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Spirituality Behind the Sunflowers


Why are you so attracted to Van Gogh’s work?

I wanted to uncover the hidden Van Gogh who somehow has been buried under the popular image of the Van Gogh who was a depressed, mentally ill painter who was alienated by society. In reality he was probably one of the best-read artists of his time. So he was probably more misunderstood than anything else.

How did his paintings overlap with his spirituality?

His goal in life was to become a Dutch Reform pastor. But because of his lack in formal education, the church didn’t really have any place for him. At age 27, he decided to become an artist. He literally said, “I’ll take up my pencil and draw the faces of ordinary people if I’m not allowed to preach to them.” Some say that he’s probably the first artist who uses his art to discover the religious meaning of things, and that’s why his paintings appeal to people. They’re not religious scenes, but there’s something about them that says an iris is important or a sunflower is something wonderful.

What should people look for when they go to the VMFA’s exhibit?

You’ll see some incredible pieces of Van Gogh’s work at the exhibit that have come from all over the U.S. and even from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. But the secret of the show is a painting Van Gogh did of a friend of his whose name was Augustine Roulin. It’s a wonderful picture of her sitting in her rocking chair holding up her child for Vincent to see. So I really love this picture of mother and child.

What spiritual significance should be attached to this work?

I think that it’s the modern version of the mother Mary with the Christ child. Van Gogh said you don’t need the mother Mary if you can see that same sacredness in every mother and child. So he has this wonderful painting of this mother holding up her child. To me that painting represents the depth of his work as well as the spirituality within it. — Francis W. Decker

Edwards will lecture on Van Gogh’s work at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on May 12 at 6 p.m.

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