Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
Van Gogh’s Masterpieces
In a feature titled “The Spirituality of Vincent Van Gogh,” Jacob A. Davis, who blogs about “art, literature, liturgy and life,” writes of the famed Dutch artist,
When most people hear the name Vincent Van Gogh (sic), 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.
However, notes Davis, “he was a deeply spiritual man…although he is well known for his rejection of the Church.”
“”(It) may be,” writes Davis, “that those in the artistic world have made Van Gogh in their own image and rejected some major aspects of who he really was.”
But his rejection of the church, according to Terry Glaspey, author of 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Baker Books, 2015), who recently lectured on van Gogh’s spirituality, was more a rejection of the “academic church.”
Van Gogh lived out his concept of Jesus Christ–Whom he saw as a compassionate savior–by “immersion,” so to speak, into the culture of the people group van Gogh was assigned in his short-lived role as a missionary assistant to the impoverished coal miners in the Netherlands in the 1880s.
He gave his comfortable lodgings to a homeless person and lived, instead, in a hovel similar to the people among whom he evangelized. He taught them the Scriptures, as it were, more by “entering into their suffering” than educating from a carefully outlined sermon. Van Gogh’s “religious text” was “in the flesh,” as it were, and, noted Glaspey, he was “beloved for his compassion and kindness…bringing some of them to the Lord” by this.
During this period, van Gogh’s art expressed his missionary work and his brand of (immersion)-evangelism. This is evidenced in works such as “Miners” (1880) and “Miner’s Wives Carrying Sacks of Coal,” (1882). Many more of his works, then, and later, feature the suffering of the poor, but art critics see also in his subjects, said Glaspey, their dignity.
Van Gogh wasn’t just memorializing in his sketches, water colors, and oils poor peasants caught up in the down-side of the early economic and social consequences of Europe’s Industrial Revolution. They were also human beings performing noble, if underpaid and exhausting, work, and deserving of compassion and respect.
You might say Vincent van Gogh himself “became” another kind of masterpiece altogether in his missionary years, i.e., a living, breathing, caring, representation-in-the-flesh of the life of Christ, Whom he viewed, again, as a Savior of the “suffering” kind as detailed in Isaiah chapter 53.
Despite his human flaws, van Gogh’s emulation of such a compassionate Christ exemplified, rather than explained, Christ to the hungry and hurting among whom van Gogh served, his flawed human nature notwithstanding…
This brought to mind and memory another figurative masterpiece, billions of them, in fact, and these from the Artist of artist’s own hand and of which I wrote a few years ago.
The masterpieces?–you, me, and all of humanity that God so loves, He sent His only begotten Son…
(Our own flawed–and very human–“presentations” notwithstanding.)
THE ART MUSEUM
I recently visited The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, where my daughter lives. I was impressed by the expanse and variety of creative expression in the galleries. My education in art is limited and I am not an artist, so I simply enjoyed how this or that craftsman or craftswoman captured—or created—light, how he/she used color, and how each one presented subject matter in oil, acrylic, bronze, silver, and myriad other media.
I savored the Willem Heda still life depicting the remains of a meal consisting of ham, oysters, wine and one, half-peeled lemon, its rind curling gracefully down from the edge of a table spread with a white cloth reflecting the soft, late-afternoon sun of one particular day in the year 1656.
I puzzled over a Jackson Pollack quest to capture the energy of the creative process via a small, 3-D creation—in string!
I was mesmerized by the gleaming elegance of a 16 ½-inch high, sterling silver ginger jar (Bodendieck, 1677-78) richly embossed with masks and floral designs.
All of this got me to thinking about God’s “art,” specifically, “us,” and I thought about His art “media”.
According to Genesis chapter one, the Spirit of God hovered over the first ever tabula rasa, the original, pristine state of things. There, He began work on His “canvas”: first, light to contrast the darkness (day and night); then water and sky; then dry ground; then vegetation; then “lights in the expanse” of the sky (one, greater, one, lesser); then fish, birds, and living creatures on the land. And lastly, one man and one woman.
But as opposed to museums where visitors are to avoid touching or in any way disturbing the valuable creations housed therein, God brought mankind into the panoply of His handiwork not just to view it but to take part in it—to be part of it.
God invited us not just to appreciate His craft, so to speak, but to interact with it, benefit by it—and add to it. He designed us to walk amid His glory in the flora and fauna, the beauties and the beasts, to be nourished in body, mind, and spirit by them, and to multiply our own kind.
There would be only one rule amid His creation, of course, but, sadly, the temptation to break it proved too much and for the very first time, even in the beauty of unspoiled paradise, man marred God’s masterpiece. Fortunately, God had a plan to fix that.
I once heard a minister say that when God looks at believers He sees Jesus. Even as we look in a mirror and see only the scrapes and scuffs of a work in progress and/or the scars of the struggle, God sees His Son in Whom we are “new creatures.” As Saint Paul put it, “therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV).
