As I wound my way through the immersive Beyond Van Gogh exhibit at the Birmingham Jefferson County Civic Center a few days after Christmas, a question kept nagging. What did Vincent see when he gazed at the world? What experiences or ideas lurk behind his swirling skies, his screaming colors, his darkly outlined but often featureless human figures? At times, I thought I caught hints of terror in the desperation of his empty Night Café (1888) and the nightmarish flickering of trees. Vincent was institutionalized more than once. Are his paintings projections of inner turbulence?
Not according to the painter. In letters, Van Gogh claimed he tried to capture the incandescent beauty of nature, radiant with a glory beyond nature. But even a modestly theological description of Van Gogh’s work will provoke protests. After theological training and a stint ministering among the poor, Vincent turned from the Dutch Calvinism of his parents. He abandoned the church after his pastoral call wasn’t renewed, scorned the religious art of his contemporaries, and almost never painted biblical scenes.
Yet Van Gogh didn’t become a secular artist. In Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art, Debora Silverman describes the aesthetic Christianity of Dutch Romantic Allard Pierson, who encouraged Christian artists to cultivate a “passion for reality.” Because art is “purely materialistic,” Pierson said, the aspiration to ascend “beyond matter” is a fraud. The artist’s vocation is instead to “make us almost see and feel the visible world” as a bearer of “the eternal.”
Van Gogh’s theorizing echoes Pierson. Though he no longer took the Bible literally, he found inspiration in Scripture’s “lofty ideas.” Christ-haunted, he regarded Jesus as “a greater artist than all other artists” because his medium wasn’t marble, clay, or color, but “living flesh.” Every corner of creation pulses with divinity. “I think sometimes I see something deeper, more infinite, more eternal than the ocean in the expression of the eyes of a little baby when it wakes in the morning,” he wrote, adding, “All nature seems to speak. . . . I do not understand why everyone does not see and feel it; nature or God does it for everyone who has eyes and ears and a heart to understand.”
Because material things can mediate the grandeur of the supernatural, painting is free to flirt at the edges of allegory. Vincent rebuked his fellow painter Emile Bernard for failing to discern the layered Christian symbolism of Rembrandt’s Butchered Ox (1655). Visually, the painting is nothing more than a flayed carcass, but it conjures Flemish depictions of the feast of the prodigal son in Jesus’s parable, which in turn pointed to the crucified Christ who offers his flesh as food for prodigal humanity. Van Gogh reminded Bernard that the ox was the traditional symbol of Luke the Evangelist, signifying the artist who must be “as patient as an ox.”
In his own painting, Van Gogh likewise drew almost imperceptibly on biblical motifs. At the center of his Café Terrace at Night (1888) is a white-robed waiter, standing among eleven guests seated at tables, as a black-clad twelfth figure escapes through a doorway. Behind the waiter is a window, divided into four panes by a cross that the waiter almost seems to bear on his shoulder. It’s been called Van Gogh’s Last Supper, but I suspect Van Gogh was up to something more subtle: Those with eyes to understand discern intimations of the monumental Last Supper every night in perfectly ordinary Paris cafés.
The Sower (1888) achieves its effects in a similarly oblique fashion. Van Gogh admired Jean-Francois Millet’s dark, solid Sower for its “sublime, almost religious emotion,” but aspired to portray the scene with a more vibrant post-Impressionism palette. Vincent knew and quoted Jesus’s parable of the sower, but his sower isn’t the Son of Man, the seed isn’t the word, the birds aren’t demons. Still, the painting intentionally embodies a “longing for the infinite, of which the sower, the sheaf are the symbols.” The top third of the painting is flooded with gold, sunlight filling the sky above and bronzed wheat answering below. The sower strides over the ploughed earth, a patchwork of blues, reds, browns, and whites, tossing yellow seed, which might be morsels of sunshine. Vincent’s paintings of wheat fields and sunflowers show golden seeds matured into a golden crop, as earth becomes luminous with the brightness of heaven.
If The Sower sows with the hope of beginnings, Van Gogh’s reapers bring about endings. Reaping is parabolically the end of the age, but Vincent’s reapers are neither angels nor the grim reapers of medieval illuminations. In Wheat Field with a Reaper (1889), Van Gogh’s harvester nearly disappears in the yellow swirl of the field; he’s dressed in light green (the color of the sky), not black, and his face is fully visible. In this depiction of “a little reaper and a big sun,” the reaper is death as rest, who comes “almost smiling.” All flesh is grass, yes, but this grass is adorned with a glory greater than Solomon’s, and the harvest isn’t a moment of grief but of fulfillment, when the grain, full-grown, is gathered into the barns.
Van Gogh once wrote to his brother Theo of his desire “to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.” Van Gogh didn’t reject the supernatural, but naturalized it. What terror there is in his paintings is the sublime terror evoked by the uncanny beauty of what Scripture identifies as the glory of God.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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