Updated: Mar 21, 2022
"If we discover a desire within us that nothing in this world can satisfy,
also we should begin to wonder if perhaps we were created for another world."
Ever feel like this guy in the painting? Worn out? I do. Some might call it a picture of despair, hopelessness, and overwhelming exhaustion. We can all empathize with this image because we have experienced these emotions. Honestly, today, I can’t see how anyone could not feel this way in an ever-changing, declining, dark world. It seems like we are on the threshold of the end times. Like the old man in the painting, sometimes all we can do is bury our faces in our hands.
Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate), one of Vincent van Gogh’s most iconic works, is an oil painting made at a psychiatric institution in Saint-Rémy de Provence in 1890 based on his early lithograph called Worn Out. Van Gogh was recovering from a relapse of mental illness two months before his death by suicide. The jury is still out on that assumption. He did several drawings and paintings between mental breaks and attacks at the asylum, like his most revered masterpiece, The Starry Night. The painting was completed in early May of that year, now located at The Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, Vincent van Gogh’s second home. The museum has the second-largest Van Gogh collection worldwide, with almost 90 paintings and over 180 drawings.
The lithograph, a reworking of a drawing and watercolor he had made the previous year, was one of a series of studies Vincent made in 1882 of Adrianus Jacobus Zuyderland, a war veteran, in The Hague at a local almshouse. After seeing Hubert von Herkomer’s work Sunday at the Chelsea Hospital, Van Gogh was inspired to paint At Eternity’s Gate. It is a prominent trendy print depicting an old war veteran, inclined in a chair, dead, that became an acclaimed painting at the Royal Academy in The Hague. I had the pleasure of touring the academy recently.
“In an artist’s life, death is perhaps not the most difficult thing.” Vincent van Gogh
Kathleen Powers Erickson, theologian and writer said: “Belief in a “life beyond the grave” is central to At Eternity’s Gate. Certainly, the work would convey an image of total despair had it not been for the English title van Gogh gave it, At Eternity’s Gate. It demonstrates that even in his deepest moments of sorrow and pain, van Gogh clung to a faith in God and eternity, which he tried to express in his work.” The Catalogue Raisonne’s 1970 issue renamed the work Worn Out: At Eternity’s Gate.
“I find joy in sorrow. And sorrow is greater than laughter. You know, an angel is not far from those who are sad, and illness can sometimes heal us.” said Actor Willem Dafoe, who masterfully portrays the timeless icon in the 2018 frustrating and tragic biopic “At Eternity’s Gate,” inspired by van Gogh’s masterpiece.
Remember the “Bewitchin’ Pool” in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone? Sport and Jeb Sharewood run away from their cruel parents, who tell them that they are divorcing. The parents shamelessly leave it up to the kids to choose which parent they will live with. Sport and her brother Jeb escape through a gateway at the bottom of their swimming pool to an enchanted place where children play all day long, and eat their favorite foods with very few adults living there. This picturesque world is watched over by a kind, loving, sweet old lady, Aunt T., who they decide to live with after a few trips back and forth through the portal. There they found a safe place, love, and a home. Do you ever long to go home to a place of peace and extravagant joy?
At Eternity’s Gate embodies both grief and hope. As we struggle to find a glimpse of hope in a darkening world, we grapple with the continuous devastation of a lingering pandemic, countless deaths, a collapsed economy, cultural captivity, and an insurmountable disdain toward God. Yet, we can (with joy) walk in both sorrow and joy, challenges and opportunities, struggles and grace, knowing that our God is ever-present. The Psalmist David’s poetry often expressed grief and despair from ongoing death threats and pursuit by Saul and other assailants. He said in Psalm 55:6, “Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away and be at rest.”
"Someday death will take us to another star." Vincent van Gogh
“Beams of Heaven as I Go” was penned in 1916 by African American hymn-writer Charles Albert Tindely (1851-1933). Tindley, a famed Methodist preacher, was acclaimed a “pastor, orator, poet, writer, theologian, social activist, ‘father of African American Hymnody,’ ‘progenitor of African American gospel music’ and ‘prince of preachers.’” Dr. Michael Hawn, distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology, said, “One of Tindley’s gifts as a hymn writer is to name the pain and struggle boldly and then, using the poetic device of antithesis, offer an alternative vision of hope. The final stanza is a good example of this, reminding us that we carry “burdens [that] crush me down . . . [and we see] disappointments all around.” Then Tindley offers hope: “There is a world where pleasure reigns. . .” Our destination is “to that land of peace and glory.”
Theo van Gogh (Vincent’s brother) writes on August 5, 1890,
“He himself wanted to die, when I sat at his bedside and said that we would try to get him better and that we hoped that he would then be spared this kind of despair, he said, “La tristesse durera toujours” [The sadness will last forever]. I understood what he wanted to say with those words. A few moments later he felt suffocated and within one minute he closed his eyes. A great rest came over him from which he did not come to life again.
Van Gogh’s last words were words of hopelessness and demise. He was right – on this side of Heaven. But on the other side, at Eternity’s Gate, the joy will last forever; there is unbridled excitement, everlasting life, and unspeakable joy! I believe that Van Gogh’s strong faith in God despite his struggles ushered him through Eternity’s Gate.
These comforting words of Jesus bring us closer to that eternal gate: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1-3).
But how can we make it through that beautiful, eternal gate? Here’s how:
“If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9).
Are you ready to go at once straight into heaven, if the gates were thrown open? What manner of persons ought we to be to say it! Are we walking in a way perfectly consistent with stepping tonight at once into the glory, to be at home in the Father's house? (G.V. Wigram)
Dr. William S. Barnett
"Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate)", Vincent van Gogh Public Domain
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