Gogh, Vincent van - VM - Jeff Fountain
Vincent van Gogh: At Eternity’s Gate
Destined for Eternity
by Jeff Fountain
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 after-life for those who had suffered the earthly journey of faith. An early lithograph and a late painting of an old man sitting by a fireplace with his head in his hands, both called At Eternity’s Gate, reflect the artist’s lifelong preoccupation with questions of death and immortality.
At Eternity’s Gate is also the title of a book by Kathleen Powers Erickson (Eerdmans, 1998) which addresses the spiritual dimension of the Dutch artist’s work. Many have argued that Van Gogh rejected the Christianity of his upbringing entirely, after practicing a morbid religious fanaticism in his early years. Yet Kathleen Powers Erickson argues that his asceticism actually drew from a long-established religious tradition based on the teachings of Jesus Christ himself, the vita apostolica. Two books from this tradition had a lifelong impact on Van Gogh: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. He attempted to apply the teachings of these books while living 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 between 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 a work like 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 noonday 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 him with comfort and hope during his debilitating illness. The subject matter of his work in the latter phase of his life was drawn from the parables and 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 an image of a careworn, bedraggled old man seemingly engulfed in grief. But the title reveals that his destiny is not worms, but an eternal home. It is a portrayal of a soul about 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 Kathleen Powers Erickson, that earthly suffering would give way to eternal hope, when he embraced the theology of Kempis and Bunyan. Throughout his personal journey of pain and anguish Van Gogh remained hopeful of a life ‘beyond the grave,’ where he would find rest and peace.
Vincent van Gogh: At Eternity’s Gate, 1890, Oil on canvas, 80 cm × 64 cm (31.5 in × 21.2 in). Location Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands.
Book cited: Kathleen Powers Erickson: At Eternity’s Gate, Eerdmans 1998.
Footnote: The authors of a new book, Van Gogh: A life, believe that, contrary to popular belief, Van Gogh was most likely shot accidentally by two boys he knew who had ‘a malfunctioning gun.’ The authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith came to their conclusion after 10 years of study with more than 20 translators and researchers. It has long been thought that he shot himself in a wheat field before returning to the inn where he later died. But the authors claim that the accepted version of events among locals was that he was killed accidentally by a couple of boys and he decided to protect them by accepting the blame. They assert the bullet entered Van Gogh's upper abdomen from an oblique angle, not straight on as might be expected from a suicide.
Jeff Fountain is director of the Schuman Centre for European Studies (see www.schumancentre.eu) and lives with his wife Romkje in Heerde, The Netherlands. He writes a weekly e-mail blog in which this article originally appeared. He writes to restore an understanding of the transcendental in European art, culture and history that is so often minimised by reductionist perspectives.
ArtWay Visual Meditation October 30, 2011