When most people hear the name Vincent Van Gogh, they immediately think of a rather eccentric artist who painted in vivid color and violent brush-strokes and whose life was marked by the mailing of his mutilated outer ear to a prostitute and a death marked by a somewhat boggled suicide attempt. He is well known for his rejection of the Church, and rumors abound about an embrace of eastern mysticism. The romanticism of Van Gogh as a tragic reject and artistic genius is perpetuated throughout the artistic world. However, it may be that those in the artistic world have made Van Gogh in their own image and rejected some major aspects of who he really was.
Who was Vincent Van Gogh? In truth, we have no small record of the artist’s thoughts throughout his life through which to interpret his thoughts, his artwork, and his spirituality. We have rather extensive letters written to his closest confidant and benefactor in the whole world, his brother Théo. Through these writings and other sources, we find a Van Gogh devoted fervently throughout the great majority of his life to Jesus Christ. Van Gogh was the son of a Lutheran pastor. His father was somewhat of a theological liberal, espousing what was known at the time as Groningen theology. Vincent himself eventually drifted more toward “born again” conservative Christianity, becoming a fan of the works of Charles Spurgeon and D.L. Moody. Van Gogh’s desire was to become a missionary pastor, and that he became. He eventually spent a couple of years as a pastor in a coal mining community.
However, what many do not know is why Van Gogh eventually separated from the institutional Church in a schism that would last the rest of his life. Van Gogh thought it wrong to dress fancy and live in a luxurious home when he was ministering to poor coal miners. Yet the Dutch Reformed Church thought his desire to live like the poor to be inappropriate for his position. After numerous rebukes for his impoverished lifestyle, they ceased his funding. After continuing independently for a short time and also being refused by the Methodist Church, Van Gogh’s savings were depleted, and he was forced to leave the mines and find another source of income. He turned to the employ of his brother, who owned an art gallery. Théo would fund his brother for the remainder of Vincent Van Gogh’s life in exchange for paintings though he was never able to sell one of the pieces of artwork until well after Vincent’s death.
Spurned by institutional Christianity, Van Gogh searched for a Christian faith for those disenchanted with the Church. He was drawn to the writings of Ernst Renan, a theologian who also had a painful schism with institutional Christianity. He adopted many of Renan’s philosophies, including the importance of being Christ-like in humility and servitude. Renan had eventually come to disbelieve in Christ’s actual divinity, and Van Gogh may have adopted this for a short time, though most of his writings and art indicate that this particular aspect of Renan’s theology was eventually rejected by Van Gogh, who continued to be influenced by both conservative evangelicalism and Catholic mysticism.
So, what of the insanity that Van Gogh is so well-known for? Surely this is no fabrication. No, it is not. Vincent Van Gogh dealt with a condition similar to epilepsy for the great majority of his life. This affected him physically and mentally, and he went through great periods of depression. Of course, it is notable how many great Christians over the centuries have struggled with the darkness of depression, from reformer Martin Luther in the 16th Century to 2oth Century Catholic monk Thomas Merton, the 19th Century “Prince of Preachers” Charles Spurgeon himself, and even 1980s-90s singer/songwriter Rich Mullins. Van Gogh reflected on the state of sorrow,
Sorrow is better than joy – and even in mirth the heart is sad – and it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasts, for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. Our nature is sorrowful, but for those who have learned and are learning to look at Jesus Christ, there is always reason to rejoice.
Van Gogh’s condition was eventually made worse by his rejection as a vocational minister and then by his habit of sucking on his paintbrushes while working. The oil paints Van Gogh used contained lead, and this habit eventually caused brain damage from lead poisoning that would lead to drifts into mental delusion in Van Gogh’s later years. Presumably in one of these fits of depression and delusion, Van Gogh shot himself in the abdomen. The suicide attempt was initially unsuccessful, and Van Gogh stumbled back to the house where he was staying. He remained lucid and conversant in the aftermath, dying several days later from blood loss and infection with his beloved brother by his side.
Van Gogh’s work reflects his spirituality. Though he largely rejected the use of traditional Christian imagery (the exceptions happening late in his life with the works The Raising of Lazarus, Píeta, and Parable of the Good Samaritan), he developed a spiritual iconography of his own. Among his symbolic elements (which are quite extensive), blue represents God’s presence in his paintings, and yellow represents God’s love. Reading Van Gogh’s most famous work, Starry Night, in this light, one notices that God and his love are present abundantly. The sky reflects it, as does the town below. The sky and village are both largely blue with God’s presence. The houses are filled with the yellow light of God’s love. The one place, in Van Gogh’s view, that God’s love is not present is the church, whose windows are black with darkness.
So what can we take from Vincent Van Gogh? He was certainly not a perfect man, nor a perfect Christian. Despite his faith in Christ, it remains that his schism with the Church is problematic. Still, as humans and Christians, we would be hard-pressed not to side with his sentiments in his missionary situation and how hurt he could be by the Church’s refusal to stand with him on it. In the end, it is important to recognize Vincent Van Gogh’s attributes and his contribution to art as a Christian, for all of his strengths and weaknesses. And for those of us who struggle with a low spirit about the fallen world we live in, let us close with a reminder from our brother Vincent,
There is much evil in the world and in ourselves, terrible things, and one does not need to be far advanced in life to be in fear of much and to feel the need of a firm faith in life hereafter and to know that without faith in God one cannot live, one cannot bear it. But with that faith one can go on for a long time.
(See my later letter to Vincent van Gogh)
Erickson, Kathleen Powers. At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision Of Vincent Van Gogh . Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.
Halla, Steve R. Class lectures on Vincent Van Gogh. Studies in Philosophy: Theologians and the Arts, Spring 2009.
Van Gogh, Vincent. Letters of Vincent van Gogh . Edited by Mark Roskill. New York: Touchstone, 1997.