Relating a Painting to the Bible

SorrowingOldManby Jerry Richardson12/31/14
As artistic as it is in words, the Bible does not contain any physical pictures.  In fact, the Hebrews and perhaps the early Christians would have considered a portrait to be a direct violation of the 2nd Commandment.   The history of the idolatry of Israel’s pagan neighbors, and the infiltration of idolatry into their faith, would provide demonstrable justification for this biblical proscription given the prime importance of the 1st Commandment.

Once a person, and a society, has come to the full understanding that God is a spirit and cannot be correctly represented by an icon then some of the danger of artistic representation disappears.

It is hard to know when the first Christian art began, but it seems likely as early as the 2nd Century (100s).

Given those thoughts, it is obvious that much of the beauty of description found in scripture has been, after the fact, depicted in various art forms including paintings. Certainly one of the most famous such depictions is Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.  Given this painting, even a casual reader of the Bible will have no difficulty in finding scripture that matches the painting—such as John chapter 13, especially John 13:21 where Jesus announces that one of the disciples will betray Him.

That one is easy.  But what about a famous pictures that is not known to have been specifically inspired by a passage of scripture?

Here is the picture I have chosen:  The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh’s (1853-1890) Sorrowing Old Man.

vincent-van-gogh-final-paintings-8
Sorrowing Old Man (year: 1890) 

Given the title, and given the fact that this painting was completed by van Gogh only about two months before his death (year: 1890), which has generally been accepted as suicide, many questions may arise in our mind:

Does this painting symbolize van Gogh at the time it was painted? Is he in a state of depression; a state of grief; or is he simply fatigued?   Has he already decided to commit suicide and is he grieving about his coming end?  Does he fear his death?  Is he in a state of total despair?  Have we, as individuals had, or will we have our own similar periods of isolated sorrow or despair?  What place does faith (van Gogh’s or ours) have in this human scenario?

Contributing to our answer must be at least the following facts:

  • Van Gogh was a devout Christian, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church and served for a time as a full-time clergyman.
  • Van Gogh had some form of mental illness, and it was very acute during the last two years of his life.
  • Van Gogh’s lithograph which was the predecessor of the painting, Sorrowful Old Man, was entitled At Eternity’s Gate.
  • A theologian’s comments on this painting by van Gogh:

“Belief in a “life beyond the grave” is central to one of van Gogh’s first accomplished lithographs, At Eternity’s Gate … Executed at The Hague in 1882, it depicts an old man seated by a fire, his head buried in his hands. Near the end of his life van Gogh recreated this image in oil, while recuperating in the asylum at St. Rémy. Bent over with his fists clenched against a face hidden in utter frustration, the subjects appears engulfed in grief. Certainly, the work would convey an image of total despair had it not been for the English title van Gogh gave it, At Eternity’s Gate. It demonstrates that even in his deepest moments of sorrow and pain, van Gogh clung to a faith in God and eternity, which he tried to express in his work. …”
Kathleen Powers Erickson, At Eternity’s Gate

So what scripture do I choose to pair with this famous van Gogh painting?  I chose a well-known scripture from the Book of Job where Job concludes a lengthy monologue of despair (Job 19:1-22) with a statement of unshakable faith (Job 19:23-27):

Oh that my words were now written! oh that they were printed in a book!  That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever!  For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:  And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:  Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.
Job 19:23-27 KJV

We can find echoes of Job’s statement of faith in van Gogh’s own words:

“It seems to me that a painter has a duty to try to put an idea into his work. I was trying to say this in this print — but I can’t say it as beautifully, as strikingly as reality, of which this is only a dim reflection seen in a dark mirror — that it seems to me that one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the existence of ‘something on high’ in which Millet believed, namely in the existence of a God and an eternity, is the unutterably moving quality that there can be in the expression of an old man like that, without his being aware of it perhaps, as he sits so quietly in the corner of his hearth. At the same time something precious, something noble, that can’t be meant for the worms. … This is far from all theology — simply the fact that the poorest woodcutter, heath farmer or miner can have moments of emotion and mood that give him a sense of an eternal home that he is close to.”
Vincent van Gogh

What is our personal statement of faith for our times of despair?  How does it compare with Job’s and van Gogh’s?

 © 2014, Jerry Richardson

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8 Responses to Relating a Painting to the Bible

  1. Anniel says:

    Jerry – This, all of it, is absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’ve mentioned this book before, but those interested in thoughtfully combining art and religion should run, not walk, and buy Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.

  3. Anniel says:

    Jerry, I have decided that if I ever have a bajillion dollars for art, this is the painting I would buy. I suppose I’ll have to settle for a print.

  4. Jerry Richardson says:

    Anniel,

    The painting does sort of grab-you. Did the same for me. I first saw it in a Kindle Book

    Twenty-Four Vincent van Gogh’s Paintings (Collection) for Kids

    It only cost 99 cents.

  5. Jerry Richardson says:

    Brad,

    Thanks for the tip on “The Return of the Prodigal Son”; just order a Kindle copy at a very reasonable price of $8.82.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I hope you like the book. I went through my Henri Nouwen phase a few years ago, reading at least half of what he wrote (and he wrote volumes).

      Even though I don’t partake in all of Father Nouwen’s Catholic/Christian beliefs, I found him to be the adult version of Mister Rogers. His was a sincere, quiet, thoughtful voice amongst today’s clatter where everyone either thinks of himself as a genius or is strenuously trying for his 5 minutes of fame (having been devalued from the original Warholian 15).

      I don’t so much revel in the theology as much as admire those who can write with a pleasant and eloquent air regarding things outside of or higher than the chaotic rabble of human social intercourse. He had a measuring stick larger than “What people like.” A world without oughts, and one in which the only measure is an ever-changing social consensus, is a world devoid of anything more meaningful than sought-for applause.

      And at less than 9 bucks, what has ya gots to lose?

  6. ronlsb says:

    Nice job, Jerry. The God of Scripture is a God of beauty–reference the elaborate and beautiful design of the temple in Jerusalem, the place where the Old Testament saints worshipped him, not to mention the creation itself. Beauty can still exist in the deepest moments of sorrow as Van Gogh’s work clearly points out.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The beauty of much religious art (and music) is one reason why the militant atheist view that nothing good has ever come from religion is clearly false.

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