The ‘sensus catholicus’ – Ellen about Nola, a moment of reflection II

In the run-up to the exhibition Surinaamse School which will be on display in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in late 2020, writer and Nola Hatterman expert Ellen de Vries, who also took the initiative for this exhibition, will be writing regular blog posts centered around Nola Hatterman in the coming months. 

“When I think about Nola, I am immediately reminded of how she looked in her coffin in the cathedral … heavily made up…. that last image has always stuck with me…” was one reader’s reaction to my first reflection. It brought her back to Thursday May 17th 1984. Nola was laid out in the yellow wooden Sint Petrus en Paulus Cathedral in Paramaribo, Suriname. Pater Baneke led the service, sprinkled holy water and waved with intoxicating incense.  The poet Albert Mungroo, recited Nola’s poem ‘Wan de mi sa dede …’ [‘One day I will die …’]

Her great-great-grandmother Gesina Schaaflutzel, married Hattermann, would undoubtedly have frowned had she witnessed this tableau. How in God’s name had her great-great-granddaughter, a distant descendant of German Lutheran baptized emigrants, come to this faith? Or would Gesina have been satisfied with Nola’s return to Christianity? This, knowing that in the 30’s, the communist-minded Nola would steadfastly answer “none” when asked what religion she had, keeping in mind Karl Marx’ statement: ‘Religion is the opium of the people’.

For her own peace of mind and soul, Nola had converted to Catholicism at the age of 82. It was undoubtedly her good friend Sister Maria Hoppen who had led Nola’s spiritual journey towards the roman catholic faith. She belonged to the order of the Franciscanesses of Mariadal. Nola on the other hand, managed to get Sister Maria to give art history lessons at her Nieuwe School voor Beeldende Kunst. She took Nola’s statement that artists have to rely on publicity, to heart. After her death the Sister proved to be a competent PR-officer for Nola’s – religious – legacy. Not so long ago I found letters from Sister Maria, which I hadn’t looked at for a very long time.

During the exhibition Geen kunst zonder kunnen [No art without artistry] in Readytex Art Gallery in Paramaribo, Suriname, in March 2020, from left to right De zwarte Jezus [The black Jesus] by Armand Baag (Collection Staatscollectie van de Republiek Suriname), De Kruisweg and Piëta by Nola Hatterman / PHOTO Ellen de Vries

How many paintings with a Christian theme had she actually made, remarked Sister Maria in a letter to Nola’s family in Holland: “Even well before she was 80, people had sometimes asked Nola: ‘Are you Catholic? Your work exudes Catholicism’. And our bishop, Monseigneur Zichem (Surinamese), once said: ‘Catholic in name is nothing. Nola possesses the sensus catholicus. It is no wonder that towards the end of her life, she had to give in to that which lived inside her, consciously and in full conviction’.”

In 1949, soon after her ‘Godless’ period, Nola painted the de Piëta or De kruisname van de Zwarte Jezus [The crucifixion of the Black Jesus]. During an exhibition in England, this gouache elicited the comment from the Daily Herald, that Nola’s colored Christ was ‘Europe’s most controversial picture’. It is the question whether that was indeed so. But quite significant perhaps, is the fact that the critical, avant-garde-minded, then director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Willem Sandberg, loaned this work for his museum for an extended period. And then it got lost. Fortunately, it turned back up a few years ago. It is now the property of the Centraal Museum Utrecht. (Listen here to director Bart Rutten about this work– interview Myra Winter.)  

Biblical imagery

The execution of this sad theme in contrasting, fresh, and even planes of color, is striking and beautiful, agree the three young Dutch art historians Mirjam Kooiman, Nathalie Maciesza and Renee Schuiten-Kniepstra, who jokingly call themselves  De Kunstmeisjes [the Art Girls]. They included the work in their 2019 art publication: De Kunstmeisjes: Vijftig werken om langer dan 20 seconden naar te kijken [The art girls: Fifty works of art to look at for more than 20 seconds] What makes it worth more than the blink of an eye?  De Kunstmeisjes: “She [Nola] makes optimal use of the power of this often-visualized scene, which makes the fact that the figures depicted are black, both striking and natural.” 

Whether this work was motivated by her own religious reflections, or was intended as criticism of the traditional Biblical imagery, is no longer verifiable. What is clear however, is that it fit in seamlessly with Nola’s crusade against the abundant ‘white’ representation in the European visual arts and her plea for a ‘black’ beauty ideal.

De Kruisweg [The Way of the Cross], Collection M. Thompson-Wijngaarde / PHOTO Ellen de Vries

The way of the cross

While the Netherlands moved away from God in the 60’s and the 70’s, religion became an increasingly important theme in the work of Nola, who emigrated to Suriname in 1953. Art had to be recognizable, was her motto. The Surinamese Mayke Thomson-Wijngaarde explains why this caused her to be so deeply touched by De Kruisweg: ‘I am very religious. You always see a white Jesus, just look at the churches here in Suriname, and she painted a black Jesus with followers.’ 

