'That which is of major importance to the churches separately is shared by them in common' (Father Robert de Caluwé)
In 1939, Robert de Caluwé (Sas van Ghent, 1914-2005, Myllyjärvi) was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in the Byzantine rite at the Russicum after studying theology and philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Although initially his plan was to support farm labourers and persecuted Christians in communist Russia, he was sent to Finland and spent the remainder of his life there. He worked closely with Russian refugees, conducting orthodox services in their mother tongue in the church he built.
The mission in Finland was established in wartime under difficult circumstances. He suffered hunger and poverty and had many duties. He worked in an orphanage, assisted Russian prisoners of war, taught Dutch at the University of Helsinki, and served as chaplain of the Little Sisters of Jesus in Helsinki. He was a professional iconographer and working with others, he constructed and decorated two churches, one in Rekola (1950) and one near Myllyjärvi (1964). He also established an Ecumenical Centre in Myllyjärvi and a School for Icon Painting in Finland and Sweden. In Rome, de Caluwé had learned to paint icons from Pimen Sofronov, a Russian traditionalist who strictly adhered to the time- honoured rules. Thousands of people from many countries and religious persuasions visited the Ecumenical Centre, many attending de Caluwé’s classes in icon painting.
Peter and Paul chapel and the Ecumenical Iconostasis painted by Father Robert Centre, Myllyjarvi, 1960s, Finland
While in Rome, de Caluwé became acquaintained with the Dutch Prix-de-Rome winner-sculptor Niel Steenbergen (1911-1997) with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. When he visited his family in the Netherlands by bike he stayed with Steenbergen. Later, in 1975, he covered travel costs to the Netherlands by organising his first icon painting classes in the boarding school 'De la Salle' in Stevensbeek. In this way he introduced icon painting in his home country and spread his philosophy and practice of tolerance towards other religions.
The course became the first in a series of summer classes in which Else Steenbergen (1922), wife of the sculptor and ten others participated
In a recent interview that a colleague and I conducted with Else Steenbergen, a trained artist herself, she described Father Robert de Caluwé as “an inspired and humoristic teacher, studious and knowledgeable, practical and inventive, grounded and deeply religious, a polyglot and animal lover, and above all a communicative and warm-hearted personality”.
In the meantime Mona Winter, a Finnish woman who had visited the Ecumenical Centre in Finland as an adolescent in the 1960s, had settled in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband. When she learned that de Caluwé was teaching icon painting, she realised her longstanding dream to become an icon painter. She attended de Caluwé ‘s classes in the Netherlands and Belgium and became a renowned iconographer. In 1982, Else Steenbergen and Mona Winter became teaching assistants to de Caluwé and assisted with the administration. De Caluwé circle of icon ‘friends’ was christened Vera Eikon, according to an idea of Niel Steenbergen, and Mona Winter organised the circulation of a newsletter.
In the same year, 1982, Kees van Veen (1950-2010) attended one of de Caluwé’s courses in icon painting in the then Seminary Bovendonk in Hoeven. His enthusiasm and skills led him to pursue further classes and to eventually become a competent and skilled iconographer. Following the methodology of his master, he started teaching icon painting in the Dominican Monastery in Huissen. In 1986 he asked Mona and Else for permission to expand their newsletter of Vera Eikon. Gradually Kees van Veen transformed the newsletter to reach a national network of icon painters and interested people. The fifth issue of the newsletter was renamed ‘Eikonikon’ and continued independently from Vera Eikon. Together with co- founder Thom Breukel, van Veen organised a number of events to draw in the public. The exhibitions 'Old and New Icons' (1993, Amsterdam), and 'Hemelsrood: The landscape of the Icon’ (1996, Ter Apel) attracted a large public whilst so-called ’Eikonikon Days’ were also well attended.
Twenty-five years after the launch of the bulletin, none would deny Kees van Veen’s contribution in promoting and disseminating the philosophy of his master, Father Robert de Caluwé and the awareness of icons and icon painting in the Netherlands. In 1997, Eikonikon published the Icon Lexicon of Father de Caluwé in the Netherlands under the name ' Eikonikon Lexikon', whilst the newsletter, which van Veen designed and edited for 23 years, became a full-colour illustrated magazine. This year, Eikonikon celebrates its 25-year jubilee with an exhibition of icons painted by Robert de Caluwé, Else Steenbergen, Mona Winter and Kees van Veen, as well as historical issues of Eikonikon and the widely used Lexikon Eikonikon written and illustrated by De Caluwé (also published on www.eikonikon.nl).
The jubilee exhibition will be held from 1 May until 30 June 2012 in the Gallery Ignatiushuis, Beulingstraat 11, Amsterdam. It is open during weekdays from 10am-5pm. On the 9th of June a festal programme with papers, workshops and a Byzantine mass is organized in the Ignatiushuis and the Krijtberg from 10 am-5 pm. All are welcome!
Illustrations of icons above:
1. Mona Winter, Guardian angel, end 20th century
2. Robert de Caluwé, David of Thessaloniki, end 20th century
3. Kees van Veen, Christ, end 20th century
4. Kees van Veen, Transfiguration, end 20th century
5. Kees van veen, Andrei Rublev, end 20th century
Photographs in the middle:
1. Robert de Caluwé
2. Kees van Veen