The Common Good
September-October 1999

Glimpses of God Outside the Temple

by Rose Marie Berger | September-October 1999

The spiritual vision of Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O'Keefe, and Andy Warhol.

I don’t usually cry in museums. In fact, for a long time I never went to museums. All that changed when I saw my first real Van Gogh. It was "Fields and Blue Sky" that slayed me with its stormy violet sky, pale green and gold fields, and splash of red in the foreground. I wanted to prostrate myself before the power of that painting. It was raw worship. A holy suspension. Is this what Moses felt when the cloud of Yahweh descended on the Tent of Meeting? For those moments I felt like I knew the God of the Tent—the one not confined to temples or official places of worship, but the God who walks in our everyday.

Much of the religious art in the United States has little to do with the wild, storm-swept Spirit of God that moves across the face of the deep saying "Let there beà." But artists who keep fidelity with their art will go to great lengths to live out of God’s intrinsic freedom. Three artists of the past 150 years who demonstrated that fidelity in their creations are Vincent Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Andy Warhol. Van Gogh died in obscurity, wishing to be famous. O’Keeffe died famous, wishing she had lived undisturbed. Warhol lived and died flamboyantly, but with a secret life about which few knew.

Post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh’s whole life was consumed by his Christian faith and how to sanctify the secular. He was an artist-priest. "I prefer painting people’s eyes rather than cathedrals," he said, "for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral—a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker."

The eldest son of a Dutch Reformed pastor, Van Gogh’s early years were characterized by a single question: What must I do to be saved? Kathleen Powers Erickson, author of At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent Van Gogh, points us to what he was reading in those days: the book of Isaiah, St. Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. He also listened to the revivalists Dwight Moody and Charles Spurgeon.

In 1878, Van Gogh left the seminary he’d been attending, gave away all that he had, and lived in abject poverty as a missionary to the coal mining poor of Borinage, Belgium. His literal practice of the Sermon on the Mount won him the respect of the poor but the disdain of the institutional church. By 1885 Van Gogh had abandoned the established church and rejected "the whole system of religion," though not religion itself. He wrote, "That [rejection] does not keep me from having a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars."

Even though Van Gogh sold only one painting while he was alive, he felt his life’s work was near completion when he painted "The Starry Night" (1889). It is his celebration of mystical union with the Divine, his resurrection story. It contains the three key symbolic elements of his life, faith, and art—the church and village, the cypress tree, and the sky.

The church—tall, forbidding, and dark—reflects his understanding of the unenlightened theology and preaching he found in the church of his day, while the homes of ordinary people in the painting pour forth with light. The cypress tree explodes from the earth, twisted and agonized; it is Van Gogh’s crucifixion of Christ, meant also to symbolize our own daily suffering. The sky, however, has the last word. Vast and magnificent, it fills three-quarters of the canvas. This is God, the mystical nature of the Divine, the transcendent breadth of the Spirit.

Van Gogh was rejected by and then abandoned the compromises of institutional religion. In that movement he gained freedom but lost community. This loss proved to be fatal. When his dream of an artists’ community at the Yellow House in Arles failed, he had no buffer against despair. He sacrificed himself in the only way that made sense to him—gunshot wounds to the chest, mingling his blood with a wheat field.

IN MANY WAYS Modernist Georgia O’Keeffe inherited Van Gogh’s spiritual palette. She chose her colors to reflect a particular spiritual state in herself and invite the viewer into it. Distinct from Van Gogh, she pursued her freedom not by immersion in the life of the poor, but in living like a desert monk. When the Trappist monk Thomas Merton met O’Keeffe in 1967, he described her as "a woman of extraordinary quality, life, full of resiliency, awareness, quietnessà who quietly does everything right." It’s a statement reminiscent of Merton’s description of the Desert Fathers who met the forces of the universe square on.

O’Keeffe was raised Catholic, attended an Episcopal high school, and taught in a Methodist college. While she did not speak of a deeply biblical faith, she was gripped by an understanding of the spiritual nature of art and viewed her life as a calling in which she was bound "to fill space in a beautiful way."

Seeking to transcend time and space in her work, O’Keeffe was greatly influenced by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky posits the inner necessity of the artist being blind to the demands of conventions in a particular age. Instead, he said, the artist must hone her ability to hearken to the inner word and paint from the necessity found there.

O’Keeffe’s spiritual infusion of color is shown to best advantage in her large canvas poppies, lilies, and cannas. Despite the bias that pushed the public to see work by women artists in primarily sexual ways, she rejected this interpretation. Her flowers, she indicated, were an intense experience of incarnation. They force the viewer to stop, to look. As chanting the psalms tunes our ear to the majesty of God, so the detail of an O’Keeffe "Poppy" hones our eyes to the loving detail of the Creator.

