Bertha Saveniers: Dialogue with an Adventist sculptor in Belgium

Take a block of marble, a hammer, and a chisel, and place them in the strong hands of Bertha Saveniers, 60. Let her imagination and devotion go to work and, behold, we see in action the most creative woman sculptor in the Adventist world.

Honored in Belgium, known in other European countries, Bertha Saveniers has the rare gift of turning inert materials into radiant symbols of life, faith, love, and hope. To reflect her Creator by a brilliant combination of mind and matter, to leap from a dominant faith to a spell- binding shape, and to challenge her students to view sculpture as an avenue to construct meaning to life is the work Bertha has chosen for herself. Her objectives are reflected in the name of her workshop: Bezaleel, after the leader charged with the magnificent work of building, furnishing, and decorating the tabernacle.

Bertha was born in Borgenhout, near the city of Antwerp, Belgium. She was nine when World War II ended, and, as a child, she experienced the striking difference between war and peace, oppression and freedom, chaos and order. Nurtured in a Catholic home, her life revolved around religion and art. Even as an elementary student, she showed interest in the creative arts. After completing secondary school, she enrolled in the Art Academy of Antwerp to study drawing and sculpture, and then moved on to the Graduate School of Fine Arts. After 10 years of study, she taught ceramics in Antwerp, and in 1966 began her career as a sculptor and teacher in Mol.

Since then, Mol has been her home, workshop, dream hub, and training center. Her atelier is filled with projects and completed works in paper, linen, wood, and marble. Her students come from all over the world. In 1991 she published Maranatha, a pictorial profile of her commitment to art and sculpture as they reflect her inner faith.

As an artist, Bertha shows a sublime sensitivity. A smoothness, a gracefulness, and a striving for unity mark her sculptures. Is her style symbolic, representative, realistic, or modern? Hard to categorize, but one thing is certain: She is inspiring, in both her life and work.

How did you land in the world of arts and sculpture?

My father died when I was three, and I was brought up by my mother. She was a very sensitive and affectionate person. She loved nature and beauty, and she wanted her children to develop that sense of love for nature. Each Sunday she would take us for walks along the Escaut River, which runs through Antwerp. She made us familiar with all forms of culture, taking us to historical museums, libraries, concert halls, and theaters. Early in childhood I developed a taste for the graphic arts. I loved to draw, particularly models of dresses. But I chose sculpture because I love shapes and forms.

Your style is unique. Tell us how you developed it.

I suppose uniqueness is what makes an artist. That is not to say that I am not indebted to other influences. My personal tastes and my teachers gave me a good start. Trips to Italy and Czechoslovakia, and studies on Middle Eastern and African art have forged a cultural blend that has influenced my work. My search for God and my commitment to the biblical message help me to see love, beauty, and unity—factors that have shaped my uniqueness. I stay away from art without content and from imitating the work of others.

You are perhaps one of the finest Adventist woman sculptors in the world. How did Adventism become part of your life and profession?

My mother was a devout Catholic, and she taught all her children to believe in and lean on God, whatever the situation. During the war years, her faith in God came through to us children in many ways. She showed her religion through her love of people and her service to the needy. I discovered God through her. Later, as a student, I worked for a Jewish family to pay for my fees. There I saw the difference between their Sabbath observance and our Sunday worship. I wished even then that I could experience that joy of Sabbathkeeping.

I became an Adventist after attending public lectures conducted in our town. The Adventist evangelist focused on Bible and archaeology. My artistic instincts bonded with archaeology, and I started attending the meetings. My eyes were opened to the Bible as never before. I was full of questions and found answers there. Soon I became a Seventh-day Adventist.

One of your sculptures depicts the second coming of Christ. Is this part of your Adventist experience?

The life of Jesus always fascinated me. When I was still a Catholic I did a sculpture of the child Jesus with His Mother. Then I depicted His death in a “Pieta.” I did these as expressions of what Jesus meant to me as my Saviour. After I became an Adventist, the passage of Acts 1:1-11, which links the resurrected and the returning Jesus, attracted my interest. I reflected over this theme and studied it for seven years. As a result, I sculpted “Maranatha,” taking seven months to complete it.

What is so special about “Maranatha”?

I wanted to emphasize the person of Jesus and at the same time depict His glory and transcendence. The result is a sculpture of Jesus with His face completely concealed in cloud. I chose white marble to reflect His purity and beauty. On His robes I engraved in Hebrew the title “King of kings and Lord of lords.” I used the plates of plexiglass to symbolize the distance Paul is speaking of in 1 Thessalonians 4, where Jesus is shown as returning with clouds but not touching the earth. But I also wished to point out that Jesus is coming to welcome the saved home (Matthew 11:28-30). I suggest this by having one hand pointed toward the earth and the other open in welcome. Finally, I wanted ever to be reminded of the price Jesus paid for it all, and so placed the marks of crucifixion on His feet. It’s a complicated sculpture, but a wondrous one. Of course, it cannot capture all the mysteries and wonders involved in the person and mission of Jesus.

How do you choose your topic?

I never know what will be my next topic. I work on many projects simultaneously. That way I need not get bored with one subject. Inspiration for my spiritual works comes from the Bible. They are more difficult to conceive, because they demand a long study of the Bible, much prayer, and an intense relationship with the Lord.

As the year 2000 draws near, I intend to work on themes related to women, such as fertility and love, and try to express the life God makes to shine in the life of a woman.

Are you able to relate your work and Christian witnessing?

I think so. I want my sculptures to convey a definite message, sometimes more than one. For instance “Lazarus” teaches both the reality of resurrection and the deliverance from sin. My works are spiritual witnesses. Each year, thousands of people see “Maranatha,” “Resurrection,” and “Repentance.” Many people find in these sculptures a wonderful message of God and His love. Once a priest told me: “Madam, if we were no more able to preach God’s Word, your stones wouldn’t cease speaking for Him!”

As an art teacher, how do you relate to students?

A teacher of fine art can only accompany his or her students. My students often say that I have taught them stone, sculpture, and shape. That’s one viewpoint. But for myself, I am more interested in teaching them three significant principles: Be yourself; seek to help people understand what you are trying to convey; and be an example.

If you had only one sculpture to make, what would it be?

Hard question! Every time I undertake a major work, I think that it may be my last one. However, I have just bought four tons of marble… I am convinced that it is God who has given me the talent for sculpture. My hope is that with Him my creative work will never stop.

As a person, what worries you the most? What brings you the most happiness?

What troubles me the most is the chaos we see in society, in families, and even in the church; the eagerness to seek pleasure, money, and power at any cost. But I find hope for the future. And that hope rests on the promises of God. I look forward to the plentiful outpouring of the Holy Spirit. When our lives are committed to God, we cannot fail. He gives me courage to walk every day and be a living witness of the great deliverance that only comes from Him.

Interviewed by Bernard Sauvagnat. Bernard Sauvagnat works in the Communication Department of the Franco-Belgian Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Paris. Address of Bertha Saveniers: Jacob Smitslaan, 76; 2400 Mol; Belgium.