44) At Eternity’s Gate

On the Threshold of Eternity

       At Eternity’s Gate is an oil painting that Vincent van Gogh made in 1890.  The painting was completed in early May at a time when he was convalescing from a severe relapse in his mental health troubles, and just two months before his death, generally accepted as a suicide.  The painting was based on an earlier pencil drawing (1882) which van Gogh called Worn Out, of an old pensioner and war veteran, Adrianus Zuyderland, at a local poorhouse in The Hague.

     In an 1882 letter to his brother, Van Gogh wrote of his drawing:  “It seems to me that a painter has a duty to try to put an idea into his work.  I was trying to say in this print…, that it seems to me that one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the existence of ‘something on high…,’ namely in the existence of a God and an eternity, is the moving quality… in the expression of an old man like that, without his being aware of it perhaps, as he sits so quietly in the corner of his hearth.  (There is) something precious, something noble (in such a man), that can’t be meant for the worms…  This is far from all theology– simply the fact that the poorest woodcutter, farmer, or miner can have moments of emotion and mood that give him a sense of an eternal home that he is close to.”

     Writing about At Eternity’s Gate in 1990 the American theologian Kathleen Powers Erickson remarked:  “Belief in a ‘life beyond the grave’ is central to one of van Gogh’s first accomplished lithographs, At Eternity’s Gate…  Done at The Hague in 1882, it depicts an old man seated by a fire, his head buried in his hands.  Near the end of his life van Gogh recreated this image in oil, while recuperating in the asylum at St. Rémy.  Bent over with his fists clenched against a face hidden in utter frustration, the subject appears engulfed in grief.  Certainly, the work would convey an image of total despair had it not been for the English title van Gogh gave it, At Eternity’s Gate.  It demonstrates that even in his deepest moments of sorrow and pain, van Gogh clung to a faith in God and eternity, which he tried to express in his work…”  (see meditation #43)

     Van Gogh lost his battle for sanity, but did he cling to faith in God as Powers believes?  His faith was certainly conflicted, but was he hanging on by a thread?  Does the painting At Eternity’s Gate reflect only despair at the prospect of death, or does the title and van Gogh’s letter to his brother suggest some kind of faith and hope in the face of death?  The bullet van Gogh shot into his chest was deflected by a rib and did not hit any major organs.  He lived for 29 hours before dying of infection.  What did he think about during that time?

     Van Gogh certainly felt forsaken.  Jesus himself felt that way, crying out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  But then in his very last words, when he was himself at eternity’s gate, Jesus prayed “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  That is the very best prayer for us to remember when we approach that gate.

     The story of Vincent van Gogh’s troubled life and faith reminds me of of many of the Psalms, especially Psalm 73 which reads in part (verses 21-26): 

“When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.  Yet I am always with you;  you hold me by my right hand.  You guide me with your counsel,  and afterward you will take me into glory.  Whom have I in heaven but you?   And earth has nothing I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

———————————

Fourteen years before his death, while still serving as a pastor, Vincent van Gogh had this to say in a sermon preached on October 29, 1876:

“There is sorrow in the hour when a man is born into the world, but also joy– deep and unspeakable– thankfulness so great that it reacheth the highest Heavens…  There is sorrow in the hour of death – but there too is joy unspeakable when it is the death of one who has fought a good fight.  There is One who has said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, if any man believe in me, though he were dead yet shall he live.'” (John 11:25)

——————————–

Statenbijbel      This is a photo of van Gogh’s Bible, originally owned by Vincent’s father, the Reverend Theodorus van Gogh.  It is a nineteenth-century reprint of the Dutch Authorized Bible, published in 1714.  The Bible was found in the 1980’s on the premises of the church in Leiden.

Still life with Bible, by Vincent Van Gogh

Still life with Bible, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

 In 1885 Van Gogh painted this volume in his Still Life with Bible.  A crack in the spine still causes the book to fall open at Isaiah 53, precisely the page at which the Bible lies open in the painting.  Van Gogh would have found much comfort and hope in that chapter, as it foretold the coming life, ministry, and death of Jesus.

Isaiah 53:3  —  He was despised and rejected by mankind,  a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Isaiah 53:4-5  —  Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God,  stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

Isaiah 53:6  —  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

************************

A PRAYER OF ONE IN DESPAIR      From Psalm 31:9f

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak…
But I trust in you, Lord; I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hands…
Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love…
How abundant are the good things that you have stored up for those who fear you,
that you bestow in the sight of all, on those who take refuge in you….
In my alarm I said, “I am cut off from your sight!”
Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help…
Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.

*****************************

The Starry Night, June 1889, The Museum of Mod...

The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, June 1889

To hear the 1971 song Vincent (Starry Starry Night) by Don McClean, along with a slide show of van Gogh’s paintings, go to:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dipFMJckZOM

The song says nothing about van Gogh’s religious beliefs, but it is a beautiful song about his life.