When most people hear Vincent van Gogh’s name, they immediately think of a somewhat eccentric artist who painted with vivid color and violent brushstrokes. They know that the artist’s life was marked by the mutilation of his ear and death by what we assume was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. 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 art world have made van Gogh in their own image and rejected some significant 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 to interpret his ideas, artwork, and 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 as Groningen theology. Vincent eventually drifted more toward “born again” conservative Christianity while working for an art dealer in London, becoming a fan of Charles Spurgeon and D.L. Moody’s works. He desired to become a pastor, and that he became. Although Vincent was rejected by the Dutch Reformed Church when he failed to master Biblical Greek, the Belgian Missionary Society commissioned him as a missionary preacher. He eventually spent a couple of years as a pastor in a Belgian coal mining community.
However, many do not know 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 ministering to poor coal miners. Yet, the Belgian Missionary Society felt his desire to live like the poor to be extreme and 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 ran out, 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’s life in exchange for paintings though only one of Vincent’s paintings sold during his lifetime. Théo’s widow was the first to profit from Vincent’s work well after both brothers’ deaths.
Spurned by institutional Christianity, van Gogh searched for a Christian faith for those disenchanted with the Church. Van Gogh found a kindred spirit in 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 eventually came to disbelieve in Christ’s actual divinity, and van Gogh may have adopted this for a short time. However, most of Vincent’s writings and art indicate that he eventually rejected this particular aspect of Renan’s theology. He continued to be influenced by both evangelicals and Catholic mystics.
So, what of the insanity for which van Gogh is so well-known? Indeed, this is no fabrication. 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 significant 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 20th-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.The Letters of Vincent van Gogh
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 paintings The Raising of Lazarus, Píeta, and The Good Samaritan), he developed a spiritual iconography of his own. Among his symbolic elements (which are 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 heavens and village are both predominantly blue with God’s presence. The houses are filled with the yellow light of God’s love. In Van Gogh’s view, the one place 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, we would be hard-pressed not to sympathize with how hurt he was by the Church’s refusal to stand with him in his missionary situation. In the end, it is crucial to recognize Vincent van Gogh’s attributes and his contribution to art within the Christian tradition 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)
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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.