A Message from Father Nick 48
Week by week we have been following the Church’s great journey of Faith and our illustrations have shown us a number of people who made their journey quite literally. Some such journeys lie beyond historical verification, like the tradition of Mary Magdalene coming to the southern shore of France. Nevertheless they still appeal to the imagination and insight of individual believers.
Mary’s role has become the subject of lurid fiction, but her painted image too has often been wrongly used. It is a convention in art to show her as a glamorous repentant sinner – in fact, Mary Magdalene is not described as a sinner in the Gospel, and though she has been called “the Bible’s most complicated female presence”, that is hardly Mary’s fault. Her real significance has always lain in her pure, unselfish love of Christ. Her relics are traditionally kept at Vezelay in France, in a church of the most chaste and simple beauty.
Mary’s connection with France also involves the other two Marys who accompanied Jesus on Calvary: Mary the mother of Joset, and Mary his own mother. By ancient tradition, “The Three Marys” were later set adrift on boats without sail or oar. They finally arrived in a bay near Arles at a place which came to be called “Les Saintes Maries de la Mer”. This is where Vincent Van Gogh painted his well-known picture of boats upon the shore.
Poor, tortured Vincent – himself a failed Protestant missionary – also remained a faith-traveller throughout his life. His paintings are saturated with religious references. The art critic Waldemar Januszczak has described Vincent’s journey to Arles and the series of further personal failures which led to his severing of his ear on 23rd December 1888. The significance of that event seems to have come from the bullring (Vincent lived only a hundred yards from the bullring in Arles). Just as by custom the defeated bull’s ear is given to a girl in the crowd, so Vincent (bested in his own mind by his fellow artist and companion Paul Gauguin) gave his ear to a girl in the place he and Gauguin frequented.
Alone, spurned even by people he believed to be his friends, and always haunted by the Gospel, he painted another famous picture, of himself with bandaged ear. Behind him the shape of his easel recalls a cross and a Japanese print of three women mirror one of Rubens’ great pictures of Calvary where three Marys gather at the feet of the dead Christ. Van Gogh had entered deeply into the mystery of suffering.
To us that might seem sacrilegious, but Vincent Van Gogh was not mocking. On the contrary, for all his social ineptitude and sense of failure he never lost his transfigured vision of the world. A powerful writer too, he said “I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things.”