Café Terrace at Night (1888)
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
A simple, serene painting of a starry evening at a café in Arles? Or, perhaps, a fresh re-visioning of the last supper of Jesus with his 12 disciples?
Van Gogh was decidedly not overtly religious at the time of this painting. In fact, his life was quite the opposite of “religious.” He was drinking heavily, smoking heavily, frequently visiting brothels. He looked upon the church with disdain, and in a letter from 1880, wrote that a priest in his surplice “looks like a dangerous rhinoceros.”
His life had not always been so. Raised by a Dutch Reformed pastor and a strict, pious mother in the Netherlands, he had himself aspired to become a pastor. But without much success. He failed the entrance exam in theology at the University of Amsterdam and shortly after failed a 3-month course at a Protestant missionary school in Belgium. Nevertheless, he was sent as a pastor to the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium, and there he worked hard to emulate his understanding of the life of Jesus. After only a short time, however, church authorities determined that his rather unorthodox practice of living in a small hut and sleeping on straw—all to become closer to his beloved parishioners—undermined the dignity of a church pastor. He was dismissed.
He wandered uneasily through much of the rest of his life, trying this and trying that, and he finally settled on art with the help of his brother Theo. But his life was never tranquil. His physical health was poor, his mental health was poor, and throughout his years of painting, his art was dismissed, even as he had been dismissed by his church.
It seems, however, that through all of these years of turmoil and often debauched living, van Gogh himself never fully dismissed his faith. In later years, he wrote to his brother Theo of the Christ for whom he longed. Christ is, he penned, “a greater artist than all other artists…working in living flesh. This matchless artist made living men immortals.” He also wrote to Theo to tell him that he had a “tremendous need for, shall I say the word — for religion.”
Interestingly, this last statement was written with specific reference to his painting of “Café Terrace at Night.” So it’s no surprise that some art aficionados now see this painting as more than a peaceful evening scene of an Arles café at night. They suggest that van Gogh was actually creating his own version of Christ’s last supper with his twelve disciples, and they ask viewers to consider the following:
–Eleven people (though it’s difficult to count precisely in an impressionistic painting!) are seated at tables surrounding the server.
–A twelfth person, a dark figure, is seen leaving the scene, even as Judas left the disciples gathered for their last meal with their master.
–The server is a man dressed in a long white robe.
–A lantern, glowing like a halo, hangs just over the server’s head.
–Directly behind the server, a cross is visible in the window.
–Several other crosses can also be seen along the street, one cross stretching high into the starry Arles night.
All of these facets of the painting suggest that very possibly something more than a mere evening café scene in Arles is what van Gogh has portrayed here. But why would van Gogh choose an outdoor café setting for the Last Supper? Why not paint an impressionistic image of that famous Upper Room? The answer, perhaps, lies in the fact that the Christ for whom van Gogh longed is a Christ not confined by church walls or church rituals. He is rather a Christ who lives and can be found and experienced in the midst of life. He is a Christ who frequents the rooms and the activities of our daily lives. He is a Christ who comes close in our everydays in order to wait upon us and to serve us.
So it would seem appropriate for van Gogh to have depicted the Last Supper at an Arles café. Perhaps his very graphic way of saying that the Last Supper is an ongoing, never-ending event as Christ stands among us in every moment, in every ordinary place of all our days and all our nights. Stands among us, not to lord it over us or to condemn us, but stands among us to serve us. To make sure our needs are met, to attend to the smallest details of our lives. To offer us, in the midst of our living, a croissant, a cup of wine, his very body, his very blood.
Van Gogh left several empty tables at the front of the café. An invitation, perhaps, for us to sit with the disciples, for us to know that we are always welcome at Christ’s table?
In the end, we cannot know with certainty, of course, just what van Gogh had in mind when he painted “Café Terrace at Night,” but I find it compelling to think of this scene as a re-telling of the Last Supper. And as I look at the painting from this perspective, I find myself hoping that van Gogh himself somehow experienced this serving Christ in all the turmoil of his own troubled life. Hoping that he somehow knew this Christ to be with him as he splashed irises, sunflowers, and starry nights across his canvases. Knew this Christ to be with him as he roamed the countryside or the hallways of an asylum. Knew him to be with him in his tiny room, often drunk or hung-over. To be with him even as he felt himself fleeing from the faith that had once been so dear to him. To be with him to feed and nourish him. To be with him to paint his tattered life immortal.