The Potato Eaters

Let us consider Van Gogh’s painting, “The Potato Eaters.”  It is one of his very early works, perhaps not as famous as some of the later work, but a truly remarkable and religious work of art.  Usually people refer to a work of art as being “religious” if what is being depicted is somehow a theme from the Bible or a religious source.  However, every true work of art points us in the direction of a transcendent reality, connects us with what is truly religious, and opens our hearts to a truth that is beyond our surface lives.  (Incidentally, that is why postmodern art like with Andy Warhol is so deeply and seriously a distortion—it proclaims “the surface” as the total reality and celebrates that fact.)

To make this reflection a bit easier for anyone who has not seen this painting, here is a link to view it:

What a remarkable scene!  So many would find this sad, even depressing.  There is a sense of darkness–it is night.  Five people are seated around a square table.  Perhaps they are a family; perhaps not. But it is a community of sorts.  Four women and one man.  Potatoes are visible, and perhaps tea is being poured.  The faces and hands reveal life’s toll on these people–it has been hard, very hard.  You will see such faces and such hands in any large city if you take the bus at 6am in the morning with people going to work, or at 6 in the evening with people coming home.  They are all there.

It is a meal of sorts.  It hints of a ritual–as any meal does.  One of course begins to discern a kind of “Eucharistic gathering” here.  A community has gathered around a shared meal, meager as it is.  However, there is no bread and wine here.  That kind of fare would seem to elevate the gathering to a higher social/economic class.  These people cannot afford even bread and wine.

The four faces we see are all different in their expressions.  Two of them look sad or very tired and seem to have given up on life.  Two others show a kind of reaching out in hope.  They are reaching out to the two others.

Note again the darkness.  You can see the windows in the background, and it is night outside.  And the darkness has penetrated and filled the little cottage.  However,….however, there is something else here also….and very prominent, in the center of things.  There is an oil lamp right in the center of the painting, a source of light,  but above the heads of the gathered group.  Note its centrality in the painting–a position of great importance and emphasis.  This light does not overwhelm the darkness; it does not drive it out.  It is simply there, silent, simply present, and although the eaters participate within its glow, they seem to be unaware of the light—it is not something they focus on, but in its glow their life unfolds.  It is always there, above them, almost unnoticed, yet essential for all they do within this darkness of their human condition.  It is also by this light that we are able to see them, their condition, their need.

What is this light?  It is the light of the Resurrection.  It is the light of the Transfiguration.  It is the light seen on the face of St. Seraphim.  It is the light within the darkness of our own situation–it is always there, gentle, soft, not overwhelming in our history, but absolutely essential for our “going on.”    We walk in this light so unaware of its presence.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.  The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world” (John 1: 5-9).

But there is more.  So far we have ignored the one figure whose face we cannot see but who sits right in the center of the gathering.    She is facing away from us and toward the group; we can only see her back.  The reason we cannot see her face is that this is our face—it is you and me there, whoever we are.  No matter who we are socially, we are “among these poor ones.”The observer of this scene is also at this gathering and also practically unaware of this light, though living in it and by it.  And what is our response?  What is the expression on our face?

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