Van Gogh’s Depiction of the “Good Samaritan

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Vincent Van Gogh’s dynamic and intimate portrait of the Good Samaritan is based on the French painter Eugene Delacroix’s similar painting. Van Gogh painted his own version of Delacroix’s The Good Samaritan while recuperating at the asylum of Saint-Rémy after suffering from two mental breakdowns in the winter of 1888-89.

At the time, Van Gogh was feeling spent and fragile and this sense of helplessness colors both figures at the heart of the painting. The broken and attacked man can barely get up on the horse. His muscles appear limp, depleted of any strength that could help him sit upright. All the man appears capable of is clinging to his rescuer. Likewise, the Samaritan seems to be barely able to summon up the strength to lift the man on the horse. By imbuing the painting with his own brokenness, Van Gogh creates a moving depiction of Christ’s solidarity with us in our human weakness. Christ humbles himself, taking on the form of a slave (Phil 2:7). And we, like this robbed man, can do nothing without Christ who strengthens us (Phil 4:13).

In some of the earliest  interpretations of the parable by early Church theologians, most famously by Augustine, the Good Samaritan is an image of Christ. The two coins with which the Samaritan pays the innkeeper are the two commandments: to love the Lord Our  and to love our neighbor as ourselves. During this Lenten season, we strive to love God more through purifying our lives of distracting loves of lesser things, and we strive to love our neighbor more through positive actions of charity and almsgiving.

As we meditate on this image of the Samaritan lifting up the weak robbed man, let us ponder what weaknesses we need Christ to heal in us this Lent. How is Christ seeking to reach us, even in our weakness? And how, through acts of almsgiving, can we be Good Samaritans for our neighbors in need this Lent?

On May 8, 1889, exhausted, ill, and out of control, Vincent Van Gogh committed himself to St. Paul’s psychiatric asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, a small hamlet in the south of France. A former monastery, the sanitarium was located in an area of cornfields, vineyards and olive trees. There Van Gogh was allowed two small adjoining cells with barred windows. One room he used as his bedroom, and the other was his tiny studio. While there, Van Gogh not only painted the surrounding area and the interior of the asylum, he also copied paintings and drawings by other artists, making those paintings his own through modifications he made to the painting’s composition, the colors and, of course, the brush strokes.

One of the artists whose works Van Gogh copied and modified was the Dutch Gold Age painter Rembrandt van RijnThe Good Samaritan by Rembrandt drew Van Gogh’s attention: in which a Samaritan man hoists a wounded man with a bandaged head onto a horse to be taken to an inn for recovery.

When Van Gogh was admitted to the sanitarium in St Remy de Provence, he had become so difficult, so sick that the townspeople of Arles, where he had been living and painting had given him the name “the red-headed madman.” After a psychotic break during the visit of fellow artist Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh was all but put out of the town. With the help of a couple of people, he eventually made his way to the sanitarium in St Remy de Provence where he copied and modified Delacroix’s painting of The Good Samaritan.

If viewers were to see the two paintings – Rembrandt’s and Van Gogh’s side by side – the first thing that would strike you is the light in Van Gogh’s painting and the darkness in Rembrandt’s. Though not sharing the bright colors of his paintings in Arles, Van Gogh’s painting of The Good Samaritan, is well lit which means we can make out things more clearly in the painting.

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