|At Eternity's Gate or On The Threshold of Eternity, Vincent van Gogh, 1890.|
|1882 lithograph by Vincent van Gogh.|
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.
|Bedroom in Arles, 1888, Van Gogh Museum.|
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.|
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.
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.
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.