Gogh, Vincent van - VM - Sharon Gallagher
Vincent van Gogh: The Good Samaritan and
The Raising of Lazarus
Van Gogh’s Version – The Artist Interprets Two Biblical Stories
by Sharon Gallagher
There is sorrow in the hour of death - but there too joy unspeakable when it is the hour of death of one who has fought a good fight. There is One who has said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, if any man believe in me, though he were dead yet shall he live.’ From a sermon preached by Vincent van Gogh on October 29, 1876
Vincent van Gogh, the great artist whose work still moves and delights millions, started out with a very different sense of vocation. As a young man and sincere Christian, Vincent decided to enter the ministry. In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent said of his chosen vocation, ‘He has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor.’
Van Gogh’s first post was as a missionary in the coal mining region in Belgium where he lived simply, sleeping on straw in a small hut. But this behaviour seemed fanatical and undignified to the bourgeois church officials, and Vincent was removed from his post. Greatly disillusioned, van Gogh now focused his considerable energy and determination on painting.
After this rejection Vincent turned away from organized religion but continued to be motivated by faith. As an artist he saw himself continuing in God’s service stating: ‘The real significance of what great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, leads to God . . .’
Throughout his life van Gogh’s paintings, especially his portraits, showed his continuing sympathy for working-class people. In one of his earliest paintings, The Potato Eaters, a gaunt family gathers around a table staring hungrily at their meagre supper. The painting’s dark tones, brown, black, and gray, emphasize the grimness of their circumstances.
Then his brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris at the time, encouraged him to paint in lighter tones as the Impressionists were doing. This was reinforced for van Gogh when he moved shortly afterwards to live in Arles in the south of France where light was so contrastingly different from his homeland in The Netherlands. The paintings that follow have a lilting feel to them, as though the landscapes lifted his mood. The world might be full of injustice and inequality, but still there was beauty in the countryside.
It was when Theo introduced Vincent to the Parisian Impressionists that Vincent’s style exploded into the colour and texture we recognize in his most famous works. In addition to the portraits, fields, and flowers that he’s famous for, van Gogh also did paintings based on the work of earlier artists.
One example is The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix. The composition of van Gogh’s work is similar to that of Delacroix, with the beaten man being lifted by the Samaritan onto his own horse.
Van Gogh’s lighter version, however, makes the ‘good’ people who passed the wounded man without helping, a key part of the parable, much easier to see. Van Gogh may have seen these men as the church leaders who were so unsympathetic with his own care for the needy. They are small and pale, insignificant to the main drama of the story.
Van Gogh based his painting The Raising of Lazarus on a Rembrandt etching. In Rembrandt’s version a group of people gather around the outside of a cave-like tomb watching as Jesus raises Lazarus. In van Gogh’s version, the scene is closer and more intimate. We see only three people, Mary and Martha discovering their now-living brother Lazarus. Jesus is not in the painting, although some critics say that the sun represents Jesus. The sun dominates the painting and can be seen as the fourth major element of the simplified composition. This without doubt reflects van Gogh’s deep knowledge of the Bible and its reference to the text that ‘the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings’ (Malachi 3:20).
The Rembrandt etching is mostly rendered in dark shadows with light dramatically focused on Lazarus. In van Gogh’s version, light from the sun radiates through the whole painting, as the miracle reflects the power of the One who can give life.
This is a very personal work for van Gogh, who at that time was suffering from severe mental disruption due most probably to a type of inherited genetic epilepsy. He was aware that he was ill and ‘worked furiously’ during periods of lucidity. As he neared the end of his increasingly difficult life, Vincent endured both physical pain and mental confusion, yet wrote to his brother that ‘religious thoughts’ sometimes gave him great consolation.
His Lazarus looks dazed and surprised to find himself waking up in sunshine. This Lazarus has the face of Van Gogh, the seriously ill artist seeing in the resurrection of Lazarus hope for his own!
Vincent van Gogh, The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix),1890, oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm, Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands.
Vincent van Gogh, The Raising of Lazarus (after Rembrandt),1890, oil on canvas, 50 x 65 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Eugène Delacroix: The Good Samaritan, 1849, oil on canvas, 37 x 30 cm, private collection.
Rembrandt van Rijn: The Raising of Lazarus, 1630, etching, 37 x 26 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) 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. The book At Eternity’s Gate by Kathleen Powers Erickson (Eerdmans, 1998) 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. 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 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. In the last year of his life he wrote to a close friend: ‘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.’ (Text: Jeff Fountain – for the complete text, click here)
Sharon Gallagher is editor of Radix magazine and associate director of New College Berkeley. This article was originally published in Radix magazine.
Artway Visual Meditation March 3, 2013