Sunday with Van Gogh...

There is a massive Van Gogh exhibit taking place in Ottawa this summer and we're heading off to see it in an hour.  In light of my observations about beauty and social resistance yesterday - and as part of my on-going summer reflection - let me share with you some words from Mako Fujimura (one of my favorite artist theologians.)  Writing about Van Gogh in the context of a college commencement address, Mako notes:

Not many know that Vincent was born in a lineage of Dutch Reformed pastors and he himself trained for and desired to become a pastor. It was only when the church rejected his plea, that he instead opted to work as an evangelist to the poor. Among the poor, he lived with them in a Franciscan devotion, living in squalid conditions. The church authorities who sent him there was appalled by the conditions Vincent chose to live in, rejected him again, and pronounced him "unfit for the dignity of the priesthood." Vincent spoke five languages and wrote fluently in three. Today, his many letters are considered by Dutch literature experts to be one of their masterpieces of epistles...

So let us consider the Starry Night, the famed landscape he painted in Arles. Notice that at the very center of the painting is a white Dutch Reformed church, which did not exist in Arles. Vincent imported a church building of his childhood, pasting it into the landscape of Arles because he wanted to create a parable of his own life.

If you are to take out the church (place a pinky over the church) from the painting, the whole painting falls apart visually. It is the only vertical form, aside from the dominant cypress tree on the left, which juts out to break the horizontal planes. The cypress tree and the church are two forms that connect heaven and earth. Without the church, the cypress tree takes over the swirl of movement, and there's no visual center to hold the painting in tension between heaven and earth.

Notice, too, that homes surrounding the church are lit with warm light, but the church is the only building in the painting that is completely dark. Herein lies Vincent's message: the Spirit has left the church (at least the building), but is alive in Nature. If you follow the visual flow of the painting, your eye will cycle upward, but still anchored by the church building. Our gaze will end up on the right upper hand corner, at the Sun/Moon. Notice it is not just a moon, or a sun, but a combination. Vincent wanted to show that the Spirit of God transcends even Nature herself, that in resurrection, in the New Earth and the new Heaven, a complete new order will shape things to come...
Art poses questions; art probes into our lives as living parables. So the question I ask of you is this: What do we do if Vincent is right; what do we do in a culture in which the light of the Spirit has gone out of the church buildings and instead went swirling into Nature and into the margins of the life? What do you do in a culture in which the church stands as a structural homage to the moral underpinning which keeps the world from falling apart?
Like Mako I have come to see how essential it is for the church to not only be welcoming artists into our communities so they might share their works, but we must be nurturing and forming new artists who are eager to share the light of the Creator with the world in new ways.


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