“What am I in the eye of most people? A nonentity, an eccentric, an unpleasent person, somebody who has no position in society and never will – in short, the lowest of the low. All right then, even if that were absolutely true, I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”
Vincent Van Gogh
The life of Vincent Van Gogh has always stuck a chord within me. I fear it’s because I have a little bit of him inside. He was a man of God, but had such great empathy and idealism that didn’t do well in the cold, cynical world. That same empathy that caused such vivid art was also the same empathy in which he tried to follow the convictions of what love was. That great empathy was likely met with greater disappointment. That ark of empathy seemed worn down by the deluge of the suffering around him. Some nights, especially the cold ones, I feel a little worn down by what I see in the world around me too.
Today, most people know him as a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter that was famous in the history of Western art. But he was considered a madman and a failure in his lifetime. Isn’t the world so fickle? That decades later, Vincent would become the subject that lights fire to our imagination, and a symbol of a beauty that is rarely seen in this world?
Was he really a madman?
I find the world is very liberal to use this term on people which they cannot understand. In their world, he might be the failure. Yet, in his world, they might be the ones that were ignorant.
Born into an upper-middle-class family, Van Goh drew as a child and was serious, quiet and thoughtful, but showed signs of mental instability. As a young man he worked as art dealer, often travelling. He spent time as a missionary in southern Belgium. Later he drifted in ill-health and solitude, and took up painting in 1881. (parts taken from Wikipedia)
Going past the surface, I see actions that are not the acts of a “madman”.
Vincent had a lifelong friendship and exchanged hundreds of letters with his brother Theo. Vincent’s letters were characterized as “eloquent and expressive.” They have been described as having a “diary-like intimacy” (1)
Vincent’s letters spoke of intimacy and a connection to thought and expression. To write hundreds of letters and receive hundreds back doesn’t not suggest a failure or madman. His brother was pleased to read them, reply back and support Vincent.
In his early years, Vincent had a desire to become a pastor. He would do things people thought were “extreme” as it brought harm to himself. In January 1879 Van Gogh because a missionary in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. To show support for his impoverished congregation, he gave up his comfortable lodgings at a bakery to a homeless person, and moved to a small hut where he slept on straw. (2) This looked like the most sacrificial and beautiful act that Jesus would be proud of. But his squalid living conditions did not endear him to church authorities, who dismissed him for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood”. Vincent was ascribed madness for beauty.
For years, Vincent would be known for cutting off his ear off and giving it to a girl (supposed prostitute) in a brothel. This further pushed the narrative to dismiss his actions as mad, that were wasn’t anything worth looking at under the surface. Again, Vincent was ascribed madness for beauty.
New research has shown that the recipient was a young woman named Gabrielle Berlatier, with whom it seems Van Gogh was acquainted, and not a prostitute, as had previously been assumed in some quarters. She was a farmer’s daughter who lived north of Arles, France, and she received the ear when she was working as a maid in the brothel. Her name was found in the records of the Institut Pasteur in Paris, where she had been ministered to for an almost fatal case of rabies. Her left arm having been mauled by a dog on January 8, 1888, Berlatier was subject to an agonizing burning and decontamination procedure with a red-hot iron. (3)
In order words, she was poor, in a low place, sick, and mutilated by the bites and the subsequent burns.
Even up to now, with the new research, people are still asking why would Vincent give a piece of his ear to an 18 year old who had her fair share of suffering.
Simple. Because Jesus did the same thing.
Jesus came down to the world that was suffering. Jesus came for the lost, the despairing, the cast-aways. God was showing us that though we do not know all the answers to our despair now, He will come and suffer with us. He will endure all sorts of suffering. He was physically mutilated. He was spat on. He was condemned. He was made into a public mockery. He was called mad.
God did this to show us on this side of earth the extent of His love for us in ways we as human beings can understand. We can extrapolate this love into our journeys and even into the unknowns. It’s this love that gives us the reason why God will care enough for us to have a purpose for us. We aren’t a statistic.
Back to Vincent.
Van Gogh had the clarity of God’s heart, but lack God’s power. He loved deeply, but didn’t have the power to change. Because Van Gogh could not remove her suffering, he did the best thing he knew to do. He showed that he was willing to suffer with her, and mutilate himself to show she was not “a freak”. So she would know she is precious and not alone. Van Gogh couldn’t cure her body, so he tried to cure her soul. Think of how people today shave their heads to show support to cancer patients. I’ve always thought those gestures were more of a frivolous positive gesture than true empathy. True love and empathy involves sacrifice. Give 3 months of your paycheck. Service the poor on the regular basis. For Van Gogh, he too was broke. He had no money to give. So he gave his body. He mutilated himself to show love to Berlatier.
Was Van Gogh mad? Or did he just see things too clearly? Did he see the real suffering of the world, and experience the appropriate grief at how fallen it is while the world chugs along oblivious in their treadmill of comforts?
But Van Gogh is not the only one people have called “mad”. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Jesus, and Paul of Tarsus, all whom have had lasting effects on the world, and have truly made their marks on people. They have all been called “mad” at one point. It seems like the world is not prepared for beauty that challenges the core of our being. Leave me to my comforts!
Are people calling you mad, or a failure? Are you treated like a Pariah?
I don’t wish that you would be cast away like Van Gogh, however, perhaps God is building up great beauty in you. A beauty that transcends generations.
My prayer for you is that while there is great beauty in you that sees suffering, you will be augmented with God’s transformative grace in your life. That you will thrive where Van Gogh did not, and be able to change the world without being destroyed and helpless in the process.
It’s a Starry Starry Night.