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Vincent van Gogh

The concern of this paper is to show the continuous duration of van Gogh’s long search and pilgrimage of faith, the synthesis of religion and modernity he achieved in his paintings. Many authors have discussed the relation between van Gogh’s religious journey and his art. According to Masheck (1996), Van Gogh’s genius lies not so much in his ability to create or innovate, but in his unique combination of the traditional and the modern, both in his paintings and his pilgrimage of faith. Basic to the nineteenth-century Romantic artistic taste was the conviction that art and religion are inseparably connected.

As Schelling wrote, “Art is silent poetry” and is intended to express sacred thoughts from out of the human soul, “not only by speech, but like Nature, by shape, by form, by corporeal works” (Heinz 1963, p. 209). It “stands as a uniting link between the soul and Nature and can be apprehended only in the living center of both”. Van Gogh confirmed Schelling’s thoughts when he wrote, “Art, although produced by man’s hands is not created by hands alone, but by something which wells up from a deeper source out of our soul…. ” (Eitner 1970).

Schleiermacher, to whom van Gogh’s father was owing gratitude for his study of Christian revelation, claimed that religion is a central expression of human inner needs. According to him all other efforts, whether science, art or literature, develop from this basis. Van Gogh lived out these principles, though his journey and long search were irregular and complex ones. During the period between 1880, when Van Gogh left the Christian church and devoted all his life to art, and his life at Saint-Remy, van Gogh attempted different approaches to religion in general and Christianity particularly.

Although the painter veered off his earlier Christian religious faith in search of a combination of Christianity with modernity, van Gogh never fully forsook completely his past faith. His religion continued to inspire his life and particularly his paintings. This paper presents a discussion of the link between his art and his religious life. The paper includes the in-depth research of the artistic and religious significance of his well-known works, such as Crows over the Wheatfield (Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum) and Starry Night (New York, Museum of Modern Art).

Analysis of the hidden spirituality of these paintings shows that religion was the central driving force of van Gogh’s life and art. Introduction Van Gogh’s continued religious beliefs imparted essential symbolism to his works, such as in Starry Night and Crows over the Wheatfield (see photos). Examining Crows over the Wheatfield and Starry Night one is astonished to see how deeply the painter’s religious faith penetrated through his entire art. The tension the painter saw and attempted to resolve between Christianity and modernity is easily noticed in these two paintings.

Van Gogh experienced the supreme religious excellence in the most secular acts of human life, such as, for example, the sowing and harvesting of wheat. It was in van Gogh’s work, Crows over the Wheatfield, that he attempted to suggest the divine presence symbolically, without actually depicting any holy person. According to Martland (1981), this technique to represent the infinite in the finite became one of the main characteristics of van Gogh’s artistic expression (p. 86).

He saw in the world around him, from the smallest spikelet facing upward to the sky (Crows over the Wheatfield), to the glorious vault of heaven that surrounded him in the star-lit night sky (Starry Night), a revelation of the God having continuous existence outside the created nature. Main Body In Crows over the Wheatfield, created near the very suicide, Vincent represents a complex of Christian mental images of death and salvation fused, as Martland (1981,) has described, with the naturalistically direct and real view of a wheat field (p. 140).

In the author’s view, the fusion of realism and superior imagery in Crows over the Wheatfield is an important and constant character of van Gogh’s paintings. As the symbolist writer G. Albert Aurier stated, van Gogh’s works are “at one and the same time really real and quasi supernatural. ” (in Zemel 1980, p. 36). With Crows over the Wheatfield, van Gogh considerably moved toward the simplification of forms and the division of the canvas into two vast areas of color. Perhaps the most impressive feature of Crows over the Wheatfield is its symbolic use of color by the painter.

The painting is divided into areas of deep sapphire blue adjoining with lemon yellow. This intensive blue, also characteristic of the dreamy sky of Starry Night, was van Gogh’s symbol of infinity and holiness. Starry Night is a dreamy outstanding work of the painter, telling viewers the story of van Gogh’s final triumph over suffering and misery, and symbolizing his desire for a mystical union with the God. In many ways, the painting recalls the understanding and experience of the religion by young van Gogh, the Groningen divinity and the devotion of his uncle Stricker.

