Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 103 cm, The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, s0149V1962, David Tipling Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo

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Look at the Birds of the Air

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In Vincent van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, a tidal wave of yellow fields mounts against a moody sky of ocean blues. A muddy road, hedged in green, impels its way through the centre of the canvas then halts abruptly before this infinite expanse.

Whilst elsewhere in Van Gogh’s work, blues and yellows swirl magnificently together in an enchanted dance, here the primary colours starkly delineate sky from field, heaven from earth. Only the black crows freely transgress, passing lightly between the two.

As one of the last paintings Van Gogh was to create, the seemingly dead-end road at its centre is often seen as a symbol of the end of his own artistic labour, a kind of scar of his finite existence on the earth. Indeed, his heavy use of impasto technique draws attention to the painting as the work of his hands, just as the wheat fields are emblematic of human labour more broadly. But perhaps Van Gogh is not simply anticipating an end here, but asking, to what end is this labour?

With the flight of the birds, our eyes lift from the enveloping yellow toward that which is beyond it. Their minimalist black forms prompt us, with the Gospels, to remember this ‘more than’ value of our life and work:

Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:26; Luke 12:23–24)

In freely receiving their ‘daily bread’, the birds take flight and are fortified for their upward ascent. Might these black angels be signifiers not of despair but of hope, anticipations of our final crossing into the eternal rest of the Father from whom, through whom, and to whom all things are made (Romans 11:36)?

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