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’ throughout his life (Pritchard 1971: 15), 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.
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)
2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.