In describing religion, van Gogh’s uncle Stricker wrote, “Religion is not the fruit of rational contemplation and scientific investigation, but especially, the understanding of the human heart of its kindred sense of a higher world than the purely sensual and material world. Religion is a continual striving to a more intent communion with the Perfect” (Martland 1981). Starry Night, as the outstanding work transforming van Gogh’s religious ideas, is an autobiographical drawing, which one can divide into three areas considered independently, describing three of the most important ideas in van Gogh’s art and life.

The village scene, the cypress tree, and the starry sky are all symbolic of particular religious faiths van Gogh had. The church provides both a focal point and vertical accent in the village scene. Art historians indicate that van Gogh’s representation of this church is imaginative, since the bell tower is normal to the Dutch landscape, but not to the landscapes of Provence (Zemel 1980, p. 120). Besides being a Dutch church in a form of appearance, van Gogh’s representation of the church is strange in another way.

While every building shows a strong bright yellow light under the brightness of the starry sky, the church is depicted absolutely dark. The dark color of the church is van Gogh’s symbol of the empty and unenlightened preaching of the priesthood which left him with hostile feeling and alone when he was forced to leave the profession and duties of a minister of religion in 1880. In Starry Night, van Gogh exposes to view, however, that he did not close the door on his faith and on the God, just the practices and doctrines of the church.

Importantly, Starry Night discloses van Gogh’s journey from the darkness of the inside of a church, with its relation to his past life in Netherlands, to the feeling of exultation and happiness of the mystic’s exchange of thoughts and emotions with God through nature. While many critics have claimed that the painting shows van Gogh’s rejection of Christianity and the miraculous, his comment that “When all sounds cease, God’s voice is heard under the stars” actually comes from the emotional mood of his “evangelical period,” 1877, and shows his spiritual conviction lasting for a lifetime (Letters 3:185).

The next compositional component of Starry Night, the cypress, that shoots up into the heavens like a large flame, represents van Gogh’s own as well as the world striving for ultimate release from the pain, misery, and loss experienced in this world and ultimate harmony and union of the soul with the infinite and divine. During his St. Remy period in particular, van Gogh painted many works depicting the cypress as the prevalent picturesque image.

In his letter about one of his paintings with the tree, the painter explained his fascination with the cypress to Theo, his brother and the close friend: “You need a certain dose of inspiration, a ray from above which is not ours, to do the beautiful things. When I had done these sunflowers, I looked for the contrary and yet the equivalent, and I said this is the cypress…. It is as beautiful as the Egyptian obelisk” (Letters 3:185). It is the starry sky, however, full of shining light and vibrating rhythms that predominates in Starry Night.

In the philosophy of the transcendental Romantic artists, with whom van Gogh was in intimate relations, as well as the beliefs of northern Romantic landscape painting, the sky is often representative of endless time or the Infinite Being (Eitner 1970, p. 27). In his “Nine Letters on Landscape Painting” (1815-1824), Carus stated, “The clear quintessence of air and light, is the true image of infinity, and since our feeling has a tendency toward the Infinite, the image of the sky strongly characterizes the mood of any landscape under its lofty vault. ” (Eitner 1970, p.

50) This feeling of pain, emptiness, and weakness induced by hungering for the infinite is one of van Gogh’s most persistent personal and artistic qualities. The sky, especially the star-filled sky, often summoned up, for van Gogh, a joyous and mystical feeling. Van Gogh further stressed his concern with expressing the infinite with his use of a deep occasionally somewhat purple blue as a backdrop for the varying in intensity, shining stars. Possibly the painter used this symbolic color with intent to evoke the idea of infinity, mysterious, mystical mood.

