"Vincent Van Gogh and the Beauty of Lent"


Ash Wednesday

SCRIPTURE: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Matthew 6:21

PAINTING: “Still Life with Bible,” by Vincent van Gogh


One of Van Gogh’s relatively early paintings is “Still Life with Bible,” an image some interpret as indicating a turn away from his Christian upbringing and toward modern literature – and in particular, toward “Joie de Vivre,” the enjoyment of life, the title of the novel by Emile Zola on the table beside Van Gogh’s father’s Bible.

But if we look closer, we can see that Van Gogh intended to evoke not a disjunction, but rather a deep kinship between Scripture and modern literature. The Bible in the painting is open to Isaiah 53 (“ISAIE LIII”), where the prophet declares how God’s salvation will take place through a “suffering servant,” a figure Christians traditionally identify with Jesus. 

And Zola’s novel, as Van Gogh knew well, is ironically titled: its heroine, Pauline Quenu, is an orphan who undergoes a life of adversity and harm – a modern icon, as Van Gogh saw it, of living as a “suffering servant.”

In a letter to his sister, Vincent put it this way: “I myself am always glad that I have read the Bible more thoroughly than many people nowadays, because it eases my mind somewhat to know that there were once such lofty ideas.

But because of the very fact that I think the old things so beautiful, I must think the new things beautiful with all the more reason" (Letter to Willemien, #1).

For Vincent, there are many ways to God: “one man wrote or told it in a book; another, in a picture” (Letter to Theo, #133).

And for his part, Vincent wanted to live as a kind of suffering servant: “I tell you, I consciously choose the dog’s path through life; I will remain a dog, I shall be poor, I shall be a painter, I want to remain human – going into nature” (Letter to Theo, #347).



As Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality and vulnerability, in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges us to reflect on what we’re living for, what’s really driving our actions.

As we pray, give, refrain, or consume – in other words, as we live our lives – are we trying to impress others, to store up “treasures on earth”? Or are we  instead living with true humility and grace, putting our hearts in the right place?

Van Gogh’s “Still Life” invites us to recognize that the way of humility includes suffering – not that we should in any way pursue suffering or seek to prolong it, but rather that we embrace the truth that following Jesus, the “suffering servant,” means encountering difficulties and losses.

The Way of Love and Justice always does – even as it also includes plenty of blessings and “joie de vivre.” This wisdom is as ancient as the prophets of old, and as current as the best novelists and poets today.

The Spirit is at work everywhere! All of which raises the questions: Where do you sense the Spirit in your life?

As Lent begins, what new steps toward humility, love, and joy is God prompting you to take?

More Light

Pair these meditations with Van Gogh’s “The Good Samaritan,” “The Raising of Lazarus,” and “Pieta” – all interpretations of works by other painters Van Gogh admired. Note that he often used his own face as a model, including for Lazarus and Jesus.


+ For the rest of this week, begin each day by lighting a candle of reflection, praying, “God of light and life, as this season begins, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. Help us to notice the changing light, and to sense your Spirit in all things, old and new, difficult and joyful. Help us put our hearts in the right place. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” 

+ Make a special effort to notice the light and color in the world this week (or all Lent long); keep a “visual journal” as a tool for reflection. Try to see with a painter’s eyes. Which colors feature in the world around you these days, indoors and out, and how do they change over the course of the season?

And as this forty-day journey begins, what goals do you have? How do you hope to reorder your motives and priorities for how you pray, give, refrain, and consume?

+ If you were to depict the idea that the Holy Spirit moves through both Scripture and the arts, how would you compose the picture? To what page would the Bible be opened?

And what work of art would you place beside it? Record your ideas in your journal – and share and discuss them with family or friends, over a meal or online.