No one viewing Vincent van Gogh ‘s (1853-1890) painting The Starry Night walks away the same. But how many know about Van Gogh’s abiding faith in Christ? The letters of Vincent van Gogh including the photograph of him below show a very different portrait beneath the pentimento of modern mythology.
Both Van Gogh’s father and grandfather were pastors in the Dutch Reformed Church. Van Gogh was going to do the same. Since a child, he suffered from depression and a kind of schizophrenia that manifest itself in fevered “excess de zele” behavior.
For three years van Gogh single mindedly pursued his calling to the ministry, first as a student of theology and then as a missionary to the coal miners in the Belgian Borinage. Deeply moved by the poverty surrounding him, Van Gogh gave all his possessions, including most of his clothing, to the miners. Van Gogh admired Christ’s humility as a common laborer and “man of sorrows” whose life he tried to imitate. “Jesus Christ is the Master who can comfort and strengthen a man,” he wrote.
An inspector of the Evangelization Council came to the conclusion that the Van Gogh’s excess de zele bordered on the scandalous, and he reported van Gogh’s behavior to church authorities. Although van Gogh was successful in his ministry, the hierarchy of the Dutch Reformed Church rejected him, and at the end of 1879 he left the church, embittered and impoverished. “I wish they would only take me as I am,” he said in a letter to Theo, his brother.
While he grew embittered with the lack of compassion by organized religion, Van Gogh did not abandon God as the church had abandoned him. He wrote,” I think it a splendid saying of Victor Hugo’s, ‘Religions pass away, but God remains’.
A NEW MISSION
His younger brother, Theo, was an art dealer. Theo agreed to sponsor Vincent as a painter until his brother could get on his feet. Vincent never did. Vincent became his curse and burden for the rest of his life. Vincent’s paintings seldom sold and so Theo took the unfailing responsibility of being his brother’s keeper. “I am still far from being what I want to be, but with God’s help I shall succeed.”wrote Van Gogh to Theo.
Vincent described Jesus as “the supreme artist, more of an artist than all others, disdaining marble and clay and color, working in the living flesh.” Because of his illness, Vincent was never accepted by society. Yet Vincent, in his remarkable letters, never stepped away from his connection with the Lord. “One cannot do better than hold onto the thought of God through everything” he wrote, “under all circumstances, at all places, at all times, and try to acquire more knowledge about Him, which one can do from the Bible as well as from all other things.”
In a world where we are disheartened by our religious institutions , we shouldn’t give up on the holiness and love found in God.
The Dutch Reform church may have rejected Vincent Van Gogh, but his brother ,Theo, also a follower of Jesus, never did. Vincent van Gogh died at the age of 37, Theo Van Gogh died 6 months later at the age of 33.
Note: Vincent Van Gogh’s remarks are taken from his Collected Letters , republished in 2008.