Painting and Counting Stars: The Saving Power of Beauty
For millennia, Christians have celebrated truth, goodness, and beauty as transcendent testimonies to God’s existence and character.
John StonestreetShane Morris
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky said that “Beauty will save the world.” Reflecting on those words in his 1970 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn asked, “What sort of a statement is that? … How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything?”
This is a legitimate question in a sin-cursed world wracked with natural disasters, human violence and deceit, disease, war, famine, cancer, and mental illness. In the face of such evil and suffering, beauty can seem quaint and powerless, at best a distraction and certainly not a solution. And yet, beauty is particularly effective in bringing joy and appreciation to the forefront of our lives, introducing us to names from the past we might otherwise not know, and placing the image of God in men and women on full display.
Take Vincent Van Gogh, the 19th-century Dutch painter of glowing flowers and heavenly lights, whose art so starkly contrasted with his troubled life. Writing in The Wall Street Journal recently, John Miller argued that Van Gogh’s art testifies to a stubborn faith, even during his darkest moments. Not only is that faith evident in the Dutch master’s work, it is evident in his words.
In a letter to his brother two years before his death, Van Gogh wrote that he still had a tremendous need for religion, “so I go outside at night to paint the stars.” The result of this routine was a painting recognized as a masterpiece. The Starry Night, which currently hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, exhibits the ethereal light, the “bold color and coarse brushwork,” that would immortalize the name of Van Gogh after his untimely death. It is also what Os Guinness, when quoting sociologist Peter Berger, calls a “signal of transcendence.” In other words, stars mean something.
Miller points out that Van Gogh’s several starry-themed paintings include Christian imagery that is easy to miss: churches and convents, crosses, and perhaps even a reference to the twelve disciples.
Though Van Gogh wasn’t a religious painter in a strict sense, his faith, Miller argues, “flows as a powerful undercurrent” in all his art. It also shaped his life. At one point, Van Gogh even aimed to be ordained as a minister, but his quirks sabotaged his theological education and many of his relationships, so he decided to become a self-taught painter instead.
The young artist produced 900 paintings, only one of which actually sold during his lifetime. His mental health continued to decline, eventually devolving into the well-known incident where he cut off his own ear, before he finally committed suicide.
Today, historians and psychologists speculate that Vincent Van Gogh suffered from manic depression or bipolar disorder. His life is a sad mixture of beauty and psychosis over which someone might scribble, as his fellow painter Edvard Munch did over his own iconic work, The Scream, “[this] can only have been painted by a madman.” The reason we know Van Gogh’s name, however, is not his madness but his eye for beauty and the ability to express it on canvas. As one documentary put it, Vincent was at his sanest when he was painting.
In his Nobel Prize speech, Solzhenitsyn said that “a work of art bears within itself its own verification.”
… those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force—they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.
For millennia, Christians have celebrated truth, goodness, and beauty as transcendent testimonies to God’s existence and character. While it is possible to deny truth and goodness, Solzhenitsyn thought beauty had an “irrefutable” quality that “forces even an opposing heart to surrender.” Beauty arrests us, cuts through our objections as the light of the stars cut through Van Gogh’s troubled mind, and leaves us blessedly vulnerable to God’s grace, even in this dark and fallen world.
In his song, “Count the Stars,” my friend Josh Bales writes, “On my darkest night a million beams of light ask me to believe that your promise is like a starlit sky/ bigger than my dreams/ So in my doubting dark I count the stars.”
Truth, wrote the Apostle John, is a person who has Himself faced suffering and will, in the end, answer all questions and make all things new. If the vision that finally captivated a broken Dutch painter is that same Person, then Dostoevsky was right. Beauty will save the world. In fact, He has.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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