At Eternity’s Gate by Kathleen Powers Erickson — Book Review

I checked this book out of the library because it was mentioned in a novel I enjoyed (Shades of Light by Sharon Garlough Brown–Book Review).  The author, Kathleen Powers Erickson, who holds a degree in the history of Christianity, takes exception to some of the widely held beliefs about Vincent van Gogh, and she presents a strong case for her opinions.

First she goes into considerable detail about the early religious training van Gogh imbibed from his father and uncle who were pastors.  If you’re a church history buff, you’ll enjoy this chapter.  They were not Calvinists, but adhered to Groningen theology which was Arminian.  (If you don’t know these terms, you’ll get an education about them!).

Vincent tried to follow his relatives into the ministry, and for a time was supported in his efforts as a missionary to Belgan miners by an ecumenical Protestant organization.  After a few years his position was not renewed because he “lacked persuasiveness in the pulpit.”  At this point he did become disillusioned with the institutional church, as well as his father and uncle.  He considered them hypocritical, as in his view true Christianity was expressed in a life of poverty and self sacrifice.

Despite this, Erickson maintains that van Gogh did not turn away from his faith.  She discusses the traditional religious themes present in many of his works, especially his later paintings.  Other works although not presented in a traditional way, still used color and symbols to represent his beliefs.  He was drawn to both The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Imitation of Christ, seeing Christian life as full of difficulty, but ultimately leading to union with God.  He identified with the suffering of Christ.  She cites excerpts from Vincent’s letters in which he mentions that he is comforted and consoled by the knowledge that he would spend eternity with God.

Erickson also debunks the idea that Vincent was insane, or that he painted many of his most famous works while in a manic state.  She believes (as his doctors originally diagnosed) that he suffered from a type of epilepsy which affected the temporal lobe without causing seizures.  He did not work during these episodes, but worked diligently when he was well.  He also probably suffered periodically from depression, and this is why he committed suicide.

VERDICT:  4 STARS.  This book is a bit academic, and probably not for everyone.  However, if you’re interested in art, van Gogh, or church history, I recommend it.  It is interesting, well researched, and clear enough to understand even if you’re not an expert in the fields presented.