Though O’Keeffe never spoke overtly about her faith, art historian Robert Rosenblum writes that she brought the same "passionate search for religious truth" to her Ranchos Church and Penitente Cross series that Van Gogh brought to his paintings of church towers. Galleries rarely show O’Keeffe’s series of crosses, even though they mark particular milestones in her ongoing exploration of self-understanding. According to Jan Garden Castro’s The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, her "Cross With Red Heart" (1932) represents a need to "resurrect her heart, to anchor her spirit, and yet set it in the sky." Soon after completing this painting, she began her regular trips to the Southwest. The high desert of New Mexico became O’Keeffe’s Valley of the Dry Bones, into which she was invited by God to breathe life.

IF VAN GOGH was the artist-priest, and O’Keeffe the artist-monk, then Andy Warhol was the artist-fool. He lived a detached freedom amidst the rich and hedonistic. In Warhol’s eulogy, art historian John Richardson likened him to a yurodstvo—the holy fool of Russian literature and culture.

When Andy Warhol died in 1987, most of America thought (if they thought at all) of his wall-sized silk-screens of bright red Campbell’s Soup cans. Most didn’t know that Warhol grew up in a two-room shanty in a Byzantine Catholic ghetto of Pittsburgh where often his only meal was a bowl of Campbell’s soup. Nor did they know he attended Mass several times a week at St. Vincent Ferrer and served supper in the soup kitchen at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on all the major holidays. They certainly didn’t know that Andy Warhol, the flamboyant Pope of Pop, created the largest series of religious art by any American artist. Not until Richardson’s eulogy in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on April Fool’s Day was Warhol’s extremely private faith made public. "Hidden from all but his closest friends was his spiritual side," Richardson said, "and despite the fact that many knew him in circumstances that were the antithesis of spiritual, that side existed in Andy and was the key to the artist’s psyche."

Warhol’s earliest religious pieces were Christmas cards he designed for Tiffany and Co. "Golden Hand with CrFche,” a rough iconic worker’s hand cupping the Madonna and Child, suggests loving familiarity with his Slovak Byzantine faith. Later he moved on to his first large series called Cross. Here the spiritual complexity of the artist begins to take shape. The scarlet cross floats in a background of velvety black. And, lest we think we can get away with viewing it only as art, the cross is large enough to bear an adult human body. Warhol forces the viewer to deal with the crucifixion and the suffering of the world, but the gently levitating cross invites us into strange joy.

Following the Cross series, Warhol worked out a wonderful litany of praise in his 1982 Eggs series. His brightly colored eggs dance in a field of darkness, capturing the holy power of Orthodox Easter. As Jane Daggett Dillenberger says in The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, "àwith some knowledge of the spiritual side of the artist, our seeing of his art is given another dimension." Dillenberger’s new book is the only comprehensive look at Warhol’s use of pop art to energize sacred subjects.

Two years before his death, Warhol began his great cycle of paintings based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. He bought a cheap black velvet mock-up of the clichTd image and painted a still uncounted number of large canvases and smaller detailed prints. The artist finally abandoned his cool detachment and released his deep religious passion into these works. He was at the height of his artistic skill and mastery, working out his salvation with fear and trembling.

Poet Adrienne Rich punctuates the power of art when she says, "[art] wasn’t enough as something to be appreciated, finely fingered: it could be a fierce, destabilizing force, a wave pulling you further out than you thought you wanted to be." A piece of the church’s generative power resides with artists’ ability to live their vocation fully in the freedom of God. This is the power implicit in prayer; the power of the God of the Tent who won’t be confined to temples or museums.

ROSE MARIE BERGER is an assistant editor of

Sojourners.

For more on the artists...

At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent Van Gogh

, by Kathleen Powers Erickson (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998); The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, edited by Ronald de Leeuw (Penguin Press, 1996).

Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things,

by Elizabeth Hutton Turner (Yale University Press, 1999); From the Faraway Nearby: Georgia O’Keeffe as Icon, by Christopher Merrill (University of New Mexico Press, 1998); The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, by Jan Garden Castro (Crown Publishers, 1985).

The Religious Art of Andy Warhol,

by Jane Daggett Dillenberger (Continuum, 1998); Andy Warhol: Heaven and Hell Are Just One Breath Away! by Charles Stuckey (Rizzoli for The Gagosian Gallery exhibit, 1992); The Andy Warhol Museum (www.warhol.org).

At Eternity's Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent Van Gogh. Kathleen Powers Erickson. Eerdmans, 1998.

Georgia O'Keefe: The Poetry of Things. Elizabeth Hutton Turner. Yale University Press, 1996.

The Religious Art of Andy Warhold. Jane Daggett Dillenberger. Continuum, 1998.

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