A Secret Van Gogh Drawing Unveils His Complicated Faith | Sojourners

A Secret Van Gogh Drawing Unveils His Complicated Faith

The artist had compassion for the poor — and a lifelong struggle with religious rejection.
An x-ray image of a faded van Gogh self-portrait, which depicts him in a slight side profile to the camera. Van Gogh has a short beard and is wearing a hat and jacket.
An X-ray image of the hidden van Gogh self-portrait / National Galleries of Scotland

ART CONSERVATIONALISTS RECENTLY discovered a previously unknown Vincent van Gogh painting, a rare find that has excited the art world. On the back of his 1885 portrait “Head of a Peasant Woman,” tucked beneath layers of cardboard and glue, is a hidden self-portrait from early in van Gogh’s career, before he famously cut off his left ear. But the discovery is significant for more than its artistic importance. The hidden self-portrait is symbolic of van Gogh’s larger life and works, illustrating his Christian faith, compassion for the poor, and lifelong struggle with religious rejection.

Van Gogh grew up attending church and wanted to become a clergyman, just like his father, Rev. Theodorus van Gogh. But these hopes were dashed when he was unable to enter religious studies, in part because of behavior considered “eccentric” — a sort of manic shifting of interests. This was an early manifestation of van Gogh’s lifetime of mental health struggles, and the beginning of a complicated relationship with the church.

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The cover for the January 2023 issue of Sojourners features a white Bible with gold leaf pages. A gold-plated pistol sits under the book board with some bullets around it.
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