Van Gogh and his churches
‘We are pilgrims, our life is a long walk or journey from earth to heaven’ –Van Gogh, Sermon,
Richmond Methodist church, 29 October, 1876
I may be making an assumption here, but I am not sure how well known it is that Van Gogh, the painter of vivid colourful brilliance, bold, brash contours and rakish forms was a religious man, who spent much of his life working out his private spiritual mission. Not only was he a preacher, but he wrote about and admired sentimental Victorian moralizing images of the poor: the needy and hungry – including the paintings of Hubert Herkomer and Frank Holl, whose art could not be more different to the work of Van Gogh – in particular his later ‘post-Impressionist’ work. What was a uniting force between them was their interest in the common man.
One of Van Gogh’s favourite works of literature was Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Process. A canonic religious text first published in 1678, drawing on the theme of the Christian on a journey, and rather like Dante in the Divine Comedy, witnesses the idea of moving to proceed and find awakening, moving from suffering, shadows, and the spectacle of death to the eventual finding of heaven, free of earthly and spiritual toil and trouble. No wonder Van Gogh found visual kinship with images of ordinary, everyday people. He also saw and felt suffering, anguish and religious pain. As an artist who came from Holland to England – living in Hastings, Ramsgate, Richmond and as somebody who travelled a lot,watching and wondering about lonely figures on roads; he seemed to have an affinity with those alone, silent, also waiting, wandering and wondering. Indeed he once wrote to his brother – Theo that he saw himself as a traveler, going somewhere and nowhere.
Yet from our perspective of seeing him as one of the great modern painters who transformed colour and brush in his inspired – stroke genius, it is interesting to see that one of his most treasured paintings was an image called God Speed, by George Boughton, dated 1874 (Van Gogh Museum), in which a landscape of heathland and paths intersect and where people stand and go, while some seated watch a young girl giving drink from a flagon to a man dressed in pilgrims’ clothing – with some of the insignia of pilgrim life – a staff and travelling bag.
This is the sort of image common in the medieval period –an image where one (usually one who can) figure is shown giving to another (one who can’t). These images of poverty and penury were allied to the theological dictate of the Seven Works of Mercy (see another entry – City Church Going at Dusk). As somebody who was transient, Van Gogh had a personal affinity with such people,as well as images of such people and his own spiritual searching. And indeed, illustrations from the Pilgrim’s Progress show thirsty and hungry strangers coming to gates and portals and archways in the hope of receiving succor, kindness and love. Bunyan himself spent some time on the road – he had been a tinker – or mender of pots and pans. I am reminded of St. Teresa of Avila who said that God was in the pots and the pans.
Having entered into the spirit of late 19th-century non-conformity, Van Gogh was not alone in seeing something to push against with mainstream religion as did other itinerants at the time such as cobblers, weavers and cheese-sellers who often preached alongside their activities in commerce. The historian E.P Thompson referred to Pilgrim’s Progress ‘as the inner spiritual landscape of the lower classes’. A book charting hardship on the road, in a Christian context, but which nourishes the idea of the person who walks along roads, but who can also enter a sort of spiritual richness through their sufferings and hardship.
Van Gogh not only sought to understand his place in a world challenging religion, but he wrote a sermon echoing Bunyan’s interest in pilgrims as Christians that he presented to Richmond Methodist church on 29 October, 1876. Written in small, neat, what looks like lined script; he writes ‘your life is a pilgrim’s progress’. And ‘our life is a long walk or journey from earth to heaven…’ He continued ‘the pilgrim goes on sorrowful yet always rejoicing, sorrowful because it is so far off and the road so long. Hopeful as he looks up to the eternal city far away…’ Van Gogh was following a tradition of the image of the silent traveler or wayfarer from religious illuminated manuscripts where on the borders of the pages we see poorly clad, bare-footed, sometimes with begging bowl and staff figures. We can never be sure of their purpose, but they might have served as a timely reminder to the elite book owners, as they followed their liturgical hours that the needy poor need to be remembered.
The Macclesfield Psalter, c. 1330, fol. 98r, The Fitzwilliam Museum
The image of the lonely pilgrim, or beggar on the move, or figure alone on a road, has lived on in different contexts in art – in the background of the so-called Bosch ‘Wayfarer’ Bosch, The Wayfarer, and a later example – in the work of Grayson Perry for example – Perry, ghost, wayfarer. The travelers shown can be seen as either with a purpose or destination or having neither. The striking thing about these images of the ‘moving’ figure is that we cannot know them intimately, as we do not know where they are headed. But by the nature of their movement, we suppose they must be going somewhere – or indeed nowhere. And the point is that somehow they can ‘move’ us in strange, intangible ways. Thus the image becomes a distinctive one as there is a veil of uncertainty about it. We are not always sure what to think. Images of strangers who go unnoticed, but who, just like us who witness them have lives and loves, needs and hopes and desires. And the theme of the lonely traveler carries a resonant tread in Van Gogh’s oeuvre – the figure on the road, in the far distance, the road stretching back a long way, sometimes bleak and barren, sometimes with a church or a line of trees. An evocation of the lonely traveler, made more mysterious by it being painted and plunged into darkness against a red setting sun is seen in his painting – Lane of poplars at Sunset.
