08 March 2014

Art for Lent (4): ‘Still life with
Bible’ by Vincent van Gogh

‘Still life with Bible’ (1885) by Vincent van Gogh

Patrick Comerford

As I prepare for a Bible study with part-time students this morning [8 March 2014], my choice of a painting for a Lenten meditation this morning is Still life with Bible (1885) by Vincent van Gogh. I saw this painting some years ago in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. It is in oil on canvas and measures 65.7 × 78.5 cm.

Vincent van Gogh completed this painting of his father’s Dutch Authorised Bible a few months after the sudden death of his father, the Revd Theodorus van Gogh (1822-1885).

The Revd Theodorus van Gogh was born on 8 February 1822, one of 11 children and the only one of six sons to follow their father into ordained ministry. He studied theology at Utrecht, and in 1849 was appointed a minister Groot-Zundert, a small village in North Brabant on the border of the Netherlands with Belgium.

In May 1851, Theodorus van Gogh married Anna Cornelia Carbentus, the daughter of Willem Carbentus, a bookbinder who had bound the first Constitution of Holland, and so became the “book-binder to the King.”

Although he was not a gifted preacher, Theodorus van Gogh is said to have had a loving nature and fine spiritual qualities, and for 20 years he lived forgotten in the little village of Zundert before moving to other small villages, including Etten, Helvoirt,and Nuenen.

In his small circle, he was warmly loved and respected, and it is said his children idolised him. According to Johanna van Gogh, Theodorus was a handsome man. He had an amiable character and fine spiritual qualities. He died suddenly on 26 March 1885.

Theodorus and Anna were very happy in their married life, and she shared in his work with all her heart. She visited his parishioners with him; and her cheerful, lively spirit was never damped by quiet village life. In her old age, even after her husband’s death and the death of three adult sons, Anna retained her energy and spirit and bore her sorrow with rare courage.

In this painting by Vincent van Gogh, the Bible symbolises his father’s faith, which van Gogh saw as mired in convention. The Bible is open at Isaiah 53.

This Bible is a 19th century reprint of the States Bible, or Dutch Authorised Bible, published in 1714 by Jacob and Pieter Keur. A crack in the spine still causes the book to fall open at Isaiah 53, precisely the page at which the Bible lies open in the painting. During the 1980s, Vincent’s father’s Bible was found at the Remonstrant Congregation in Leiden. Its provenance was established by the handwritten note at the front: “Ths. van Gogh latterly minister at Nuenen 1885.”

Van Gogh placed a cheap, unbound edition of Émile Zola’s novel, La Joie de vivre (The Joy of Living), beside the open Bible. This novel, published a year earlier in 1884, is less light-hearted than the title suggests. It describes the life of a bigoted, middle-class family who cheat an orphaned cousin out of her inheritance. One of the main characters is Pauline Quenu, an orphan who forsakes her own pleasures to care for others. Rather than a contrast between old religion and modernism, van Gogh actually saw a thread connecting the two: the attractiveness of a life lived for others.

Some say the burned out candle may symbolise the end of his father’s life or, perhaps, Van Gogh’s loss of faith and the darkness this brought him. But van Gogh explained it himself two years later in a letter to his sister Wilhelmina. “The work of the French naturalists, Zola, Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, de Goncourt is magnificent. Is the Bible enough for us?” he asked. “In these days, I believe Jesus himself would say to those who sit down in a state of melancholy, ‘It is not here, get up and go forth. Why do you seek the living among the dead?’ ”

He continued: “If the spoken or written word is to remain the light of the world, then it is our right and our duty to acknowledge that we are living in a period when it should be spoken and written in such a way that in order to find something equally great, and equally good, and equally original, and equally powerful to revolutionise the whole of society we may compare it with a clear conscience to the old revolution of the Christians.”
In fact, van Gogh remained fond of the Bible. In the same letter he wrote: “I myself am always glad that I have read the Bible more thoroughly than many people nowadays, because it eases my mind somewhat to know that there were once such lofty ideas.”

The Bible is open at Isaiah 53, the messianic Psalm of the Suffering Servant. This is an appropriate passage for reading in these of Lent, and is provided for Good Friday in the Revised Common Lectionary.

Isaiah 53:

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Tomorrow:Driven by the Spirit into the Wilderness’ (1942), by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).

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