“Christ alone has been the only one of the philosophers, magi etc. to have stamped eternal life, the infinity of time, the nullity of death, the necessity and sense of serenity and dedication, as the most important certainty. He lived serenely, as an artist greater than all other artists.… Try to understand the essence of what the great artists, the serious masters, are saying in their masterpieces, you will recognize God in this. One has written or said it in a book, the other in a painting.”
~Vincent van Gogh, from one of his letters
Vincent van Gogh painted this work in October of 1885. The Bible belonged to his father, a pastor with whom he had a turbulent relationship up until his death just months before. Vincent struggled with his father’s religion, but admired Jesus as “an artist greater than all the other artists.”
The little book on the table is La joie de vivre (The Joy of Living) by Émile Zola. The novel was published a year before Vincent painted this still life and was a favorite of his. He referred to it as a “bible for modern life.” In Zola’s book he saw the antithesis of his father’s Bible – a fresh and modern way of perceiving the world.
Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Presentation of the Lord which occurs forty days after the birth of Jesus and is also known as Candlemas. It all begs a question.
Are we, like Vincent, admirers of Jesus, yet looking for something else – something more?
Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Vincent was always after the “it,” the heart of beauty, which he tried to breathe in and softly exhale onto others through his work. But he could never find it. He didn’t find it in his art or his artist colony or his relationship with his father. None of these could deliver the “it” he so desperately longed for. And there were times when he despaired that what he was looking for even existed.What Vincent didn’t realize was that what he was after all those years was actually the biblical concept of shalom. In Hebrew, shalom is a fourfold concept encompassing peace with God, peace with self, peace with others and peace with the created world around us. This shalom was the thing he most desired. But it could only come from one place, which Vincent couldn’t see.
Literature and Liturgy – Emile Zola and La joie de vivre
La joie de vivre tells the story of Pauline, an orphan girl who comes to live with relatives. Over a span of about a decade, Pauline’s caregivers steal her inheritance and become increasingly hateful toward her. Despite her depressing circumstances, Pauline remains cheerful and optimistic and demonstrates generosity through service to the poorest people of her community.
We get a glimpse of Van Gogh’s relationship with God in this quote from one of his letters: “Christ alone has been the only one of the philosophers, magi etc. to have stamped eternal life, the infinity of time, the nullity of death, the necessity and sense of serenity and dedication, as the most important certainty. He lived serenely, as an artist greater than all other artists.… Try to understand the essence of what the great artists, the serious masters, are saying in their masterpieces, you will recognize God in this. One has written or said it in a book, the other in a painting.”
It is not possible for an author to simply transcribe the objective world in a purely passive way. The author’s beliefs and assumptions keep intruding themselves, actively shaping perceptions and how they are conveyed. A writer may try to be a mirror, but cannot help also being a lamp. If a writer claims to be a realist, we must ask what that writer considers to be real. The rise of Darwinism in the nineteenth cen tury led to a literary movement known as naturalism. According to this view, only nature and nature’s laws are real. The theory of evolution taught that human beings were nothing more than animals, that human life is determined by physical laws outside of the control of the individual, and that life consists of conﬂict in which only the ﬁttest will survive. This brand of realism, exempliﬁed by Emile Zola, Stephen Crane, and Jack London, was often brilliant in its vivid descriptions, its lifelike evocations of the natural world, and its penetrating lan guage. The atmosphere of their works is generally bleak and hopeless; the characters are swept up by deterministic forces outside their con trol. Although the naturalistic writers accepted a materialistic world view, their spirits often rebelled against its implications, resulting in works of enraged despair at such an empty universe.