Wednesday, November 9, 2011

At Eternity's Gate: Van Gogh and the Infinite Struggle

At Eternity's Gate or On The Threshold of Eternity, 1890.
The work of Vincent van Gogh is always valuable for studying symbols and spirituality: he himself was going to be a preacher and the Bible influenced everything, simply everything that he did artistically. This particular painting is worth a thousand words, specifically, those words of Christ and of His saints.
1882 lithograph by Vincent van Gogh.
Why is this such a powerful piece? Because the contradiction absorbs itself.
As the old man sits there, in a posture of anguish, it's the warmth of the fire providing the “light of illumination” and the “warmth of life.” The fire is the sign of the Holy Spirit (think of the fire at Pentecost) and what keeps the fire lit? The wood, and the wood is the sign of Christ, for by the wood of the Cross, humanity was set free, and by the wood of the Cross, the Holy Spirit sets us free from our sins. There are three examples of wood within this painting: the wood in the fire, the wood of the chair and the wooden planks of the floor.
The wood in the fire is whatever it is the man grieves over, it's his sin or his fear, his anxiety or his pain, whatever the Holy Spirit has required of him, is in that fire, and the purgation of the Fire of the Spirit is setting him free, even at the very moment he appears to be enslaved to grief. That's the chair, the wooden chair where he sits symbolizing the Cross and the throne which this man is working towards as his heavenly reward. Just as the Cross was turned into Christ's Throne, so this man's chair, the poverty of it, will be turned into a throne in heaven.
Russian Icon of Moses and the burning bush (in the upper, right hand corner). As the bush burned, yet the bush was not consumed, so we are burned by the purgation of the Holy Spirit. The Lord appeared to Moses as a burning bush because that was the state of Moses' own soul, burning with the love of God, and a prefigurement of Christ's Sacrifice, for he would hang on the "burning tree," the Cross, which burned with His Love for fallen humanity.
It's the wooden planks of the floorboards that serve as the foundation (also prevalent in the Bedroom at Arles, and in both paintings, the floorboards point out of the painting towards the viewer, extending themselves into our plane so we can extend ourselves into van Gogh's): without the foundation of first, Noah's Ark and secondly, Christ's Cross, this man, nor any man, would be able to hope to enter at eternity's gate, for in both Noah's Ark and Christ's Cross, the salvation of man has been promised by God.  Why wood? Because of the curse of the tree from which the forbidden fruit was taken; by wood was man condemned so by wood man is redeemed.
Bedroom in Arles, 1888, Van Gogh Museum.
 The dominant coloring of the painting is blue, suggesting the melancholy of the man's soul, yet depression can also be the doorway of wisdom. I do not, under any circumstances wish to diminish the suffering of clinical depression and the hardships it brings, however, the saints have written at length on the sorrows which can burden a soul being tried by fire, and that which they have written of, van Gogh has painted. The “frame” around the fire is done in a deep blue, so we are invited to “frame” the fire in the guise of wisdom, which blue symbolizes: the deeper the color of blue, the deeper the wisdom attained (which is why Mary is always depicted as wearing blue).
The work suit of the man is also blue.
From what van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, we know that he had planned this specific arrangement since the first drawing he did in 1882: “Today and yesterday I drew two figures of an old man with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. I did it of Schuitemaker once and always kept the drawing, because I wanted to do it better another time. Perhaps I’ll also do a lithograph of it. What a fine sight an old working man makes, in his patched bombazine suit with his bald head.” The blue of his work clothes are not nearly “as deep” as the blue of the fireplace frame, meaning, he still has “work” to do.
The Madonna in Sorrow, 17th century, Sassoferato.
That's the genius of the painting: the parables of Jesus and the lofty, mystical writings of the saints, are all summarized in this one, simple, poor room, with a lonely man, experiencing the anguish of the soul, the great struggle we are all called to. He is fully clothed in the “garment of wisdom,” which is also the “bridal gown” of the soul, and, importantly, upon his feet are work shoes, symbolizing that his will (the feet) is united to doing the work of the Cross. His arms, the symbol of his strength, is also clothed in blue, meaning that he leans upon his hard-won wisdom for his strength.
But there is another element to the man: his hands.
At best, the darkness of them suggests dirt, and this could either be taken as his humility or the dirt upon his hands could translate as the “dirt of sin” but I think the atmosphere of the painting—and the tendency of the spiritual life—is the humility of the man, his hands in a posture of the prayer of suffering, and the dirt symbolizing his humility (for dirt is lowly). The reason I don't think, in this instance, it's the dirt of sin on his hands is because, when a person is spiritually advancing and has arrived as far as “eternity's gate,” they are not going to commit a mortal sin to separate themselves from the Face of God. “The beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord,” which means the fear of offending God by our sins, and this man is obviously clothed in the garment of wisdom.
Yet his hands are so dark, they nearly appear decayed, rotted, as in death. This is the great contradiction which Christ calls us to: unless a grain of wheat falls and dies, it cannot bear fruit. It is only through death to the world that we can gain eternal life, and that is the purpose of the plaster wall behind the man, the white of the wall symbolizing his faith which he has used to cut himself off from the worldly pleasures and material goods of the world (note the emptiness of the room). Those who have read  The Undead: Nosferatu  have already noted the man's head: his baldness is meant to draw attention to the head and emphasize the man's knowledge, that not only does he have faith, but he knows; although he suffers a grief that only he and His Maker knows, he trusts that this suffering will be the the final test to enter eternity's gate.
What does it mean, to be “At Eternity's Gate?”
To be at the finish line, but not to have crossed it. To be as far from hell as is humanly possible before death, but to still be susceptible to falling into hell. To be in the spiritual position where everything matters, where only the heart can mutter the alleluia that will win the moment, and secure the grace to enter through eternity's gate for eternity. To be at the gate in the greatest moment of darkness before the greatest dawn comes to light your soul, eternally.