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Artist Vincent Van Gogh: The "Misunderstood Minister" Who Was Passionate for Christ

Brian Nixon : Jul 13, 2015  Assist News Service

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.

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. (Self portrait/Vincent Van Gogh)

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 Friendsexhibit 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.'"

Vincent's employer and headmaster of the school he worked, Reverend Slade-Jones, allowed Vincent to travel and preach. OnOctober 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. (The Night Café, van Gogh.) 

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. (Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh)

To a certain extent, his loss of professional ministry is the world's gain—we received some of the most sublime, emotional, paintings ever created.

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 minister.
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.

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