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The Canvas Chapel: A story of faith, hope and love

Dutch artist Otto De Bruijne had a vision of making an artistic piece that would be “an experience, instead of an exhibition of paintings on walls.” From this vision emerged De Canvas Kapel, or, in English, the Canvas Chapel.

De Bruijne and his Canvas Chapel traveled from the Netherlands to Ontario this past September, and the chapel now stands outside Redeemer University College. From a distance, it looks not unlike a smaller version of a tent that you might see at an outdoor wedding. But up close, the canvas comes alive with printed words and evocative images.

The structure is composed of 54 canvas panels that form a chapel in the cross-shaped style of classical architecture, with a nave, crossing, transepts and apses. The panels arise from eight different sources of inspiration, from creation to culture to the Torah. Above the chapel wave colourful banners, the “eight banners of hope.”
 
Creation and culture
The outer front panels represent the seven days of the biblical “creation week” in Genesis. On the second-last panel, the figures of a man and a woman embrace, juxtaposed against an image of a figure in the fetal position, gripped in a much larger hand. Words are printed below the image: Mensch; Man; Mens; l’Homme; and the three Hebrew characters for “Man.”

The back panels of the chapel pose questions about our culture – including our indifference to the voice of God. One panel shows 10 heads with smiling faces and closed eyes, and another face in a pastel cloud above, fully awake. The face above might be the face of a prophet, or perhaps the face of Christ. A brochure describing the chapel says, “Overcome by a deep sleep, we doze off into a careless slumber of wealth and freedom. Is there anyone with open ears and open eyes? Is there a seer among them? Does anyone listen?”

The panels are open at the front of the chapel, where visitors enter through a “hallway,” to be greeted by four “apses” – recesses at the sides of the church. Each apse bears a different colour and tells a different story: the yellow apse of the Torah; the red apse of “Homecoming,” with an image of the prodigal son returning home; the blue apse of prayer; and the green apse of labour. 

A clear table stands in the centre of the chapel, displaying a collage of photographs of inspirational men and women below. De Bruijne notes that the table “is covered with the images of the many men and women, Christian and non-Christian, who have inspired me. God works through all good-willed people.”

Each of the paintings on the dozens of panels of the chapel is striking, but the story behind each one, detailed in the accompanying brochure, imbues them with deeper meaning. De Bruijne told me, “I have had almost 30 groups coming to the chapel in 10 days. As far as I know all visitors were amazed about the 54 paintings on 27 screens, the story that is behind them. People have said, ‘This is rich and deep, I wished others could have visited it, I’ll tell my friends to go. . . .’”
 
Homecoming and restoration
The visitor brochure explained a couple of paintings that were hard for me to interpret when I visited the chapel. One image shows a curious face peering through a window in a stone wall while a man struggles along a street, the transverse beam of a cross bearing down on his shoulders. A shadowy figure with a whip is beating him. The image is entitled “Via Dolorosa.” In the brochure the onlooker’s perspective is rendered in his own words: “It was not until much later that I heard what this was all about. But on that Friday, I felt nothing, nor did I understand the significance of what I saw.”

The crucifixion painting is part of the series of panels entitled “Homecoming.” The central panel displays an image of the prodigal son in his father’s welcoming embrace. The panels begin with the crucifixion, follow Pilate’s guilt, and continue to an image of a dove fluttering away from the hole in the observer’s stone wall. The onlooker asks, “I see silent witnesses: the hammer and nails carelessly left behind at the foot the Cross. Silence. The man is dead. Is God is dead?” The final panel, displaying images of bread and wine, is called Resurrection: God is not dead after all, but has come alive to drink the bread and wine with us someday in a restored creation. The narrative displayed on the panels begins with crucifixion and unbelief and moves to resurrection and future hope.

De Bruijne says that he intended the chapel to tell a story: “This was on my mind for a long time, but it is the first time I created such a project. However I have designed sets for my theatre-plays, which is also creating a three-dimensional space in which a story is told. In actual fact the Canvas Chapel is a set . . . in which my personal story about faith, hope and love is told.”

The kingdom come
The banners that ripple above the chapel foretell the yet-unrealized end to the story, the promised era of peace and restoration. Two yellow flags represent the New Jerusalem, with the river flowing from the temple and the trees that bear fruit 12 months a year. Two red banners represent Christ’s ultimate victory, with the cup he will drink with us in the new kingdom. Two blue flags show the wedding of the Lamb and his Bride. Two green flags show swords beaten into ploughshares, the wolf and the lamb lying down together, and the child and the snake playing together peacefully.

Visiting De Bruijne’s chapel is a rich, moving experience, an encounter with God, like entering the wilderness tabernacle or the ancient temple in Jerusalem. The images on the paintings drew me into God’s presence and tugged at my heart. They capture so many of his attributes – his wisdom that inspired creation; his ability to work miracles; his willingness to sacrifice his Son for a world of many cultures and languages that still did not recognize him. The panels, from inside to outside and beginning to end, speak of God’s comprehensive plan to redeem humanity. This remarkable Canvas Chapel is not an exhibit to be enjoyed for only a few minutes; it can be visited and revisited over a period of time to get the full scope of the biblical story it tells.

De Bruijne has his own story to tell. He made his paintings between 1992 and 2011. In 2006, after a failed surgery, he was completely paralyzed. After two years of recovery, he continued his ministry as an artist and designed the Canvas Chapel in 2011. A photographer took digital photos of the paintings, adjusted them and printed them on pieces of PVC fabric. Volunteers and supporters helped assemble the chapel as De Bruijne continues to experience physical limitations.

After traveling to Ontario for the Redeemer exhibition of the Chapel, DeBruijne was interviewed by Lorna Dueck of the television show Context, broadcast on Thanksgiving Day. The son of a Dutch minister, De Bruijne is also the brother of Peter De Bruyne, former pastor of Mountainview Christian Reformed Church in Grimsby and former chaplain at Shalom Manor. De Bruijne stayed in Ontario while the chapel was open at Redeemer in order to give guided tours. Although he will probably have returned to the Netherlands by the time this article is published, more information about his art ministry and his chapel can be found at www.ottodebruine.nl.  

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