Tuesday, May 17, 2005
The Spirituality of Vincent Van Gogh
By Sandra Malasky
One hundred fifty years ago, Vincent Willem van Gogh was born at Zundert in Brabant, Holland. Thirty-seven years later, he shot himself, died two days later and was buried overlooking the grain fields of Auvers-sur-Oise in France. During his brief life, sixteen years were spent “under the guidance of his parents in a Dutch Reform parsonage, seven as an art gallery clerk, three in religious studies and service in England, Holland, and Belgium, one as an unemployed wanderer, and the last ten as a painter.” (Edwards, xiii)
Vincent exists in the popular imagination as a tortured genius and, by modern materialist standards, a dismal failure. In the 113 years following his death books, films, songs, academic and artistic explorations have provided numerous portraits of him. He was a complex man who was often intensely lonely. Vincent was also a man who loved deeply and experienced much joy in the world around him. He was given to bouts of madness and behaviour that separated him from family and friends. He had a love of alcohol and was a frequenter of brothels; an artist whose brilliant legacy includes over 2000 works produced within a scant ten years with 100 produced within the last three months of his life. And finally, he was a man who embraced death and took his own life.
While Vincent sold only one painting in his lifetime for 400 francs, a painting of his irises sold in 1987 for an unprecedented, and some might say obscene, price of 59.9 million dollars. His works occupy the walls of museums and the private collections of the wealthy. Prints appear on office, dormitory, and prison walls; T-shirts, coffee mugs, mousepads, and toilet paper. Vincent the penniless artist has become Vincent the commodity – a status that would have infuriated and saddened him. Yet, despite the saturation with his images and the millions of words written about him, he has remained an enigma.
It is not my purpose this morning to rehash the speculation concerning why he cut off his ear (actually it was only a portion), nor will I enter into the debate concerning the nature of his mental illness. It is not the psychological profile that I will explore – but his profound sense of spirituality and its impact on his life and work. For me, Vincent is a prophetic voice in the best Unitarian tradition -- challenging and stimulating me to see the world, other people, and myself, differently and with greater clarity. The sources for this discussion are an adult lifetime of personal appreciation and study of his art and words, and three written sources: van Gogh and God by Cliff Edwards, van Gogh and Gaugin: The Search for Sacred Art by Deborah Silverman, and a three-volume collection of the over 800 letters written by Vincent.
Over the years my reading of the letters, in which he wrote extensively and eloquently of his life as a spiritual pilgrimage, provided me with a much broader context within which to appreciate the visual work and helped me understand what art critic Meyer Shapiro called “the high religious-moral drama” of Vincent’s life. Art was a choice “made for personal salvation”. It allowed Vincent to express a challenge not only to the prevailing artistic and social standards of the time but the spiritual as well.
It is important to place Vincent within the larger theological context of his time. Vincent lived “at the juncture of two ages, the age of religious certainty which was dying and defensive, and the age of scientific certainty, which was young and aggressive. Belief in God was under a devastating attack by some, considered irrelevant by many, and undergoing radical reformation by a few.” (Edwards) Throughout his brief life, Vincent did as Rilke suggested. He lived the questions about God, our relationship to nature, and the transformative power of love. Some of his questions echoed Nietzsche and foreshadowed those of such influential Jewish and Christian theologians as Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, and Thomas Merton. While Vincent often questioned the actions of humans in the service of God, he never seriously questioned the existence of God.
Vincent’s father, Theodorus, was pastor of a small Dutch Reform church in the predominantly Roman Catholic, poor and agrarian district of Brabant. Theodorus subscribed to the tenets of the Groningen School “which rejected religious rationalism and revitalized emotional piety.” (Silverman, 140) Its social gospel, as taught by Vincent’s father and mother, emphasized “a perpetual union of inner faith and outer action, a modern imitation of Christ expressed through humility and rural social service.” (Silverman, 141) This view discouraged “idleness” and introspection something that did not bode well for their eldest son whose life was characterized negatively in this manner from an early age.
The emphasis on practical work that Vincent experienced as a child gave him an appreciation for the lives and struggles of rural people that would shape his life and art. Another positive influence of his early faith experiences was the emphasis on God as creator and bringer of light into the world. Vincent’s parents taught their children to closely observe and appreciate “everything from the shapes of clouds to the subtle arrays of colours in the sunset skies, and to understand these sights as testaments to God’s presence in their lives.” (Silverman, 149)
While he was encouraged to appreciate God's handiwork, Vincent also received the traditional Calvinist view that the world was a dangerous and sinful place. He grew up in a spiritual atmosphere centred on hearing and obeying the Word of God as contained within the Christian scriptures. From a very early age, those scriptures shaped his sense of himself and his place in the world.
