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Bjelland, Barbara - VM - Barbara Bjelland

Barbara Sartorius Bjelland: Madonna and Child of Budapest

Afflicted Ones Rising with the Son of Righteousness

by Barbara Sartorius Bjelland

In all their affliction he was afflicted,
        and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
        he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Isaiah 63:9, RSV

This painting was inspired by a recent trip to Budapest. The two background buildings are the Hungarian Parliament and St. Matthias Church which actually face each other across the Danube River. One night I visited the Shoes on the Danube Bank, a small memorial next to the Hungarian Parliament building. Sixty pairs of bronze shoes tell the story of the 3,500 people, many of them Jews, who were killed at that spot by Nazi collaborators during WW II. The victims were lined up, ordered to remove their shoes, and then shot, their bodies falling into the river and turning it red with their blood. The image sticks in my mind—little children’s shoes, stylish women’s pumps with curved heels, men’s lace-up walking shoes, none of which could protect the people from the horror at the hands of their fellow human beings.

There was an oppressive dreariness about the place. I could not fathom the atrocity. I felt connected to both the oppressed and the oppressor, knowing that my grandmother was a Jewish American and my grandfather was a German. At the memorial there were freshly laid flower bouquets and burning candles. In the dark waters the reflected lights of Parliament mingled with the candlelight. The lights illuminated a pathway across the river to St. Matthias church, the most beautiful church I have ever seen. It was if I were glimpsing the heavenly Jerusalem on the other side. My personal tragedy years before was the still-born death of our first child. At that time God provided comfort through an image of Mary. So, as I prayed for God’s love and redemption to bloom in the place of the memorial, this image came to me. The Madonna was inspired by the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe with her star-studded mantle, a woman “clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet” (Revelation 12:1, RSV).

The virgin’s cape rolls and wraps around the child like the waves of the river. I pictured the Madonna and child descending into the waters with the slaughtered people. The mother and child also ascend, carrying the people up to God. The faces that unintentionally turned up in the upper church windows seem to be angels or heavenly beings with expressions of horror, expressions much like the man standing on the bridge in Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream. There is a paradox in my painting—one that cuts through the heart of our world: if God is all-loving and all-powerful, why does he allow such evil? An intellectual understanding of the consequences of free will, the pervasiveness of sin, and the brokenness of all Creation, does not fully satisfy. It is more accurate to say that Satan and his workers, though conquered, are still alive and active in this world.

Lent reminds us that God does not stand far off in our suffering. Christ came to suffer to conquer sin and death, and he suffers with us today. As Isaiah writes, “In all their affliction he was afflicted and the angel of his presence saved them.” There is another message that rings throughout Scripture: Christ will return and the veil of death, evil and sadness will be removed forever. As God promised through the prophet Malachi, “The sun of righteousness will come with healing in its wings (Malachi 4:2).” And we will gaze upon this son face to face.

As we wait, Christ gives us signs of his love and care. The deep reds and purples in the painting point to Christ’s blood and the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We celebrate that God’s love has come to us and binds us together across all our divides. The moon above curves toward Mary and the child like the eye and hand of God. I often gaze upon the moon and feel the love and peace of God shining down on me. The hand of the Father sends forth his own child that he may return with victory spoils: hearts turned to him, love responding to Love. The stars give light and the sky is alive. Here I am inspired by the crescent moons and magical realism of Marc Chagall, whose work whispers that “all the air has wings.”

May we have eyes to see the multivalent signs of God’s presence with us, and may we be transformed by that seeing. May the power of the Holy Spirit give us hope. May we live out our calling as Christ’s image-bearers, knowing each act of mercy has eternal significance. May we know that the son has risen, risen to redeem the world of all evil, and that Christ is coming soon.


Barbara Sartorius Bjelland: Madonna and Child of Budapest, 2019, oil on panel, 30.48 cm x 22.86 cm (9” x 12”).

Barbara Sartorius Bjelland (b. 1964) is an American artist, author and ordained minister. She began drawing at an early age and spent part of her childhood in Mexico. Her work incorporates the sense of a mysterious unseen world infusing our own, using movement, light, colour and imagination. Barbara has degrees in Ancient History (University of Minnesota), Faith Formation (Seattle Pacific Seminary) and Theology (Regent College, Vancouver, BC), and studied Studio Art at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She has received multiple grants and exhibited her work widely. She delights to combine visual art with her work as an ordained minister and author, and to create resources for the church. Since publishing an intergenerational, multicultural illustrated book on Communion entitled: Supper with the Savior: Communion in the Bible and Today (Regent College, 2012), a sacramental worldview has been the focus of much of her research and writing, artwork and public speaking.; blog:

ArtWay Visual Meditation 14 March 2021