A church with no doors, sitting in its own shadow, splitting the path ahead in two, dark clouds reaching for it from above. What is Vincent van Gogh telling us about faith and religion?
Monday’s blogposts are each about one of the 30 Vincent van Gogh paintings that illustrate the children’s story, Vincent, Theo and the Fox. Today, the last Monday before Easter, the painting is The Church at Auvers.
First, a few facts. Van Gogh completed the image in June 1890, the month before he died.The church is a real building that still stands in the Place de l’Eglise in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise. Its architecture is Gothic. The building is believed to have been constructed in the 13th Century. The oil and canvass painting is in the Musee d’Orsay, 27 kilometers southeast in Paris. The deep blue of the sky was also used in Portrait of Adeline Ravoux, the innkeeper’s daughter discussed in last week’s post. The church refused to hold a funeral mass for van Gogh because it was believed he committed suicide.
Van Gogh mentioned today’s painting in a June 5, 1890 letter to his sister, Wilhelmina. He mainly wrote about the colors he used; but also referred back to his earlier life, saying, “it is nearly the same thing as the studies I did in Nuenen of the old tower…[only] the colour is more expressive, more sumptuous.” Completed five years earlier, The Old Tower is indeed a darker painting.
Viewers, of course, want more than facts. We all want to extract meaning from van Gogh’s art and life. In this regard, there is a lot of misperception of van Gogh, especially given his romantic appeal in popular culture. As Teresa Watanabe pointed out in her excellent Los Angeles Times article, A Divine View of Van Gogh, the artist “is commonly portrayed as a sometimes loony genius who failed in a fanatical quest to become an evangelical preacher, turned his back on religion and went on to become one of history’s most celebrated painters.”
The misperception that van Gogh turned his back on religion gets some support from the absence of doors in today’s painting (the church is closed to him) and from the bleakness of The Old Tower. Interestingly, in his famous painting of The Starry Night, the church is dark and silent even though the houses in town are warm and lit (the spire is also needle-sharp, touching a dark patch in the sky, and stands in contrast to the cyprus, with its living curves touching three stars).
A dark church at night means nothing by itself, but Kathleen Powers Erickson makes some cogent points in her scholarly book, At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh. Ericsson is an art historian who also holds a Ph.D. in the history of Christianity from the University of Chicago. Her full argument is too long to cover properly here, but I find her essential points convincing. She argues that religion was a central driving force in van Gogh’s life.
Van Gogh, Erickson explains, faced a crisis of faith in his early adult years. His father withdraw support for van Gogh’s desire to be a pastor, the protestant church that gave van Gogh a six-month appointment did not renew it, and a significant religious influence on his life, his Uncle Stricker, continually rejected van Gogh’s many efforts to marry his daughter, Kee. Allegedly, van Gogh never set foot in a church again and, as with the three paintings here, his art reflects some of his bitterness. It was a bitterness with organized religion, however; not with God, not with faith, and certainly not with spirituality which his work exudes. Erickson shows, through van Gogh’s letters and his art, that the artist went on a voyage of religious discovery. His struggles with religion and modernity led to the synthesis of the religious and the modern which he achieved in both his life and his work.
Van Gogh subscribed to the sentiment, “Religions pass away, but God remains” (he believed Victor Hugo said this, although it was actually Jules Michelet). Van Gogh “believed in a religion that teaches people to have reverence and awe of creation, and to have compassion and feelings of charity and sympathy toward people suffering. It was totally non institutional,”according to another scholar, Naomi Margolis Maurer (quote is from Watanabe’s article). Maurer is the author of The Pursuit of Spiritual Wisdom: The Thought and Art of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin.
The recognition of the spiritual in van Gogh’s art makes me love him even more. What do you think? Leave a comment, below, and I will be sure to read it.
Now, for some crazy stuff. The Church at Auvers is featured in season 5, episode 10 of the British sci-fi show, Doctor Who. In it, there is a monster in one of the church windows, signifying (to the Doctor) that an ancient evil is lurking in Auvers-sur-Oise in June 1890. Vincent must go inside the church to battle the monster before the painting can be returned to its original form. Hey, why not? Some other people believe there is a hidden portrait of Vincent’s face in the painting. I don’t see it, but why not?
How is the painting used in Vincent, Theo and the Fox? After young Vincent and Theo have finished chasing the fox, they reflect on how the fox tried and failed at different activities before finding happiness. Vincent thinks he too will try different things as he grows. One is to be a pastor like his father. Today’s painting illustrates that thought. As a young boy, Vincent does not know that his religious journey will be complex. As an author, I like that the illustration has some darkness to foreshadow the path that the real-life Vincent followed.
– Ted Macaluso
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