One example can be found in a letter in which Vincent reminds his brother Theo of their father’s use of the story of Jacob and Esau as a means of comparing them. Like Esau who lost his birthright, Vincent saw himself as a coarse, hairy creature left to wander outside the fold his family. Another strong biblical influence on Vincent’s personality and theology was the “Suffering Servant Song” found in the 53rd chapter of the Book of Isaiah. This passage forms the central text of Handel’s Messiah.
According to Edwards, the latter passage provided Vincent with a way to redeem his “coarseness” and develop a view of life as “a sorrowful yet always rejoicing” pilgrimage characterized by impermanence. Vincent was able to claim his sense of “ugliness” as a kinship with the “despised and rejected” of his own time.
Perhaps the most influential biography of Vincent was that written in 1913 by Theo’s wife Johanna. It served as the foundation upon which our modern picture of Vincent is based. I believe that her portrait of him as possessing a “fanatical religious mysticism” resulting from failed love affair during his work as a lay preacher in England is a distortion that is not born out by evidence from his letters. I agree with Edwards’ analysis that there is prejudiced attitude towards religious passion at work in that view. While not denying the often-bizarre excesses of which Vincent was clearly capable, I think we are often too quick to attribute pathology to passions when they are religious in nature.
Vincent’s life was transformed in London. But that transformation may have had more to do with his analysis of the political, economic, and social world he saw around him than an unhappy love affair. The letters of the period reveal Vincent as beginning to ask serious theological questions regarding the confluence of spirituality and art and whether God is to be found only within the confines of a church or within the world and among ordinary people.
It is probably fair to say that this type of questioning and the fact that he was working with a Methodist preacher did little to calm growing fears for his immortal soul within his Dutch Reform family! As they had done in the past, Vincent’s family gathered to consider the fate of their wayward son. They decided that if he was to follow in his ancestor’s pastoral footsteps he could do it in the proper way -- under the tutelage of a solid, well-known Dutch Reform clergyman in Amsterdam.
Even as he dutifully prepared for his entrance exam into theology school, Vincent chafed under the narrow yoke of his studies. He took every opportunity to nourish himself and expand his field of vision beyond the “hearing” and “obeying” of Christian scripture. He took walks in nature, visited art galleries, read numerous secular works, and reflected on the difference between his experience among the poor in London and the academic path of religious exclusivity he found in Amsterdam.
In the spring of 1878, Vincent wrote a letter to Theo in which he outlined his creed – a vision that seemed to unify nature, art, literature, and practical service to one’s fellow creatures. I think it is worth quoting at length:
As to being an ‘interior and spiritual person,’ couldn’t that be developed by knowledge of history in general and of particular individuals from all eras – especially from the history of the Bible to that of the Revolution and from the Odyssey to the books of Dickens and Michelet? And couldn’t one learn something from the works of such as Rembrandt and from Breton or Millet?
If we only try to live sincerely, it will go well with us, even though we are certain to experience real sorrow and great disappointments and shall also probably commit errors and do wrong things, but certainly it is better to be high-spirited even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and over prudent. It is good love many things, for therein lies true strength; whosoever loves much, performs and can accomplish much and what is done in love is well done.
This is the creed which all good men have expressed in their works … we must cast ourselves into the depths, if we want to catch something, and if at times we must work through the night while catching nothing, it is good not to give in, but to cast the net again in the morning.
These are the words of a very human being who did not expect perfection but understood the power of perseverance and love. As a way of living out his creed, Vincent spent most of the following year in service among the poor in the Belgian mining district of the Borinage.
The letters provide a picture of him as a man shocked by the realities of grinding poverty – the price to be paid in human terms for that age of worldwide industrial expansion into which he was born. The landscape around Vincent resembled a bombsite with twisted, blackened and dead trees. Emaciated human beings bent and old before their time lived lives of deprivation and danger in a hellhole below ground. Yet, as he spent time living among the miners and their families, he began to appreciate their struggles as he had those of the farming people of his youth in Brabant.
Stories told by people who knew Vincent in the Borinage portray him as becoming virtually indistinguishable from the people around him as he tried day and night to give whatever practical and spiritual help he could coming to see in the “mournful, deep-set eyes” of those around him, the face of God. In the language of modern-day liberation theology, he made a “preferential option for the poor” and sought to manifest the Christian story, as he understood it, in his everyday life. Despite resistance from family and local ecclesial authorities, he stayed in the Borinage and it was there that he decided to become an artist.
Vincent rejected what the called the “pharasaism” of “the old academic religion” in which God was held a virtual prisoner within the walls of churches. He proclaimed, “The God of the clergyman is as dead as a doornail”. Vincent emerged from the time he described as his “moulting period” with a new artistic and theological vision.
Edwards used the phrase idiomorphism to describe the way in which Vincent began to think about God after his Borinage experience. For example, a mother may experience God not simply “as if” God were a mother, but would experience God’s mothering in the concrete acts of childcare. Or a farmer would experience God not simply “as if” God were a farmer, but would experience God in the concrete acts of sowing and harvesting.