Van Gogh, Lane of poplars at Sunset, Oct-Nov, 1885
He also, like Bunyan identified with the idea of a world that was free from material possession, but rich in spiritual ownership owing to what he believed was being a member of the lower classes – where God saw virtue in humility and renunciation, even though not through choice.
Van Gogh also worked as a helper in Isleworth’s Congregational and Methodist churches. He also attended the chapel at Petersham, the exquisite 18th-century perfectly cubed space with its original pews intact. And when he first came to England, he also spent some time drawing some churches. One of which was the Austin Friars church in the City of London. In Dutch beside the drawing dated to 1876 he wrote ‘ this little church is a remarkable remnant of an old Augustinian foundation’. He may have visited the church with his sister, to whom he gave the drawing. The church was founded in 1253 by Humphrey de Bohun, Constable of England. The Bohun family was well known collectors of illuminated religious books with contained miniatures and illustrations of everyday people in them. See for example http://www.medievalhistories.com/psalter-hours-humphrey-de-bohun/ – a brief summary of Humphrey’s Psalter and Book of Hours. I started this entry with Van Gogh, his profound faith, his interest in solitary travelers on roads, whom he likens to his own search for a spiritual heart and which is compared to Bunyan’s text and contemporary images of the poor who claim a hold on the riches of Heaven. I likened this thread to medieval images of similar figures in holy books. And so the wheel comes full circle. Van Gogh visited Austin Friars church and Humphrey de Bohun is buried there. And so is, I understand, Richard Fitz Alan, Earl of Arundel – who may have owned the Macclesfield Psalter (for which see above). I started this entry without knowing that I would find these links and associations.
It has been a rewarding journey.
Sketch of Petersham and Turnham Green Churches, included in a letter to his brother – Theo, 25 November, 1876.
‘We are pilgrims in the earth and strangers – we come from afar and we are going far’. – Van Gogh, Richmond, Sermon.
Art – Stanley Spencer, Cookham and the Last Supper
By and by on that Thursday, I got to Cookham, not with a church in mind or even in view. En route to Derbyshire, I found a diversion, albeit a long-held desire to visit the gallery dedicated to the art of Stanley Spencer (1891-1951).And with that irresistible tool of sat. nav, a circuitous route to Cookham, avoiding the M25. Never before have I driven from the south of the M25 to the north of the M25 without going near it, or on it. And my alternative route went through Magna Carta country and the lush meadow of Runnymede that looks how in my romantic imaginings, it would have looked then in 1215. And then there was Windsor Castle (never ever been to, wonder if I ever will) – oh and the tempting sign to the chapel at Royal Holloway College and oh, a place called old Egham. How enticing are those brown signs.
I parked at old Cookham (well, a sort of 19th century- ish high street), near the River Thames – having driven past bits of river, the odd boat, the gate to luxury and remote controlled houses. Lots of roads leading to gates either side and lots of distant residents, who probably have houses near other water-ways. A welter of wealth amidst water which also rather cannily circuits and circumvents the M25 stretching from the Surrey hills sort of Epson Downs way to Maidenhead – so that the residents can forget the proximity of their houses to speed and pollution. As for Cookham – a little on the edge. But no matter. Spencer loved his beloved Cookham.
He was born here, he came, he went, and he came back again. I knew I had some exquisitely brilliant paintings to behold: gardening couples, ladies gossiping over garden fences, portraits of himself and his mistress. I was hoping to see the artist’s mind-blowing Last Supper in the gallery here in a suitably resplendent setting. Here is a poor reproduction: Spencer, Last Supper (1920). Curiously we have to see it by perching on a staircase leading up to a mezzanine level where a few more paintings are hung. Alternatively, one has to strain neck and eye to see it above by standing in the ground floor gallery. To be precise, this wondrous painting is hanging above a door as if there is nowhere else to place it. But its dynamism tells me that there is no doubt that Christ’s announcement of the betrayal has been made. Although the Last Supper is a famous image in the history of art, we do not always look long enough to see which part of the Last Supper narrative is being enacted. And not all images of the Last Supper actually depict the moment when Christ says that one of his men will betray him. Essentially, the Last Supper marks two aspects – the first, the giving of the communion and the second – the devastating announcement. The moment when Christ says, ‘In truth… I tell you, one of you is going to betray me’. And the disciples look around, up, down, gaze, wonder, agitate – all in disbelief. Some Last Supper images depict both aspects, some just one or the other. But one has to really look.
