Vincent van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows (1890). Original from Wikimedia Commons. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
Vincent van Gogh—Master Artist, Spiritual Seeker

Engage Art | Artist to Artist, Faith | June 27, 2022

Last time, we discussed Vincent van Gogh’s upbringing, his deep and complicated relationship with faith, and his emergence as an artist. Today, we are going to take a closer look at some of Vincent’s masterpieces and how they might have been inspired in part by the Scriptures that he had studied and taught as a young man. 

Recasting—Vincent’s Art

In Arles, Vincent painted the landscapes and people around him, conjuring symbolism everywhere. Vincent wanted his art to be modern—fresh, and grounded in the observable world around him. Yet he also aspired to be in dialogue with great painters, both old and contemporary, whose work he admired. He wanted to dynamically capture the scenes around him and also explore the symbolic layers of the reality he  painted. 

These three goals—modern, in dialogue, and symbolic—were an ambition that van Gogh rolled into one concept that harkened to his earlier religious passions. In a letter to his brother, van Gogh wrote, “Try to understand the last word of what the great artists, the serious masters, say in their masterpieces; there will be God in it.” 

Narratives and topics from Scripture were infused into Vincent’s upbringing, he studied them closely as a young man, and they were, in some way, still present with him near the end of his life. Writing for Religion-Online, Kathleen Powers Erickson said “In van Gogh, the most mundane acts of human experience conveyed the presence of the divine with far more poignancy than the traditional subjects of cross and cathedral. [. . .] van Gogh tried to capture what he saw of the infinite in the subjects of everyday life.” 

In his own visual language, did Vincent return time and again to topics from Scripture? Let’s look at a few of Vincent’s paintings and consider whether they might be recastings of Old Master artworks combined with the timeless stories of Scripture.

Sower Series

“The Sower (Sower with Setting Sun),” 1889, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy of

Inspired by the pastoral scenes around him, and an 1850 painting by Jean-Francois Millet (also titled “The Sower”), Vincent made a study of a sower in a field, creating more than 30 drawings and paintings on this topic. The sower’s hand is outstretched, scattering seed from the sack he carries. In some images the sky is prominent, filled with a radiant sun. In others, his focus is the wheat field, with a reaper at work, crops ready for harvest, or in one of his last paintings, crows descending on the wheat crop. In the above painting, the sower himself, encircled (haloed?) by the sun, is the focal point. 

Carol A. Berry is an artist, art educator, and lecturer at the Vermont Humanities Council, and the author of Vincent Van Gogh: His Spiritual Vision in Life and Art. In a lecture for Vermont Humanities titled “From Rembrandt to Van Gogh and Beyond,” she says “[Vincent] is known for his sower, which becomes—like a Rembrandt, almost—a parable in paint.” 

Do you think Vincent had Mark 4:1-20 in his mind as he studied the sower?

Once again Jesus began teaching by the lakeshore. A very large crowd soon gathered around him, so he got into a boat. Then he sat in the boat while all the people remained on the shore. He taught them by telling many stories in the form of parables, such as this one: 
“Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seed. As he scattered it across his field, some of the seed fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seed sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plant soon wilted under the hot sun, and since it didn’t have deep roots, it died. Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants so they produced no grain. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they sprouted, grew, and produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” Then he said, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” 
Later, when Jesus was alone with the twelve disciples and with the others who were gathered around, they asked him what the parables meant. He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secret of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables for everything I say to outsiders, so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled:
‘When they see what I do,
 they will learn nothing. 
When they hear what I say,
 they will not understand. 
Otherwise, they will turn to me
 and be forgiven.’” 
Then Jesus said to them, “If you can’t understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables? The farmer plants seed by taking God’s word to others. The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message, only to have Satan come at once and take it away. The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced. And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”

As he recast Millet’s painting, exploring and reimagining it in his own setting and style, was Vincent also recasting the Parable of the Soils and the Parable of the Sower?

Café Terrace at Night

“Café Terrace at Night,” 1888, Vincent van Gogh. Courtesy of

Vincent painted Café Terrace at Night in 1888. This popular painting has been widely reproduced, so many of us are familiar with it. But have you studied it closely? Notice the composition. The cafe diners are clustered together under the golden awning. There appear to be 12 diners: 11 seated and one shadowy figure slipping out the door. The diners are grouped around a central figure, the server, dressed in white. Behind the server’s head, over the left shoulder, the window mullion creates a cross has a fascinating article exploring the symbolism in Café Terrace at Night:

In a scholarly treatment of "Café Terrace at Night," which Jared Baxter submitted to the 2013 European Conference on Arts & Humanities, the writer suggests Van Gogh's painting contains allusions to The Last Supper by Da Vinci. [. . .] A religious allusion wouldn't be too out of character for Van Gogh. [. . .] Around the time of working on Café Terrace at Night, van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo van Gogh, explaining that he had a "tremendous need for, shall I say the word - for religion," with direct reference to the painting. 

You can read Jared’s full analysis of this artwork in more depth at

Could Café Terrace at Night be a Symbolist recasting of Da Vinci’s famous painting and the story of the Last Supper? 

Portrait of Dr. Gachet

“Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” 1890, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy of

Jared Baxter also published a paper examining Vincent’s 1890 Portrait of Dr. Gachet together with Albrecht Durer’s masterpiece Man of Sorrows (c. 1493). Compare the composition of the two portraits, including the position and expression on the doctor’s face. 

Could this portrait be a recasting of Man of Sorrows—and, therefore, a study of Jesus, the wounded healer? 


“Irises,” 1889, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy of

Vincent painted Irises during his stay in a mental hospital the year before he died. This was the first of more than 100 paintings he created in that year. Could Vincent, wrestling with his thoughts, have held Matthew 6:28-30 in mind as he painted? 

“Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30)

Every time, the closer we look, the more we see—just as Vincent might have hoped. 

How about you? Do you see Scriptures recast in the world around you? When you create, do you recast artwork or stories that inspire you? 

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