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Travelogue A13

May 21, 2014

At some point after the Sint Janshospitaal but before retiring for the night, I came upon the youngest of the city’s parishes, that which is home to the Magdalenakerk, built from 1850 to 1853. I hovered for a time upon the place before and then the threshold, thinking to find little more than another run-of-the-mill church such as one is wont to find in any number of European cities and of which a great number seem to have been raised in this period. Yet my eyes were drawn to a sign posted to the right of the main portal and on which I read: Een experiment rond ruimte, mens en religie. As best as I could translate on the spot, I came away with a self-proclaimed experiment on space, the human and religion. Interest piqued, I crossed the threshold to see what had been made of the young sacrifice.

The nave’s ceiling is supported by ten columns, five to either side, and the nave itself is divided roughly into halves, that nearest the door and that farthest from it. The farthest section still resembles, to a greater or lesser extent, a traditional church. If memory serves, I found an altar there that day, along with some pews in which believers might gather on the appointed day. That said, the pews in this section ware oriented in quite unusual fashion, facing as they did the section nearest the door. This perhaps owes to the considerable work done to this section, for pews and overt religious paraphernalia had been removed so as to set up a platform occupying the greater part of this half of the nave.

At the platform’s centre sits a shallow pool of clear water, no ripple of an  current visible in its placid surface. Lines of white candles stand at attention at the pool’s edge and seem ready to embark at a moment’s notice into the doldrums. On three sides of the water and situated at a level above the candles extends an red, carpet-like fabric separates the onlooker from the pool. This fabric slopes gently up from the pool towards the wooden rim on which the curious may lean as they pass through this place.

Yet, when all of this was clearly set out in mind and the pages of a notebook, one question nagged me to no end. What is the experiment at which the signage hints? I thought back on my observations earlier that day on the spatiality proper to the altarpiece and mused that perhaps it was another sort of spatial experiment entirely that was here at work. If the altarpiece proved, in some sense, a way to play with space, to distort it and turn it back on itself, against itself, the Magdalenakerk represented instead an attempt to overcome space, to pass out of space, rather than master it. In my mind’s eye, I could see the white-gloved and -cloaked acolytes, candles cupped in their hands, descending on the pool from all sides and, once at its lip, kneeling to leave flame, wick and wax to the water’s mercy. For, with the sinking of these materials to the pool’s bottom, their own wish would be fulfilled, not to rise above or transcend the space of this world but to lower through the shallow depths and slough off the form given them.

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