At Eternity’s Gate

This winter Amsterdam loaned America one of it's priceless possessions: a collection of seventy works of art by Vincent Van Gogh. Nearly half a million people lined up to see them at Washington's National Gallery of Art. Most of us are familiar with at least a few of Van Gogh's paintings, like The Starry Night and The Sunflower. But what many do not know is that Van Gogh's works are reflections of his deep religious faith. This is something usually overlooked by art historians. In fact, historians often present Van Gogh's faith as an obstacle he had to overcome so that he could grow as an artist. This view is disputed in a new book written by art historian Kathleen Powers Erickson, called At Eternity's Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent Van Gogh. Drawing on the artist's own letters, Erickson argues that Van Gogh's faith was at the very foundation of his artistic vision. As a young man, Van Gogh was a lay-missionary to impoverished coal miners in Belgium. He read the works of great evangelical preacher Charles Spurgeon and attended revival meetings. Van Gogh's hopes for becoming a pastor were dashed, however, when he was denied admission to seminary. Devastated, Van Gogh left Christian ministry and turned to art. Erickson writes that for a time, Van Gogh abandoned the institutional church. He attempted to forge a new—but not wholly orthodox—synthesis between Christianity and the new forces of modernism. Van Gogh struggled with mental disease, and during his stay at St. Remy's hospital he created some of his greatest art. According to Erickson, it was here that Van Gogh returned to the Christianity of his youth. He painted pictures with explicitly biblical themes such as The Good Samaritan and The Pieta. One of his most moving paintings of this period is The Raising of Lazarus. The painting is in varying shades of intensely bright yellow, with a pulsating sun filling the scene with light. Lazarus has a thin red beard—just as Van Gogh himself did. It's clear the painting is a self-portrait, at once a meditation on Scripture and a personal testimony to faith. This faith is given short shrift in the brochure that accompanied the Washington exhibit of Van Gogh's work. The brochure says that Van Gogh was fascinated by the sun, "to which he ascribed a symbolic meaning.” But we're not told what that symbolic meaning is. Erickson writes that Van Gogh considered the sun—and sunflowers—to symbolize the light of God and His presence in the world. By the same token, his wheat fields—with their sowers and reapers—are taken directly from Christ's parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. When art critics dismiss Van Gogh's faith, they not only misinterpret his work, they diminish the power of his paintings. It's bad scholarship. The seventy Van Gogh masterpieces have left Washington and are now on display at the Los Angeles County Museum. If you live nearby, go see these creations. Take a neighbor and point out Van Gogh's Christian faith so evident in the paintings, and read Kathleen Powers Erickson's book, At Eternity's Gate. You'll learn more about how the man who painted powerful and moving starry nights and used his paintbrush to point art-lovers towards the Son.


Chuck Colson


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