Vincent van Gogh: The Misunderstood Minister
By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERUQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – July 9, 2015)
-- One of the most heart breaking and fascinating confluences of art
and ministry is found in the life of Vincent van Gogh (b. 1853 in
Zundert, Netherlands). Many know Vincent van Gogh as the brilliant,
often unrecognized, artist who fought depression, critics, a deep love
for his family (that he felt often rejected him), and a poor mental
state that led to a possible attempted suicide. Modern TV commercials,
like the Sherwin Williams paint parody, play up the cutting off of his
ear and his desire for things of beauty and color .
What many don’t realize is van Gogh was passionate about Jesus,
yearning to follow in his father, Dorus’, footsteps as a minister. And
even more intriguing, van Gogh was an admirer of devotional writer,
Thomas á Kempis, and pastor, Charles Spurgeon, whose church he attended
while in London.
I remember the first time I saw a series of van Gogh paintings in
person. A friend and I flew to Chicago for a Youth Specialties
conference in 1988. In between sessions we took in the town. At the Art
Institute of Chicago there was a Paul Gauguin and Friends
exhibit that had several van Gogh painting. I stood in front of a
self-portrait of van Gogh, enraptured by his colors, technique, and
style. I knew then and there that I was encountering genius. Upon our
return to California, I read some articles on van Gogh and bought some
prints to hang on my wall (which was a departure from my favorite artist
of the day, Picasso, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg).
I don’t recall most of the information in the articles I read. But I
do remember that they mentioned van Gogh’s ministry aspirations. As a
Christian, I was intrigued. Since then, van Gogh has had a reoccurring
presence in my life. Recently I began reading the marvelous book, Van Gogh: The Life
by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. In vivid detail they recount
van Gogh’s life from his childhood in the Netherlands to his death in
France. And in five chapters (5-9), Naifeh and Smith narrate van Gogh’s
vibrant and despondent (largely because it was unappreciated) desire for
Christ and ministry.
Here we learn that van Gogh came under the spell of Spurgeon (while
van Gogh was working in England at his uncle’s art shop, and later as a
teacher’s assistant). During this time van Gogh was known for his piety,
prayer, and evangelism. Vincent prayed, “We want to know that we are
Thine and that Thou art ours, we want to be Thine—to be Christians….”
Vincent craved to serve God, as a pastor or a missionary. He yearned “to
preach in ‘simplicity’ and ‘fullness of heart.’”
employer and headmaster of the school he worked, Reverend Slade-Jones,
allowed Vincent to travel and preach. On October 29th, Vincent delivered
his first sermon at the Richmond Methodist church. Naifeh and Smith
recall, “At the foot of the pulpit, he paused, bowed his head, and
prayed: ‘Abba, Father, in Thy name be our beginning.’” He chose his text
from the Psalms.
Moreover, Vincent was an admirer of hymns. Naifeh and Smith write,
“Hymns had become his hearts’ chief solace. He sang them every morning
and evening with his students in Bible study.”
Vincent “copied out long passages of scripture in Dutch, then
translated them into French, German, and English.” His roommate at the
time, Paulus Gorlitz, said, “If a beautiful text or a pious thought came
to him, he wrote it down.”
Van Gogh confessed, “The Bible is my solace, my support in life. It
is the most beautiful book I know.” Vincent went as far to “read it
daily [until] I know it by heart.”
Later, while visiting Paris, “Vincent spent every Sunday going from church to church in a marathon of devotion…”
Additionally, van Gogh hung artwork of Jesus on his wall, “until the
whole room was decorated with biblical images,” wrote Gorlitz, adding,
“Vincent lived like a saint” and was “frugal like a hermit.”
The description of his intense devotional and spiritual life could go on and on. Van Gogh read spiritual classics (Pilgrim’s Progress,
etc.), sought counsel from other ministers, prayed diligently, sang
hymns, taught, and wrote about the Christian life in letters.
So what happened? Why did Vincent leave the ministry? How did Vincent
go from his quest to preach to a life of despair? The question is very
difficult to answer. Naifeh and Smith give some hints: his “depressing
dependence,” a new vision for “it”—a pursuit of truth through the medium
of his imagination, or his re-kindling of his love of art. It’s
probably a combination of these things. When you add to this that his
own family didn’t encourage his ministry pursuits, Vincent turned to
what the world knows him by: art.
a certain extent, his loss of professional ministry is the world’s
gain—we received some of the most sublime, emotional, paintings ever
Yet it makes you think: what if Vincent pursued both art and ministry
(or maybe he did: his ministry through art?). What if Vincent lived
longer than his 37 years, giving the world more paintings, or possibly,
devotional books? And though many question his apparent suicide attempt
at an asylum (Naifeh and Smith surmise that he was shot by boys handling
a broken gun), his mental state and deep depression were constant
companions throughout his life, affording him little opportunity to
progress in any non-arts related fields.
But you have to wonder.
What we do know is that van Gogh was a genius of an artist, a
follower of Christ (with all his mishaps included), and a passionate
person. Furthermore, Vincent’s life challenges the Church to ask
questions on how to encourage artists. Does the Church provide artists
with purpose and a place for their art? Is the Church inspiring artist’s
in their pursuit of beauty, truth, and ideas? Or is the Church
discouraging artist’s ability and passion with prescribed plans for what
it means to live and work as a Christian?
These are questions we in the Church must ask.
I contend that van Gogh did minister with his art—even without any
formal ties to the ministry. For me, van Gogh was a misunderstood
Who knows—maybe the next Vincent van Gogh is sitting in our pews!
Let’s pray God gives insight into how to prepare artists for a life of
imagination, innovation, devotion, and a presence in the Body of Christ
that is both meaningful and ministering, using their art to expand the
beautiful Kingdom, the creative work of our loving Creator.
Photo captions: 1) The Night Café, van Gogh. 2) The Church of Auvers,
Vincent van Gogh. 3) Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh. 4) Brian Nixon.
the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He’s a
graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow
at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). As a published author, editor,
radio host, recording artist, and visual artist, Brian spends his free
time with his three children and wife, painting, writing music, reading,
and visiting art museums. To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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