Another important symbolic characteristic of Starry Night is van Gogh’s unusual shape of the moon. It is entirely different from other depictions of the moon in his other paintings. In his letter to Theo, Van Gogh wrote of his association of the galaxy on the night shiny sky with timeless existence and the all-powerful love of God, and it was possibly to this remembrance that Starry Night speaks: “The moon is still shining, and the sun and the evening star, which is a good thing — and they also speak of the love of God, and make one think of the words: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’” (Letters I:127).

It is worthy of notice that van Gogh speaks of the sun and the moon and the evening stars all glaring together, and of how deeply he experiences God’s love under this night sky. There are, in part, van Gogh’s memories of the past, when the future painter was making preparations for the Christian ministry. Just as van Gogh had felt God’s constant appearance in the night sky in Amsterdam, he still felt divine love when he looked at the supernatural “vault of heaven” above St. Remy.

Van Gogh referred to darkness in the painting as “blessed twilight,” because it was in the mystical hours when the day turns into the night and the world is plunged in a miraculous and superhuman obscure light that he seemed most aware of the divine: Twilight is falling — “blessed twilight,” Dickens called it, and indeed he was right. Blessed twilight, especially when two or three are together in harmony of mind and, like scribes, bring forth old and new things from their treasure.

Blessed twilight, when two or three are gathered in His name and He is in the midst of them, and blessed is he who knows these things and follows them too (Letters I:142). Starry Night symbolizes the obscure reality that van Gogh had begun to accept as true that he was coming to the end of his earthly troubled life. The tired painter was looking to the prospect of eternal release in death. Van Gogh’s Starry Night is in a middle between the two worlds of heavenly place of harmony and troubled earth, life and death.

Coming of the night, the impressive image of the tree as it rises upwards into the sky, and the stars, which represent van Gogh’s desire for long-awaited union with the God, evoke meditation about death and eternity. It appears that the arms of formidable death did not come fast enough for van Gogh. Being worried and scared of his future in the earthy life, the painter chose to take his own life and come to death himself. In his own thoughts, van Gogh’s suicide was not so much a mournful and pitiable end to life as a transformation to a new life, like the metamorphosis of the caterpillar to the butterfly flying in the sky above the flowers.

Annotated Bibliography Eitner, L. (1970). Neo-Classicism and Romanticism. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall. This collection of essays and extracts is an attempt to bring together the “classic” statements on the general subject of Neo-Classicism and Romanticism. Particularly, this book makes great contribution to the fundamental features of the English Romantic Movement. This work, then, is a weighty supplement to all courses which are concerned with the Neo-Classic and Romantic Periods. Graetz, H. (1963) The Symbolic Language of Vincent van Gogh. New York: McGraw? Hill. The book is an important work on van Gogh’s religious and artistic life.

It makes attempt to relate van Gogh’s early religious beliefs to his life as an artist. The concern of the author is to show the symbolic language of van Gogh’s paintings, from his early Christian life, through his evangelical period, to his failures to combine religion and modernity, and at last to the synthesis of religion and modernity he brought to a successful conclusion in both his life and art. Martland, R. (1981). Religion as Art: An Interpretation. State University of New York Press: Albany, NY. It is an important book, throwing light on the ways art, faith, and personal existence meet in an artist.

Students of painting and religion can enjoy the book and gain important knowledge from reading it. Important: the book guides the reader through van Gogh’s life and then analyzes significant paintings; it also comes up with information often neglected by other authors, and with interpretations that help grasp this topic. Masheck, D. (1996). Van Gogh 100. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT. The book presents reliable information about van Gogh’s theological and personal background and discusses the painter’s beliefs in personal salvation as the foundation of his art.

The reader will find many fascinating facts about van Gogh’s mysterious life, especially regarding his mental disorders. The author presents the systematic account about his artistic and religious life. Zemel, C. (1980). The Formation of a Legend: Van Gogh Criticism, 1890-1920, Ann Arbor, Mich. The purpose of the present author has been to fill out the gaps of van Gogh’s life. The book includes the lines of the painter’s letters and what is written between them are the threads of his life. The author also discusses the symbols in the works of the painter. The book includes a critical analysis of van Gogh’s paintings.

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