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Werkman, Hendrik - VM - José Verheule

Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman: The Sabbath of the Simplehearted

Celebrating the Sabbath

by José Verheule

If you want to experience something at its most profound, you can leave a lot out of the picture. ‘Less’ is often ‘more,’ as here in this print by Hendrik Werkman about the Sabbath. At first glance it seems a simple drawing, almost childlike: a lopsided table with a candlestick, behind the table a chair and in the foreground two dancing people. It is drawn with printer’s ink-rollers, for, apart from being an artist, Hendrik Werkman was also a printer.

He made this print to illustrate a Jewish Hasidic legend in a collection published in the middle of World War II by the clandestine publisher De Blauwe Schuit (The Blue Barge), which he, together with a few others, had started in resistance to the Nazi regime. It did cost him his life, because just before the end of the war he was arrested and executed by firing squad on 10th April 1945. This background of war and resistance gives extra weight to this depiction of the Sabbath. In such times of war, what is important is the essence of things and by way of this picture, Hendrik Werkman seeks to show what is essential in celebrating the Sabbath.

He does that by omitting a lot. The table is covered with a cloth, but there is no food – not even a glass of wine, nor the two Sabbath loaves that are supposed to be there as a reminder of the double portion of manna which God provided in the desert on the day before the Sabbath. As if that goes without saying. Or is there perhaps an allusion here to the food scarcity during the war?

However, included is the empty chair for Elijah, the prophet who announces the coming of the great Messianic Sabbath that is yet to come. The chair is also there for any unexpected guest who is welcome to join them. And in the middle of the table there is a large candlestick with three candles (one more than the compulsory two). Its light shines profusely: it fills the room and makes the shadows disappear under the table. It shines like the light of God that broke through the darkness on the first day of creation and desires to do that again every Sabbath.

That is why there is green in the air, the colour of new life. That green colour impregnates the woman in the foreground to the right, who takes the hand of the man, whose silhouette is still black from the burden and worries of life. Together they begin to dance! The shadow of sorrow and pain retreats under the table behind the man. Because of the lopsided table, the white cloth looks like a kind of veil that slides in front of it and covers the shadow.

Dancing together in the light of God: that is to celebrate the Sabbath. And God saw that it was good. Just as in the Gospel (Mark 2:23-3:6) Jesus sees that it is good for his disciples to be carefree and pick heads of grain, given by God, and just as Jesus sees that it is good to heal someone’s shriveled hand, so that this Sabbath will be the start of a new life.

Jesus is here following in the footsteps of Rabbi Hillel, who taught his disciples not to see the Sabbath as a brief period of rest for which you long the whole busy week, just as we do with those few weeks of holidays each year. Rabbi Hillel did not live towards the Sabbath but tried to live every day from out of the Sabbath, in order to make the days of the week lighter, because the rest and lightness of the Sabbath permeate those days as well. For he said: ‘This is why God gave humankind the day of the Sabbath when he created the world: to celebrate life.’

‘The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath,’ Jesus said. A man or woman does not work for six days in order to recover on the seventh day. A person needs a day of rest in order to see how life is meant to be, also during the other six days. Such a Sabbath day does not have to comply with all sorts of rules. Nothing much is compulsory on such a day. The main thing is that we are newly inspired and take this inspiration with us into the week.

According to the Rabbis people receive an ‘extra soul’ on the Sabbath: an ensoulment that comes into being when the light of God saturates us, as with the woman in the picture. The blackness of her worries and pain changes into a green inspiration for the coming week.


Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman: The Sabbath of the Simplehearted, Hasidic Legends II - 8, 1941, stencil, stamp on paper, 51 x 35 cm.

Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman (1882-1945) is a Dutch artist who started his career as a printer. He owned his own printing business as of 1908. In 1917 he began to paint. At first Werkman painted directly from nature. He cherished great admiration for Vincent van Gogh, whose work he had already seen in 1896 at an exhibition in Groningen. Although Hendrik Werkman’s style is related to the expressionism of the Groningen artistic circle De Ploeg (The Plow), of which he became a member in 1920, his art does manifest a very original vision. In 1921 Werkman sold his printing business, which was not doing well. After that he had to print on hired machines. He produced the catalogues of De Ploeg and invented a new way of printing, the so-called ‘hot printing,’ whereby he made use of cut outs. Werkman usually worked in series, such as the hot printing series which he made between 1935 and 1937, wherein he developed a unique visual language. During the World War II Werkman distributed materials printed in De Blauwe Schuit (The Blue Barge) that called for resistance against the German occupier. Werkman was arrested and died in prison, just before the liberation in April 1945.

José Verheule is a theologian. She took early retirement after having worked as a minister in the PKN (Protestantse Kerk Nederland) in Zaandam. She leads church services in a care facility and teaches Dutch to refugees.

ArtWay Visual Meditation May 5, 2019