Wednesday, December 25, 2019

John 1.1-18: Word, Light, Life

The opening words of John's gospel are familiar, in part because of their resemblance to the opening words of Genesis. The words take us back to the beginning, before things were created. Before then, John's gospel tells us, there was the Word (John 1:1-18). In somewhat circular language, the gospel writer talks about the world and the Word, light and life, acceptance and rejection, John and Jesus. The language is generally considered lofty and theological, ascending toward heaven, rather than concrete and earthbound. That is why John's symbol in the tetramorph of the four evangelists is the eagle.
Vincent Van Gogh. Still Life with Bible. 1885. Amsterdam: Vincent Van Gogh Museum. 
The early Van Gogh shown here may at first glance seem a plodding comparison to the lofty language of the gospel, but the painting seems to embody the two sides of the text: old and new, accepted and rejected, light and life...all in the context of the word. Van Gogh painted the work after the death of his father, a Dutch Reformed minister.

The Bible is open to Isaiah 53:3-4: He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

The colors are muted and dark. Perhaps the painting intended the work as a study of black. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh talked about Theo's comments about black as a color. He then wroteIn answer to your description of the study by Manet, I send you a still-life of an open - so a broken white - Bible bound in leather, against a black background, with a yellow-brown foreground, with a touch of citron yellow. The bright yellow (so familiar in Van Gogh's palette) stands out against the darkness (which the artist appreciated as much as the light). The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There is a candle, extinguished, a symbol of the artist's recently deceased father. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

Here is the Word in a  hefty, leather-bound volume. Beside the Bible, Van Gogh has placed his own yellow-bound copy of Emile Zola's novel La Joie de Vivre (The Joy of Living). The two books symbolize the conflicting world views of the artist and his father - though a summary of the novel reveals a story anything but joyful. Though Van Gogh was calling attention to the difference between the Bible and modern literature as dueling sources of authority, neither his dealings with the church or with modern life had led him to a happy state or a successful place. He himself continued to search for what would bring him to life. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

On Art&Faith Matters, see where else that yellow book shows up in Van Gogh's paintings.

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