At the time of purchase, the artist talked animatedly, with a sense of drama, about its process of creation. How this vision came to her on Easter day, and how she immediately – before it evaporated – captured it with the only materials on hand: plywood and shoe polish! De Kruisweg moved from Suriname to Jamaica, where it withstood hurricane Gilbert in 1988, on to the USA, to ultimately return to Suriname. The owner says:  it belongs in Suriname. That hurricane Gilbert did cause some water damage, does not in any way diminish the work for her. The ‘life story’ behind it, is part of the painting that she cherishes.

During my quest for works of Nola Hatterman, I discovered many – what I call – ‘living room canons’. Aesthetic principles – which the art historian is usually guided by – are therein often less important than the true inner meaning that the work has for the individual owner.

De Boodschap [The message], Collection Surinaams Museum / PHOTO Surinaams Museum
Vrouw met kind or Moeder Gods [Woman with child], Collection Surinaams Museum / PHOTO Ellen de Vries

Saramaccan Madonna

For her last completed Biblical portrayal, Nola took inspiration from Father Baneke’s speech during her baptism: ‘Zie de dienstmaagd des Heeren’ [Behold the handmaid of the Lord]. In this famous scene the Angel brings to Maria, God’s message that she is pregnant with Jesus. Nola recreated it to reflect local Surinamese reality. Standing model for the Angel, was her taxi driver, and Maria was modeled after the waitress in the restaurant of the guesthouse in her hometown Brokopondo. That is where Nola would enjoy her favorite meal of bami (stir-fried noodles) every Sunday.

De boodschap [The message] is stored in the depot of the Surinaams Museum, just like the elaborate work with the title Vrouw met kind [Woman with child]. From the descriptions of Sister Maria Hoppen, it can be concluded that this might well be the painting in which a Saramaccan madonna [maroon woman from the Saramaccaner tribe] represents the ‘Moeder Gods’ [Mother of God]. Back then, Nola gave this painting, which then had this name, to the brand-new church in the nearby village of Hermansdorp.  


When the corona crisis has blown over, reproductions of the Piëta, De Kruisweg and De bewening – Ode aan een gevallen slaaf, will be on display in the Museum Fort Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname. The original Piëta belongs to the works that were selected with great care, by me and my fellow curators, for the exhibition titled Surinaamse School in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam later this year. There it can be admired alongside works by former students, contemporaries, and early painting masters who gave their own interpretation to the theme of religion in the Surinamese visual arts. The original of De bewening – Ode aan een gevallen slaaf [The lamentation – Ode to a fallen slave] from 1968 will not be shown in this exhibition.

De Kunstmeisjes see this work as a less interesting and less modern execution of Nola’s Piëta from 1949. Nola’s former student, artist Jules Brand-Flu, on the other hand, says: “It is her most beautiful work”, as he wipes some dust from the painting. In all its dusty splendor it forms one great supplication to the art popes, to dig deep into their pockets and make its restoration possible. For this work, and for others as well of course.

De bewening – Ode aan een gevallen slaaf, 1968. Postcard with original colors / PHOTO Ed Hogenboom
Jules Brand-Flu next to the painting De bewening – Ode aan een gevallen slaaf. Collection Staatscollectie Republiek Suriname / PHOTO Ellen de Vries
Detail of the painting. Behind the wiped-away dust, beautiful red appears / PHOTO Ellen de Vries 
Detail of the painting, tear / PHOTO Ellen de Vries

TEXT Ellen de Vries

TRANSLATION Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld

IMAGES ©Copyright of Nola Hatterman’s work belongs to the heirs of Hatterman. ©Copyright of the work of Armand Baag belongs to the heirs of Baag.

Statement Ellen de Vries: “After my biography Nola. Portret van een eigenzinnig kunstenares (2008) I was never able to get Nola Hatterman (1899-1984) out of my head completely. Is a quest like this ever finished? No. Does such a journey alter your view of your main character? Yes. It even altered – travelling from the distant past back to the present – my view of my own world. And that is as it should be: A portrait that talks back.”


Reproductions of Nola Hattermans art, as they had been on display in March 2020 in Geen kunst zonder kunnen. 40 repro’s van Nola Hattermans mooiste werken in Readytex Art Gallery , Paramaribo, Suriname, would have been on display from April 2020 in Museum Fort Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname. This has been postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19-crisis. The reproductions have already been moved to Nieuw-Amsterdam, however.

At the end of 2020, her work will be part of the exhibition Surinaamse School in the Stedelijk Museum AmsterdamThe curators of Surinaamse School are: Jessica de AbreuClaire van ElsMitchell Esajas, Carlien Lammers, Bart Krieger and Ellen de Vries, and Chandra van Binnendijk is advisor. This project was initiated by Ellen de Vries and is based in part on her research into Nola Hatterman.

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