Today my dear friend and priest Emily Hylden offered us The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh. And, she has used her remarkable ability to unearth a apt metaphor by comparing the scene depicting the eating of potatoes and the drinking of coffee to that of the widow offering all she had in her offering at the Temple as recounted in the Gospel of Saint Luke (Luke 21:1-4) Jesus also uses that event as a metaphor for how we should be, that is sacrificial. Giving away what you don’t really need does not fulfill the expectation and does not emulate Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. As Christians we are called to a sacrificial existence and certainly one that is very counter-cultural.
As for Vincent Van Gogh I find him to be absolutely fascinating as a man and as an artist. It is to be expected that there is deep religious symbolism in his work as he was a deeply religious man who entertained the idea of a clerical career and one who suffered from what we like to refer to as mental illness. Sometimes I wonder if “mentally ill” people aren’t simply people who are gifted in ways we simply do not understand and imbued with spiritual gifts the rest of us will simply never have and which enable them to see and experience things far beyond our comprehension. And, negatively their gifts allow them to experience a terror which tends toward self-destruction.
For a period in his life, around 1879, Van Gogh worked as a missionary in a mining region of Belgium and it was in this context that The Potato Eaters was painted in 1885 with its somber earth tones. Later around 1886 Van Gogh moved to Paris and was influenced greatly by the French Impressionists. It was under their influence that he adopted a much more vivid color scheme in his work provoking a more impressionist effect. Compare The Potato Eaters with its somber grey earth tones with the Raising of Lazarus (1890) and its vivid greens, yellows and blues and a fortiori the self-portrait (1889) employing bright blues, yellows and reds.
The circumstances surrounding the loss of Van Gogh’s left ear are not entirely known. His slicing of his ear with a razor occurred during a period in which he was visited by a fellow artist, Paul Gauguin. It is believed that Gauguin’s departure from Van Gogh’s company is what may have prompted the slicing of the ear. Oddly, Van Gogh wrapped his wound in a bandage and wrapped the ear in newspaper and delivered it to a local brothel that he and Gauguin had both frequented.
At age 37 Vincent Van Gogh died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.