By Sister Sharon Havelak, OSF –
Last November, I had the great fortune of visiting the Van Gogh in America exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I’d seen a few of his paintings before, “in real life,” usually a single painting at a time but I wasn’t prepared for the effect of roomfuls of works by the artist.
More than that, on the drive up to Detroit, one of the Sisters mentioned a book on Henri Nouwen’s lectures on Van Gogh, focusing on the spirituality behind his paintings. We had a wonderful conversation about that. I remembered finding a quote when I first began teaching art, that he wasn’t interested in replicating realistically the scene he was painting, but, rather, making visible its essence, what was more real than what the eye could see. After viewing the exhibit, I felt compelled to give a lecture on the subject.
Here it is, the end of Lent, and I’m deep into details of the artist’s life and paintings. Heading into Holy Week, I’m amazed to find that being immersed in the life of Vincent Van Gogh is actually a very good preparation. He isn’t “Saint Vincent” by any means, but I think I can easily justify making him an honorary Franciscan.
The man I’ve met in my studies is very human, and very honest about his failings. He’s suffered deeply, in his mental illness and other problems, many caused by his poor choices and his obsessions. But some were magnificent obsessions – his compassion for the poor, his longing to love and be loved, his desire to uplift others through his art, his urge to create works that make the innate presence of the divine visible to our eyes. Nothing was too simple, too lowly not to be imbued with God. And so he painted shoes and chairs and flowers and mailmen and farmers, simple subjects, with vibrant colors and brushstrokes filled with life.
He found healing in nature, walking in it, painting it. He painted fields filled with light, symbolic of God’s presence. He came to see everything, everyone as interconnected; each person, each creation part of a greater whole.
Failing as a preacher, he preached through his paintings and his many letters to his brother Theo, his relatives and friends. I was deeply touched when I read, “I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly’.” I realized that would pretty well sum up my feelings also. And I can’t help connect it with the saying of a Savior we celebrate this week who said, “I’ve come that you may have life and have it more abundantly.”
Brother Vincent, your life wasn’t easy, but it certainly was abundant. Thank you for showing us how to embrace our humanity and in it, find the divine.
Art – by Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Arles, November 1888, The Sower, oil on canvas, 32.5 cm x 40.3 cm, Credits: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)