Leonardo’s version is world famous. In his treatment, he shows the betrayal announcement reaction. Does that make his painting better than other versions because the moment of recognition and reaction is rendered? Could it be that he does it almost too obviously and predictably? Just because the apostles are shown reacting does not mean to say that he treats the narrative in a more realistic fashion. After all, people react to bad or shocking news in different ways. In the gospel of John (13:26) it is asked, ‘Lord who is it? And Jesus says ‘It is the man to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish’. Here in Spencer’s version, we see Judas, his right hand poised to put in one of the bowls, while his head is sunk into his other hand resting on his face. It must be him, yet can we really know? Sometimes a tell-tale sign is that Judas is without a halo. Here though, none of them have a halo. They are simply dressed in white and all have thick black hair, smoothed down onto the shoulders. And the man next to Judas has a beard. In other versions, Judas is often shown with a beard. Between these two figures is both cast shadow and a charge of light. Spencer adds mystery to the scene which Leonardo doesn’t.
Christ’s mouth is not open as if to speak. The apostles’ faces are barely visible, save for a few on the right. One is looking quizzically, as his right hand is raised to his chin. And here John, though bent into Christ’s body is awake. In other versions, he is often slumped asleep in Christ’s lap. See for example – Ghirlandaio – Last Supper. Although he is on Christ’s body to denote youthful adoration of his Master, in the Spencer he is wakeful. There is nothing somber, sleepy or serene about the image at all.
The force of the announcement is felt physically. The apostles’ legs and feet are stretched out, their garments taught with the stretch. Even post Leonardo and the weighty legacy of that depiction, Spencer brings new energy to this well-known narrative. And to the left, in the brick layered interior, it is as if a gust of wind has blown angels in – but not, it is the Apostles’ white robes lifted, their hands to, one side – almost levitating, they are reacting with their bodies, as they turn slightly inwards. The physicality that Spencer uses to show one moment in Christ’s life is the quintessence of what is seen as his unconventional approach to depicting Christianity. And that physicality is a cry to the apostles to walk out the door and help change the world. As Spencer renders the event, the apostles will be energetic spring-boards for action. But only when they have recovered from what they have heard. Without realizing it at the time, I was seeing the picture on the day that we commemorate the Last Supper event – Maundy Thursday –and which for Judas and his followers was a celebration of the Jewish feast of Passover – interestingly meaning ‘festival of freedom’.
Christ wants them to make a snap decision to evangelise after his departure. The stretched out legs are a call to go forth. And it is the bodies that will do it, rather than the apostles who in other portrayals –seem to lack an energy that will take them out of the room – even in Leonardo – Last Supper. Spencer does something more abstract, more oblique, far more risky – but it works. I thought back to my drive through Runnymede and the place where the barons called on King John to cede such over-bearing power. Here, Christ, about to accept vulnerability in the face of resistance, denial and power from his enemies, wants his apostles to wrestle free from old power and perform a revolution that he can no longer do. And the energy he wills is felt through the body, rather than the head. The faces are barely delineated. It is all in the form and line of the body. There is not even a place in the face for a hint of their voices; no part-opened lips. Indeed, faces are barely seen. It is movement that will matter – movement for further announcements all over the Holy land. Yet here was Spencer painting some of the time from a small village with a little parish church – a church profoundly unrelated to the Last Supper and both unrelated to Spencer. Yet, here lay his brilliance – he envisions major Christian subjects such as the Last Supper and the Resurrection with characters who he might have seen down at the local. He does for Cookham what Gaugin did for Brittany.
And in the parish church, there is a charming stone carving by Stanley Spencer’s daughter – Unity. It was made in 1950 as a commemorative panel to her parents. There is also a copy of the Last Supper in the church, but what folly not to put the original here, given the unfortunate location of it in the gallery. While the Last Supper image may seem out of place in an English stone parish church, at least with more space, it could have better viewing points. And which are so richly deserved.
See the image I have taken of the view into the church from the west end where flowers were being prepared for Easter services. See too the image of stained glass in the window reflected in the glass of the entrance portico and further high lit by light on rafters on the ceiling. Before me, but accessible to a mobile phone were accidental images of powerful light in mirrored and glassed filters. And by contrast, see too, the photo of the little fire in a tray placed beside the red vestments for the priests. I could not help but see colour symbolism in the red and the light and the fire to be – the passion of flames by the red of clothes and the thought of the drops of Christ’s blood. And then there were the flowers by the filing cabinets. They were a reminder that here in Cookham I wasn’t anywhere near an upper room or any re-imagining of a Maundy Thursday supper, but at the entrance to a cold parish church situated benignly and innocently beside the River Thames.