As you come to each picture below, study it. If it hasn’t already been stated in the article, try to guess who the painting is of. Look at the eyes (always look at the eyes when viewing art), study every detail of them. Compare the paintings to each other.
Here is our first:
This is a self-portrait by Rembrandt, who until the modern period was possibly the most prolific self-portrait artist. Notice the wrinkles on his face; they seem premature for a man of 54. Notice his gaping eyes and the arched eyebrows that frame them. Notice the skill and detail of the painting.
Rembrandt completed the work in 1660. This is only a short time after he was bankrupted and deserted by his pupils. Coming amidst the worst time in his life, some say this painting is among his best.
This is a self-portrait by Picasso. It is hard not to notice the abnormally large nose and the avant-garde style of the picture. Notice again the wide eyes and the clenched brow above them. His two eyes are profoundly different.
This particular piece is entitled Self Portrait Facing Death, completed on June 30, 1972. When visiting Picasso, Pierre Daix—a friend—wrote, “[Pablo] did not blink. I had the sudden impression that he was staring his own death in the face, like a good Spaniard.” Today, there is still much commentary concerning that unblinking face of Picasso.
This is a self-portrait by Van Gogh. Notice the color contrast between his suit and background and his hair. Notice the stirring of the turquoise sections, an emphasis on stagnant versus moving. Notice how his features are stern and almost sickly.
This self-portrait was finished in 1889, and was executed in Saint-Rémy. It shows the artist’s head from the left, i.e. the side with ear not mutilated, and was one of three that does so. It is one of the most iconic self-portraits (and paintings, in general) by Van Gogh, who like Rembrandt was a prolific self-portrait painter.
A teacher I once had pointed out a profound example to be drawn from these masterpieces. It is the similarity of biblical history to the work of Vincent Van Gogh.
When you look at these three paintings, there is an obvious difference in style. Rembrandt is the most realistic, Picasso the least, and Van Gogh somewhere in between. It is crucial to note that Van Gogh and Picasso are not less realistic because they are less talented—no, they had mastered realistic painting but intentionally painted in explorative styles. There is a point to every divergence of their brush.
And of these artists, I think that Vincent Van Gogh most strongly resembles the biblical writers. His ability to realistically depict his subject, while emphasizing different features and exploring new artistic methods, is representative of what the biblical authors have done in Scripture. In their presentation of the history of God’s people, they have not given us a play-by-play but have presented divine truth.
This model for writing history is what we would expect of a pre-modern society. In fact, peoples in the ancient world reveled in this method of history. The Greek historian Lucian once indicated that good history should be three things: truthful, useful, and entertaining. This attitude is completely different than our modern understanding of history, but is precisely what the Bible was based in.
You can see this through the king in the Esther story. Ahasuerus is lord over the sprawling Persian empire, and probably quite capable. But in the Bible, he does not appear that way. That is because the book of Esther is stylized and dramatic, depicting a bumbling king and a mustache-twisting villain. Just like Van Gogh, the Bible depicts reality with taste and flair.
I think there is another point that can be drawn from the work of Van Gogh, and it has to do with the Gospels.
These are obviously all self-portraits by Van Gogh, and they are obviously all different. There are a number of reasons for this—for instance, they were painted at different times in the artist’s life and they were designed to accomplish varying ends. But again, look at the eyes. They’re different colors. I guess there’s the possibility that his eyes changed hues, but hopefully that is not your first assumption. Vincent Van Gogh painted them differently for artistic purposes. Because of this, no one is claiming that Van Gogh is lying or that his paintings are “errant.” It is all about his purpose.
The four gospels are obviously different. On a general level, they’re all the same—they are seemingly all portraits of the same guy. But when you start comparing them—and it doesn’t take long—you begin to notice a lot of differences.
For instance, there’s the cleansing of the temple. In John it is given at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, while in the Synoptics it is given at the end. Well what happened? Did Jesus clear the temple at the beginning or the end? You could dismiss this by saying that he did it twice (I’d be surprised they let him in the second time), but I think the answer has to do with the thematic intent of each book. And the same thing goes for the sign above Jesus on the cross. All the gospels have a similar sign, but each one says something slightly different (“This is Jesus the King of the Jews,” “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews,” etc.). I have no problem with all the text having been on the original sign, but why don’t the gospels give us all of it? Because of the thematic intent.
All this relating to paintings is a metaphor, though—it breaks down after a while. But I have found it helpful in understanding what the written word of God is and how it operates. There is a lot of style and purpose and theme in the biblical books—just like any great literary work. But unlike other works, these thematic explorations in the text—moving beyond the bare facts—convey to us God’s truth. Understanding this helps us to understand that the four gospels are merely four portraits of the Master.