Vincent van Gogh, an artist widely misunderstood by secular critics, never abandoned his respect for the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ. He continued to the end to believe in the reward of an afterlife for those who had suffered the earthly journey of faith. A lithograph and a painting of an old man sitting by a fireplace head in his hands, called ‘At Eternity’s Gate’, reflect the artist’s lifelong preoccupation with questions of death and immortality.
Seeing my father in similar postures on several occasions has reminded me of these works. As my father is now only days away from the end of his 92 years, I have been reflecting on van Gogh’s art and letters, and his theme of eternity’s threshold.
‘At Eternity’s Gate’ is also the title of a 1998 book by Kathleen Powers Erickson (Eerdmans) which addresses the spiritual dimension of the Dutch artist’s work. It seemed appropriate reading material for my trip to New Zealand to farewell my father.
Many have argued that van Gogh rejected the Christianity of his upbringing entirely, after practicing a morbid religious fanaticism in his early years. Yet Powers argues that his asceticism was actually living out of a long-established religious tradition dating from the teachings of Jesus Christ himself, the vita apostolica.
From this tradition, two books which had a lifelong impact on van Gogh were The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis, and Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. He attempted to apply the teachings of these books among poor coal miners in Belgium’s Borinage. His Christian humility drove him to exhaustion, as he gave away his clothes, slept on a bed of straw, shared his food and risked his own life to rescue miners from underground explosions.
Rejected by his spiritual superiors as too fanatical for mission work, van Gogh made a break with institutional Christianity–but not with the Bible and the person of Christ. He then set out to find a synthesis with his faith and modernity. He was drawn to Christ-like figures in modern literature of writers like Emile Zola and Victor Hugo. His attempts to reconcile the tension between Christianity and modernity can be seen in such works as Still life with Open Bible, which is not a rejection of his Christian faith, as many claim, but reflects a continued respect for Scripture.
Experiencing the divine in the mundane, such as sowing and harvesting wheat, or a peasant meal of potatoes, van Gogh developed an artistic expression of the infinite in the finite. The transcendent God was revealed in the sunflower facing the noon-day sun, for example, and in the starry vault of heaven.
His prolific letters reveal his deepest thoughts about his own work, faith and personal pilgrimage. His Christian faith provided comfort and hope during his debilitating illness. The subject matter of his work in the latter phase of his life were drawn from parables, sayings, actions and life of Jesus.
His continued belief in the afterlife inspired the symbolism of his later works like Starry Night, Crows over the Wheatfield, and At Eternity’s Gate.
In the last year of his life, he wrote to a close friend: It is a very good thing that you read the Bible…The Bible is Christ, for the Old Testament leads up to this culminating point…Christ alone, of all the philosophers … has affirmed eternal life, the infinity of time, the nothingness of death….
(Christ) lived serenely, as a greater artist than all other artists, despising marble and clay as well as colour, working in living flesh. This matchless artist … made living men, immortals.
The fireplace of At Eternity’s Gate spoke to van Gogh of the fleeting human life. As flames which ‘are born, rise, plant, flicker and succeed each other’, so is it with human life: ‘we are born, we work, we love, we grow, we vanish.’
Here is the image of an old man prepared to go home, to be released, to find salvation in death. Van Gogh’s affirmation of the after-life can be seen throughout his life and career. He believed fundamentally, writes Powers, that earthly suffering would give way to eternal hope when he embraced the theology of Kempis and Bunyan.
Throughout van Gogh’s personal journey of pain and anguish, he remained hopeful of a life ‘beyond the grave’ where he would find release, rest and peace.
This too is my father’s hope.
Till next week,