The Church at Auvers

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?

image023

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.

country-churchyard-and-old-church-tower-18851blogVan 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 IMG_1610from 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

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to tedmacaluso.com is given. Some of the links, above, are affiliate links to Amazon.com.

Starry Night in person

What happens when you see a masterpiece in person? For me, The Starry Night went from an iconic image in popular culture, to something that is real, personal, and deeply moving. It also left me with a question.

Going to museums is special. I had the good fortune to visit New York City this weekend and see The Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art. The Museum allows non-flash photos, so here is my photo of it hanging on their wall.

IMG_1611

One does not usually see the frame in reproductions of the The Starry Night. This may sound crazy, but it was seeing the frame that made me realize the painting is, in fact, a real object, not merely a meme floating through popular culture. In my mind I always knew it was real, but seeing it in person made it feel real in a deeper way.

When I saw it “live,” the painting was smaller than I thought it would be. This is a picture I took over someone’s head (it was very crowded) that gives some sense of its size.

IMG_1603

One of the nice things about seeing the painting in person was that I could focus on different parts of the painting. For example, although the sky and stars dominate the image, the town is really quite beautiful.

IMG_1607

Looking at the town, the buildings are flat and, in comparison to the hills and sky, stable. I was struck by how the hills and trees, in comparison, were flowing like waves (very much like the light of the sky).

Focusing on the cyprus tree, it also flows. Most importantly, the tree sparkles like the stars, reaching and flowing towards them. The tree touches three stars: both the white and green ones in the image below and (if you scroll back up to the full picture), the yellow one just above the flowing cloud.

IMG_1610

Many interpret cyprus trees as symbolic of death. If so, the cyprus in The Starry Night seemed to represent a harmonious “death,” one that flows with passion and connects the earth and the stars. I felt peaceful seeing the painting. Everything is united.

Finally, the paanimal?inting left me with a question. Is that an animal in the very lower left of the image, above, (and blown up to the left)? It might be. At the very end of Vincent, Theo and the Fox I wrote, “Vincent smiled. In his dream, he saw the fox was happy, running through fields and hills, wild and free under the starry sky.” Could that mischievious creature have come back down into town?

What do you think? I would love to know and will read and respond to your comments with interest.

– Ted Macaluso

If you are unfamiliar with my book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, it is a children’s picture book/early reader that weaves an adventure story around van Gogh’s paintings.  See it here.

 

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced, provided attribution and a link back to tedmacaluso.com is included.

Starry Night

The book weaves a story around van Gogh’s paintings. Readers also want information about the paintings. Every Monday we post about one painting in the book.

Kids (and parents) who read Vincent, Theo and the Fox often want to learn more about each of the 30+ paintings in it. So every Monday I’m posting interesting information about one of the book’s paintings. Here is educator Natalya St. Clair’s fascinating explanation of the math behind Starry Night. The video is animated by Avi Ofer.

Enjoy!

 

text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso