Was Vincent van Gogh Religious?

Religion and spirituality played a key role in Vincent van Gogh’s life, informing the meaning behind many of his best-known works of art.

Mar 26, 2024By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art


Recognized today as one of the greatest painters of all time, the Dutch Post-impressionist master Vincent van Gogh was a true pioneer, whose expressive, emotive, and spirited art broke away from the constraints of realism, and paved the way for modernist abstraction. Raised as a Christian, his relationship with Christianity wavered over the years, but he found solace from his mental health struggles in various forms of spiritualism throughout his life, which in turn shaped the nature of his art. We take a closer look at the role spiritual practices came to play in informing Van Gogh’s creative life.


He Was the Son of a Minister

Vincent Van Gogh with members of his family, including his brother and uncles. Source: The Independent
Vincent Van Gogh (center) with members of his family, including his brother and uncles. Source: The Independent


Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 to a Christian family, who live within a religious community in the Netherlands. His father was a Dutch Reformed minister, who had followed in the footsteps of his father before him. The family also had an interest in art – Van Gogh’s two uncles and his older brother Theo were art dealers.


Van Gogh Nearly Trained as a Pastor

van gogh selfportrait with pipe
Self-portrait with Pipe by Vincent van Gogh, 1886. Source: The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Van Gogh left school at the age of 15, and he worked in an art gallery for 7 years. He later took up teaching work, and eventually found himself drawn back to the family work in the church. For a time, he toyed with the idea of following in his father’s footsteps, taking up work as a minister’s assistant. He spent his time in the role studying Biblical texts and translating passages of scripture. Following his research, he was determined enough to begin studying for the entrance exam for Theology at the University of Amsterdam, learning Greek, Latin and mathematics. However, he soon found he was not suited to academia, later calling this spell of intense study “the worst time in my life.”


His Relationship with Christianity Was Complex

vincent van gogh potato eaters post impressionism
The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh, 1885. Source: The Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam


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In the years that followed, Van Gogh took on various missionary roles within small communities in Laeken and Belgium. It was during this time that Van Gogh began to draw the members of the community with whom he felt a close affinity, and this in turn led him to pursue art education. In 1880 Van Gogh headed to Brussels to take art classes, which were funded by his older brother Theo. As his art developed, Van Gogh’s faith began to waver. On home visits he refused to attend the local church, causing friction between him and his father. Nonetheless, one of his earliest paintings, The Potato Eaters, resembles the Eucharist, with an impoverished family dining on a dimly lit table.


Still Life with Bible, by Vincent van Gogh, 1885. Source: The Van Gogh Museum
Still Life with Bible, by Vincent van Gogh, 1885. Source: The Van Gogh Museum


Other paintings, such as Still life with Bible, 1885, shows us a pristine copy of the Bible laid open, as if ready for study. The immaculate, tome-like volume is contrasted against a well-read, secular novel in the foreground, whose curling pages suggest it has been read over and over again, setting up the artist’s push-and-pull between religion and secularity. 


He Was Fascinated by Symbolist Art

vincent van gogh wheat field cypresses
Wheat Field with Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


While Van Gogh’s relationship with Christianity was tumultuous, there’s no denying his fascination with the inherent spiritual possibilities of art. When Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886, among the many artistic influences he picked up were Symbolism, in which artists chose certain colors and subjects for their resonant, symbolic, and spiritual properties, and a desire to convey what lay beyond the visible world. While Van Gogh’s own art was always rooted in the real world, his abstract, expressive approach to color became increasingly spiritual as time wore on. 


His Mature Paintings Had Spiritual Properties

van gogh pieta after delacroix
Pieta by Vincent van Gogh after Delacroix, 1889. Source: The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Over time, Van Gogh came to believe God was to be found within nature, and his mature paintings reflect his fascination with capturing the transcendental properties of the natural world, and a belief in “something up there”. Meanwhile religious themes continued to play out in many of his artworks – many of his paintings are named after Biblical characters or subjects, such as The Good Samaritan, The Sower, Pieta, and The Raising of Lazarus. In 1888, Van Gogh’s letter to his friend, the artist Emile Bernard, demonstrates a restored faith in Christianity. He wrote, “Christ alone, of all the philosophers, magicians, etc., has affirmed eternal life as the most important certainty, the infinity of time, the futility of death, the necessity and purpose of serenity and devotion.”

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.