In the early 1970s, I purchased a record album by singer Don McLean, mainly for the song “American Pie”. However, there also was a song titled “Vincent” which was my introduction to artist Vincent Van Gogh. Thus began a journey which most recently included a book titled “Vincent Van Gogh: His Spiritual Vision in Life and Art” by Carol Berry.
As I came to know Vincent and his prolific works of art, I found myself somehow intrigued by him. What drove Vincent? What did he see that he articulated so profoundly? Through Berry’s book, I came to see that part of what has drawn me to Vincent was fundamentally spiritual. He saw something. In the wheat fields. In a sunflower. In impoverished workers around a dinner table. And when he looked up he saw something profound in a starry night. Vincent himself told us what that something was when he wrote “At night when the sounds cease, God’s voice is heard under the stars.”
I have long believed that art can be a gateway to spiritual experience. At the very least, we can have the experience of awe or wonder when in the presence of a painting, a poem, a symphony. Van Gogh appears to have had a strong sense of that reality and manifested it through his paintings.
Vincent grew up in a religious home with a minister father. Although the God of his understanding may have changed over time (as it should for all of us), he never strayed from a belief in God and a strong sense of God’s presence in the world, whether in the worn face of a coal miner or the gentle beauty of a sunflower’
Vincent tried to become a minister but, when that didn’t happen, he became a missionary in an area of south Belgium known as the Borinage. There he lived in solidarity with the miners he tried to help. During this trying time, Vincent also began to draw. This opened the door that eventually led him to articulate spiritual truths where words failed. He committed to try to make God’s presence visible. He tried to articulate mystical truth.
Vincent’s paintings aren’t simply recreations. In them he tried to articulate the divine power of color. He tried to express a divine energy that permeates everything. Eventually he even suggested that God might be better manifested in a wheat field than in the Bible.
Vincent battled depression and despair but consistently found hope in his painting. As he took up palette and brush, was he not in some way praying a prayer of wonder? The wise doctor who treated him in the asylum at Saint-Remy recognized this when he made an extra room available to Vincent for his paints, essentially providing Vincent with a studio within the asylum
Other books I have read have focused on trying to unravel Vincent’s psyche. If one focuses on trying to diagnose Vincent, something quite important is missed — the consistent spiritual foundation not only of his work but of his life.
And, no, I don’t believe Vincent killed himself. I believe, as recent research suggests, that he was shot by some village yahoos. Vincent, after all, was not finished painting.
Perhaps more than any other artist (to include poets, playwrights, composers, etc.), Vincent speaks to me of the divinity that surrounds us if we only take the time to look.
Reflection: Have any artists (painters, composers, playwrights, authors, etc.) enriched your spiritual journey?
Here is Don McLean’s song with lyrics as well as some of Vincent’s work. Enjoy!