A Gospel for Van Gogh

By Hillary Asbury

I suppose Vincent Van Gogh isn’t quite what we’d consider a religious artist. His style is unique and expressive; the subjects of most of his paintings include landscapes, still life’s, and figures, and although less popular than his other work, he did actually create some religious work. When you consider that his father and grandfather were ministers and that he was once dedicated to following in their footsteps, it isn’t all that surprising. The fact remains, though, that one of his most famous pieces is a rather unflattering painting of a church.

In 1877 Van Gogh began studying theology in Amsterdam. The academic requirements were too strenuous, however, and the teachings incongruent with his beliefs, so in 1878 he relocated to Brussels to pursue a shorter program and become an evangelical missionary. After three months he left to take a position as a lay preacher and evangelist in Belgium. He was eventually asked to leave the position due to his extreme beliefs and behavior. Fueled by his family, who made it very clear how disappointed they were in his repeated failures, Van Gogh suffered a major spiritual crisis soon afterwards. In 1880 he abandoned all hope of a religious career and turned his sole focus to art alone.

A decade later Van Gogh, who was suffering from severe mental illness and emotional instability, had settled in the south of France where he painted “The Church at Auvers”.  This painting clearly reflects his turbulent feelings for the Church. The sky is dark, foreboding, and the church has cast a shadow over itself. Its colors are dark and muted, the lines of its structure are eerie and otherworldly. Indeed, the only part of the painting which looks joyful is that which has not been touched by the shadow of the church.

“The Church at Auvers”, 1890, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

What a sad reality we witness when we view this painting- not one lived only by Van Gogh either, but by many of those who have been deeply wounded by the church. What a troubling thing to realize that this is a reflection of how so many people feel when they behold their neighborhood church. “The Church at Auvers” doesn’t look comforting, or like a house of God. It looks scary- threatening. This is not how I see my church. Its not how I want others to see it either but I can see how it happens, how pain caused by our sinful nature gets in the way of the Gospel.

Imagine what would have happened if Van Gogh had a different relationship with the church. What if he had been given different support or better encouragement? What if he had encountered a better theology or had the gospel spoken to him more often? What if he had been rejected less by the Church and loved more by it? It doesn’t sound like Van Gogh was cut out to be a preacher, but would he have been more dedicated to speaking the gospel through his artwork? Would he have at least had a better relationship with the Church or even suffered less?

Perhaps nothing would have changed. Maybe he would have been just as agitated with the church and would have endured the same anguish. We’ll never know. I still can’t help but wonder, though.