.
Today there are many Christian artists who are flourishing in their profession in part because of Rookmaaker’s patient encouragement. British artists who he mentored include graphic designer and animator Paul Clowney, painter/teachers Peter Smith of the School of Art, Design and Media at Kingston College, Paul Martin of Leith School of Art in Edinburgh and painters Martin and Kate Rose of Sheffield. Another key person Rookmaaker influenced was actor Nigel Goodwin (a close friend of John Walford) who went on to organize the Art Centre Group in London, the first artists fellowship of its kind in the world and a model for several other artist fellowships. American artists Rookmaaker guided include sculptor Ted Prescott of Messiah College and New York artist Chris Anderson. Rookmaaker also inspired an important group of painters in his native country. Members of what has been called the Noordelijke Figuratieven (Northern Figuratives), these include Pit van Loo, Jan van Loon, Henk Helmantel, Rein Pol, Jan van der Scheer, and Jan Zwaan. A traveling exhibition of their work titled “Reality Revisited” was organized in 1982. These artists were remarkable for the high degree of craftsmanship they brought to their work, the clarity of their vision, and the obvious love they showed for God’s creation—all values that Rookmaaker cherished.
Rookmaaker’s impact on artists can be summed up in the words of Peter Smith. Remembering the Dutchman’s first visit to Birmingham College of Art in 1967, he confided that, “I was considering leaving Fine Art for pietist reasons but a late night discussion with Rookmaaker kept me painting.” A single evening of faithfulness extended the Kingdom of God just a little bit further. Smith continues, “I now recognize the wisdom in Rookmaaker’s approach. In a situation where he felt Christians had not engaged in the arts it was clear we were some way behind and that it would take time, if not generations, to catch up. Solution: get as many Christians engaged as possible. Out of that, by God’s grace, something worth while might emerge.”
Hans Rookmaaker was able to extend his encouragement and ideas even further through the written word. As early as 1962, he wrote a book for fellow church members titled Kunst en Amusement ( Art and Amusement). The book was an invitation for Christians to begin taking art seriously. Parts of this book were later incorporated into his magnum opus Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, which appeared in 1970. There had been nothing else quite like it: a survey of art history and other cultural trends lucidly discussed for a general audience in terms of their philosophical significance. He did not poke fun at modern art but took it seriously and revealed to the reader the pessimistic message it conveyed. The book was an immediate bestseller and was respected in Christian and non-Christian circles. It received reviews in Art News and Esquire and was named one of the Observer Books of the Year by Malcolm Muggeridge.
Modern Art and the Death of a Culture was nothing less than a wise application of Paul’s words found in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” Gasque observed that
for Rookmaaker this was spiritual combat, not simply a matter of aesthetic niceties or opinions. He was attempting to awaken spiritual sleepers to the idea that modern art was not amoral or neutral but loaded with meaning that conveyed an impact on all of us, whether we ever darkened the door of an art museum or not, because it was an assault on our humanity. The implications were not theoretical but were as practical as how we raise our children, elect our leaders or care for the earth’s environment.
Regrettably, I did not take the opportunity to see Rookmaaker give a gallery talk at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in the winter of 1977. I can’t remember why at the time I didn’t go to hear him. (At least one of my artist friends did go to hear him.) A few months later, he died at home in the Netherlands. Christendom had lost one of its great champions. Two books by Rookmaaker were published posthumously: Art Needs No Justification in 1978 and The Creative Gift : Essays on Art and the Christian Life in 1981. Art Needs No Justification changed my life. Its simplicity and clarity still amaze me. And it is full of wise advice. (I still think it is the best book on Christianity and the arts ever written.) God used this book to call me to a life of Christian cultural activism. Following Rookmaaker’s advice, I have sought to “weep, pray, think and work.” May my artist brothers and sisters and I be given the grace to continue to do so to God’s glory.