Still Life with Bible,
painted by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890),
painted in October 1885,
Oil on canvas
© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Still Life with Bible,
painted by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890),
painted in October 1885,
Oil on canvas
© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Gospel of 15 April 2024

Work for food that endures to eternal life

John 6:22-29

After Jesus had fed the five thousand, his disciples saw him walking on the water. Next day, the crowd that had stayed on the other side saw that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that the disciples had set off by themselves. Other boats, however, had put in from Tiberias, near the place where the bread had been eaten. When the people saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into those boats and crossed to Capernaum to look for Jesus. When they found him on the other side, they said to him, 'Rabbi, when did you come here?'

Jesus answered:

'I tell you most solemnly, you are not looking for me because you have seen the signs but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat.

Do not work for food that cannot last, but work for food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food the Son of Man is offering you, for on him the Father, God himself, has set his seal.'

Then they said to him, 'What must we do if we are to do the works that God wants?' Jesus gave them this answer, 'This is working for God: you must believe in the one he has sent.'

Reflection on the painting

Our painting by Vincent van Gogh is beautiful in its simplicity. He painted this canvas in October 1885. The Bible belonged to his father, who was a pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands. Vincent and his father had a rather turbulent relationship. Six months before this canvas was painted, Vincent's father died, and so this painting of his father's Bible became Vincent's portrait of his father. The Bible represented everything he saw in his father: a man dedicated and devoted to his faith.

The Bible lies open at the reading of Isaiah 53, which describes a servant of God as being '…despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain…' Despite Vincent's ambivalent feelings towards his own father and also towards organised religion, he always showed great respect for Christ himself, both in his painting and in the letters he wrote to his brother Theo. In front of the Bible, we see another book: Emile Zola's La joie de Vivre. Van Gogh was a great admirer of Zola's literary works, which had a profound impact on literature and society, blending scientific principles with literary realism to critique contemporary issues. Placing Zola's book in the painting served as a kind of antithesis to his father's Bible. Zola represented a fresh and modern way of perceiving the world realistically. Vincent had come to consider the Bible as being somewhat antiquated and looking at the past, whereas Zola was looking to the future. Hence the juxtaposition of these two books in our painting  became for Vincent symbolic of the past and the future.

The third object we see in our painting is the candlestick with an extinguished candle, which represents his father's life which had ended six months before. This particular candle has been out a long time: there are no traces of smoke or of its having been lit recently. In today's Gospel reading, like in most other readings, Jesus is always pushing us to go beyond where we are and to hunger for 'the food that endures for eternal life'. This food is Scripture, this food is the Bible, just like the one depicted in our painting. The food is Christ himself.

There is a great deal more to life than the satisfaction of our physical needs: we have also deeper, spiritual hungers and thirsts that we need to attend to if we are to live a truly balanced life and be at peace within ourselves. In the Gospel reading Jesus offers himself to us as the one who offers us the food that endures to eternal life... and we read all about Jesus in our Bibles.

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Evelina
Member
Evelina
1 month ago

Interesting that the Bible – the Book of Life is open, whilst La joie de Vivre closed… Do you think it could be symbolic of his father’s earthly life coming to a close and his new life with Christ forever open…..
And the Bible is always alive, it’s not like other books that we read and put them away, it’s somehow always new, even though so familiar….

Polly French
Member
Polly French
1 month ago
Reply to  Evelina

I like that interpretation Evelina.

Mark Crain
Member
Mark Crain
1 month ago

Dear Janey M, What a blessing that you are experiencing peace. I could be wrong, but I think this is a manifestation of God’s grace.

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