encounters with God in the world's great art
Vincent van Gogh: Starry Night
Have you ever seen a real night sky that looked like van Gogh's Starry Night? I hope not!
So why would an artist paint the sky this way? Perhaps I can answer that with another question. When you're happy, why do you sing instead of speak? Or when you're in love, why do you speak of roses and honey? When we do these things, we, too are artists; we're using something that goes beyond a mere clinical, scientific description in order to communicate our feelings more powerfully than straightforward words can. So consider for a moment that van Gogh might not have been hallucinating on the night he painted this. Maybe he felt something so powerful that he had to go beyond the familiar to express it.
Think for a moment about what it's like to be outside at night under a crystal clear sky. There may be a hint of crispness in the air that makes everything seem clean and refreshing. It's the kind of night we imagine when we think of a chorus of angels singing to frightened shepherds. So you look up, perhaps to see if the angels really are there. And suddenly you see the sky like you've seldom seen it before. It's not just the same old sky tonight. Instead, the blackness is a deep, rich, velvet blue that is more bottomless than any ocean. The stars are not spots of light but brilliant, magical diamonds that dance and twirl like tiny ballerinas. In just this special moment, the sky is somehow alive, and it seems to speak to you silently about the meaning of infinity. Oh, how wonderful it would be if you could preserve this moment, and return to it again and again!
Now look at the painting again. Can you begin to see why this is such a famous and well-loved image?
But there's more here than that. Van Gogh painted this while he was held in the grip of a debilitating disease. We can imagine his fear that he would never escape his prison to true freedom. We can imagine his fear because each of us has faced our own personal prison, whether it be disease, the loss of a loved one, financial woes, addiction, or any of the troubles that make us wonder whether God knows of our suffering; whether He will ever truly deliver us from affliction. In such moments it is tempting to collapse in hopelessness.
Looking at Starry Night, I imagine van Gogh in just such a moment of despair, when he is struck by the memory of one of those amazing night skies. He recalls the sense that he is not alone; that there is a living, infinite, loving God who sees us and knows us by name. A God whose awesome creation reminds us, sometimes, that He has never left our side.
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; and let them say among the nations, "The Lord reigns."
- 1 Chronicles 16:31 (NASB)
And so the sky swirls across the canvas full of vitality and power that speaks of His presence. The stars don't just sparkle; they explode in radiance. Looking closer, we notice that the earth itself seems to respond to the movement in the heavens, forming its own living waves in the mountains and the rolling trees beneath them. In the sleepy village, the windows of the houses glow with the same light that illuminates the universe. The church steeple in the center seems to struggle to point to God, who is so alive in this scene. But the little church is dwarfed by the cypress trees at the left, which seem to capture the joy of the inhabited creation around them by erupting in a living flame of praise.
What a tremendous message of hope there is in this masterpiece! Even if our troubles persist, the world around us assures us that God has heard His people cry, and has acted to calm our fears, heal our hurts, and dry our tears.
That's what the angels sang about. Doesn't it make you want to sing, too?