At the intersection of time and eternity we are at once in media res on earth and “seated in the heavenlies” with Christ (Ephesians 2:6) via the unmerited favor of our Creator who works, in this case, not in oils, marble, or mixed media but in grace. Unmerited favor. A gift for the yielding. And for those who will stop a moment to pause and ponder this, the Artist of artists provides myriad clues. As the Apostle Paul wrote “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made […]” (Romans 1:20, NIV).
Here, the play of light on a late afternoon or early morning or mid-day scene inspires an artist to capture the perfection or the mystery of it while, with God in mind, an observer considers light of another sort: the light of clarity, revelation, truth.
There, the 3-D expression of a quest to capture the moment of creation itself prompts the observer to consider the limitations of dimensions in the finite world, the possibility of unlimited dimensions in another.
And over there, an ordinary, everyday object like a spice container in an art museum is transformed by both maker and medium to a work of art both useful and exquisite, gleaming in its glory. And the observer is reminded of the spiritual transformation of a man and a woman from renegade to redeemed, lost to found, fallen to saved by faith in the One Who worked in the media of His body and blood on a cross at Calvary. In other words: “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son that whosoever shall believe in Him shall have eternal life” (John 3:16).
As a craftsman working in words, so to speak, let me invite you to pause and ponder here for a while, to consider not just the created (in all its temporal glory) but the Creator (in His eternal glory).
Let me invite you to stop in the midst of the thousand things that demand your focus in this highly distracted and distractable world and read the extraordinary messages between the ordinary lines, shapes, and colors of the gallery called your world.
Where do YOU stop to ponder? The colors of a sunset? The expanse of the ocean? The world revealed through the lens of a microscope? The length, depth, and breadth of the responses of the human heart? Or, perhaps, your gaze is held by the face of your infant, lately from the hand of God in the silent formations of the womb—to your waiting arms. (Behold, what have we here? Mom’s chin, Dad’s nose, Grandpa’s brown eyes—and even for this brand new little one, a fast-growing love as deep and mysterious as the heavens…).
And, as you pause and ponder, consider this:
God is not a ball of string (or a string theory), an empty jar (or discarded clay pot), nor is He a banquet past that we can only imagine and try to replicate on canvas with what artistic skill we can muster. But He is a present feast extending this invitation even today: “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).
For His gaze, beloved, is upon you.
 Other ways to know and understand God include our conscience, God’s Word, written and spoken, and dreams and visions (see Job chapter 33).
Thank you Phyllis. A very deep and thought-provoking piece that might be said to move out of a Christian writer’s comfort zone, exploring the tortured soul of Vincent Van Gogh. Art, like poetry, means different things to different people and spiritual depths can be gleaned from both. God moves in a mysterious way, so too artists and poets who seem to be in touch with another world but don’t identify it as one blessed by God, the Creator of the universe.
YES! A topic to cause one to move out of the “Christian writer’s comfort zone,” as you put it!
I hope van Gogh maintained his spirituality, begun so earnestly in his early twenties, to the end, is all I can say, for his lifestyle certainly challenges one’s idea of a spiritual life. In fact, when I first read the title of the lecture (the same as the Davis article), I thought, Really? Van Gogh? Spiritual?!
However, his hundreds of letters to his brother and others during his short life revealed a deep and abiding spirituality and devotion to God.
So I thought it worth exploring and reflecting on a little bit more, having in mind the force of addictions and lifestyle choices (his were alcohol, cigarettes, and promiscuity) and how they can so easily shape behavior and impair not only physiological but also neurological functions. Additionally, various forensic analysts suspect he may have suffered from bipolar disorder and seizures.
Undoubtedly, we all get to heaven in each our own degree of “halt and lame,” for who conquers, or matures out of, every temptation all the time? And God’s mercy is a vast mystery we can only glimpse, though Jesus bled out completely on the cross to purchase this for us. Not to mention God never wants for the exact “diagnosis,” whether the challenge is something hereditary, acquired, or chosen. But operating with only our limited versions of spirituality, most of them behavior-based, we may well miss a lot of what God catches, so to speak.
Still and all, as time went on, van Gogh seemed to sink more and more into depravity–or into the pull of his lifestyle choices, addictions, and/or diseases until, perhaps it could be said, they overcame what he may have had left of physical, mental, emotional, and/or psychological resistance.
However, and herein is the hope of observing–and learning from–his life through his work and his words: he maintained his respect for God, nature, and humanity to the end. One hopes it sustained him to the end. I think it did.
At any rate, for us, here and now, who may struggle with our own challenges, however big or small, there is, and no doubt about this, still complete hope–if we don’t give up on our own search for God, working things out how we may, in our words and works and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, because of what Jesus Christ did for us. ON that cross. Paying for all of our “challenges” and bad choices so that we, by faith in His payment for our debt, may receive eternal life.
There. is. still. hope.