encounters with God in the world's great art
Vincent van Gogh: Irises,
Wheatfield with Cypresses,
Starry Night over the Rhone,
I might have designed this page with the paintings separated from each other and with the text meandering between them like a garden path between flower beds. That would have been lovely. But I put the paintings together in a single grouping for a specific reason, which will be revealed later.
For now, let’s consider for a moment the awesome power and genius of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. This devotional is primarily for artists, and if you’re an artist, you probably already know how to understand the emotional impact of van Gogh. If you’re not that familiar with van Gogh, it might help to start with this devotional on his Starry Night.
The way I read van Gogh, I think the colors, and especially the way he pairs them, are an attempt to visually express the “vibrations” he felt in his soul – you know, those feelings we all have sometimes that there’s something transcendent about life that we can’t quite touch, but we sense that it’s there without really seeing it clearly. And we can’t quite see it, but we know it’s something deeply, deeply profound. And so if we’re honest with ourselves, which an artist must be, we’re driven to pursue this ephemeral something – and van Gogh (and many artists) tried to capture it by trying to get something on canvas that at least alluded to the transcendent in a visual way. Isn’t that essentially what expressionism (of which van Gogh is one of the progenitors) is about?
And I think the lines and the visible brushstrokes are part of that, too. The sometimes swirling, burbling, vibrating, or jabbing lines are meant to say, “this is sort of how my heart feels – maybe you feel it, too, as you imagine wrapping your heart around these shapes…”
For me, approaching a van Gogh painting in that way elicits strong emotional responses. Try spending a little time with any one of them and see if you, too, don’t experience an emotional reaction.
Now here’s the thing that I keep coming back to: Vincent van Gogh surely understood the emotional power of his paintings. The first reason I say this is that if they affect me so powerfully, it’s hard to imagine that it’s all by accident. The second, perhaps more reliable basis for this is that van Gogh’s own writings make it clear that he painted with the emotional impact in mind. But if you and I can sense what he was up to by looking at his paintings, try to imagine how strongly he must have felt it himself. Surely no one can experience a masterpiece as deeply and personally as the artist? Surely van Gogh must have experienced each of these works more intensely and more thoroughly than we are able to.
Many great artistic geniuses have displayed disdain for their adoring public, because no one could seem to grasp the full import of their works. Beethoven, Mozart, Picasso… there are more, and possibly some better examples, but these are at least familiar to most people. But these artists did at least have an adoring public. For Vincent van Gogh, the public’s reaction was either indifference or scorn. No matter how great his work, no matter how hard he tried, for as long as he lived, he was rejected.
But in his studio, surrounded by dozens and dozens of works nobody wanted and many people actively loathed, he knew in his heart something that we now know, too: that those dozens of paintings were some of the purest flashes of artistic genius the world has ever seen. Imagine his walls crammed full of masterpieces (that’s why these four are grouped together above). Everyone outside those little rooms saw, if they cared to look, nothing but dreariness. But van Gogh lived among these works, jammed together and rolled up under furniture and in closets… And despite the verdict of the whole world, I imagine he must have experienced that environment like a life under the light from a nuclear explosion.
What a strain that must have been for him! No one else could see it, but he knew… he knew! How desperately must his heart have yearned for any recognition by those around him of the truth on those canvases. If you are an artist, I imagine you experience some of this same tension – you know subtleties and connections of meaning and emotion in your works that the rest of us will never fully know. So maybe you can empathize with how van Gogh must have felt. Take comfort, though, because eventually, we all saw the light in van Gogh’s work, and if you're still waiting, eventually someone will see the light in yours, too.
The reason I think this is important is that there is a body of work of much greater power and even more profound genius than van Gogh’s paintings, and it, too, is often overlooked or even disparaged by much of the world. Among the masterworks in this artit's oeuvre are such familiar pieces as sunrise… chocolate… dew… music… electrons… purple… love… to name just a few. Who among us takes the time (for that matter, who even has the time) to fully understand and appreciate any of these miraculous creations, or any of their uncountable siblings?
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
Who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it?
On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy? Have you ever in your life commanded
And caused the dawn to know its place,
Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
Or loose the cords of Orion?
Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
So that an abundance of water will
Can you send forth lightnings that they may go
And say to you, 'Here we are'?
Who has put wisdom in the innermost being Or given understanding to the mind?"
- Job 38:4-7, 12, 31, 34-36 (NASB)
Is it the broken heart of the misunderstood artist that we hear in various Bible passages, when God cries out, incredulous that we so willfully disdain all that he has done for us? He has never stopped cranking out the masterpieces, in the hope that some day we will understand and respond to the love that created them. Sunrise after sunrise after sunrise after miracle after miracle after miracle. And yet we persist in either ignoring all this, or even denying its message:
“It’s all just here by chance…”
“Yeah, but God’s not talking to me…”
“What’s so special about electrons?
We can call it all plain and ordinary, but God knows. He knows! He knows more than we ever will the depth and breadth and height and subtlety and complexity and eternity and trustworthiness of his love for us.
The presence of God is said to be unbearably bright. Isn’t it time we finally saw the light?