Vincent wasn’t claiming that “God is one of us” but asserting that it is in the concrete, loving interactions we have with one another and the world around us we experience the divine – which he called God. Such love and goodness is democratic and available wherever we are. In another letter to Theo, Vincent broadened his creed thus:
When one is in a sombre mood, how good it is to walk on the barren beach and look at the greyish-green sea with long white streaks of the waves. But if one feels the need of something grand, something infinite, something that makes one feel aware of God, one need not go that far to find it. I think I see something deeper, more infinite, more eternal than even the ocean in the eyes of a little baby, when it wakes in the morning, and coos and laughs because it sees the sun shining on its cradle. If there is a ray from on high perhaps one can find it there.
While Vincent eloquently proclaimed his “theology of the child and cradle”, he also wrote with regret and resignation that those joys would elude him. He was left, therefore, with the task of being an artist, which he always felt was secondary to “real life.” It was as an artist that Vincent “cast his net again in the morning.”
Edwards raises the interesting possibility that Vincent’s artistic and spiritual evolution was also affected by his love of the Japanese art with which he constantly surrounded himself in the later years of his life. With characteristic flair for the dramatic, Vincent likened his yellow house in Arles to a Buddhist monastery and called Arles “his Japan”. The letters also reveal an unfolding appreciation for the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of the Japanese artists ability to focus and distil the environment around them into work of remarkable power and simplicity. His sought to look at the natural world in a way that echoes the Zen poet Basho:
From the pine tree
learn of the pine tree
And from the bamboo
learn of the bamboo.
Vincent came to view his greatest accomplishment as an artist to be able to really understand the simple fact that “a field of wheat is worth looking at close-up.”
While not claiming that Vincent embraced Buddhism explicitly, Edwards contends that its influence contributed to a major artistic change of heart in which he rejected the human-centred view that nature exists only to be tamed and put to good use. Rather he wanted to experience and portray the world around him on its own terms -- to appreciate rocks, and birds, and cows, and irises simply because they exist and to develop a new way to hear and communicate the wisdom he gained from the natural world. He wanted to open his senses to really listen to the sunflowers as the poet Mary Oliver has suggested.
Now there are some who would look differently at Vincent’s life and see a man who had no direction, drifted through life, sponged off his brother, and basically couldn’t hold down a steady job. There are also those who see a madman whose frenzied work in the last years of his life was motivated not by theological or artistic conviction but as a symptom of his mania or his schizophrenia. In part, both of those views are correct but, as I hope I have shown, they are inadequate and incomplete.
I believe that Vincent was an ordinary man who had extraordinary gifts and demons with which he struggled all his life. This struggle resulted in a stunning vision through which we are able to participate in the life of Borinage miners and farmers eating potatoes they dug from the earth with their own hands. He helped us feel the brilliance and warmth of the Provencal sunshine as sunflowers follow its rays “with faces like burnished disks”. We see his theological vision of the cradle and the child in the portrait of an old woman rocking a baby and the sweetness and innocence of a little girl pondering an orange.
We are also given a view of twisted and bent trees in blazing colours under an unforgiving blood red sky, an old man bent in despair, portraits of empty-eyed people sitting alone in cafés and bars, Vincent’s own self-portraits always solemn and often distorted, and the thickly laid, wavy visions emanating from the asylum of St. Remy. We have been given the gift of a mirror in which to see ourselves and all of creation with its beauty and contradictions.
It is virtually impossible to truly understand why a person takes his or her own life and I won’t attempt to do so with Vincent. In his popular song, Don McLean wrote “when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night you took your life as lovers often do … this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” He pessimistically continued saying “they did not listen they’re not listening still – perhaps they never will.”
I reject this overly simplistic view of Vincent as the romantic, tragic figure. I and countless others listen and understand every day. I believe that Vincent’s message to us in words and pictures is ultimately hopeful and echoed by the poet Mary Oliver in her poem Wild Geese – we do not have to walk a hundred miles on our knees to find God or ourselves – we only have to let ourselves love what we love. We only have to be human beings with all our failings, knowing we are certain to experience great disappointments and shall also probably commit great errors and do wrong things. Peace may be found as we cast our nets again in the morning, acknowledging that life is both a sorrowful and rejoicing pilgrimage to an unknown destination. I believe the world was meant for one as beautiful as Vincent was and I am glad that he was here, if only for a little while.
Copyright © 2003 by Sandra L. Malasky
The Universal Life Church is a comprehensive online seminary where we have classes in Christianity, Wicca, Paganism, two courses in Metaphysics and much more.
Ordination with the Universal Life Church, is free, and lasts for life, so use the Free Online Ordination, button.We also offer many free wedding ceremonies for your use.
The ULC, run by Rev. Long, has created a chaplaincy program to help train our ministers. We also have a huge catalog of Universal Life Church materials. I've been ordained with the Universal Life Church for many years and it's Seminary since the beginning and have loved watching the continual growth of the seminary.
Try our new free toolbar at: ULC Toolbar