The Bearers of the Burden (Miner's Wives Carrying Sacks) by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh

The Bearers of the Burden (Miner's Wives Carrying Sacks), 1881, Pen in brown and black ink, white and grey opaque watercolour, on [originally] blue laid paper, 47.5 x 60 cm, Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands, KM 122.865 recto, World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

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‘Have This Mind’

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Joanna Collicutt

In this passage Paul urges his readers to cultivate humility and exhorts them to take Christ as their model.

Vincent van Gogh has been described as displaying a ‘passionate identification with Christ’ (Pritchard 1971: 15) throughout his life, but most intensely in the years immediately preceding his emergence as an artist. Having undertaken theological studies, he was appointed as a lay pastor in the impoverished mining district of Borinage in Belgium in 1879. Van Gogh was obsessed with following Christ in his solidarity with those who serve, and for some months lived in a miner’s hut, not counting entitlement to the pastor’s lodgings ‘a thing to be grasped’ (Philippians 2:6). He even went down into the dangerous Marcasse mine. Later he would describe this as ‘the depth of the abyss’ (Van Gogh 1978: 200). Like Christ, he had descended. Not long after, having been dismissed from his position, he again modelled himself on Christ: ‘I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil…’ (Van Gogh 1978: 136). Here we see the result.

As is in so many societies, the labour of women involves transporting heavy loads (children, water, crops). Here they are bent double under sacks of coal gleaned from slag-heaps to burn in their homes. The simple documentation of their work can be seen as a redemptive artistic action expressing Van Gogh’s continuing aspiration to the mind of Christ.

But there is more; the original English title almost certainly alludes to Matthew 23:4 where Jesus denounces the religious leaders for laying heavy burdens on ordinary people. The viaduct in the distance is a triumphant monument to the industry that determines the lives of the women. Behind it, separated from their world of servitude but benefiting from it, stand a Protestant and a Catholic church; these women are at once abandoned and oppressed by the hypocrisy of institutional religion.

This, we are reminded, was also true of Christ Jesus, for hanging in the right foreground we see him who ‘became obedient unto death … on a cross’ (Philippians 2:8), bearing the burden of the world, in deep solidarity with suffering humanity.

 

References

Sund, Judy. 1988. ‘The Sower and the Sheaf: Biblical Metaphor in the Art of Vincent van Gogh’, The Art Bulletin, 70.4: 660–676

Van Gogh, Vincent. 1978. The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh (Boston: New York Graphic Society)