Starry Night is a dreamy outstanding work of the painter, telling viewers the story of van Gogh’s final triumph over suffering and misery, and symbolizing his desire for a mystical union with the God. In many ways, the painting recalls the understanding and experience of the religion by young van Gogh, the Groningen divinity and the devotion of his uncle Stricker. In describing religion, van Gogh’s uncle Stricker wrote, “Religion is not the fruit of rational contemplation and scientific investigation, but especially, the understanding of the human heart of its kindred sense of a higher world than the purely sensual and material world.
Religion is a continual striving to a more intent communion with the Perfect” (Martland 1981). Starry Night, as the outstanding work transforming van Gogh’s religious ideas, is an autobiographical drawing, which one can divide into three areas considered independently, describing three of the most important ideas in van Gogh’s art and life. The village scene, the cypress tree, and the starry sky are all symbolic of particular religious faiths van Gogh had.
The church provides both a focal point and vertical accent in the village scene. Art historians indicate that van Gogh’s representation of this church is imaginative, since the bell tower is normal to the Dutch landscape, but not to the landscapes of Provence (Zemel 1980, p. 120). Besides being a Dutch church in a form of appearance, van Gogh’s representation of the church is strange in another way. While every building shows a strong bright yellow light under the brightness of the starry sky, the church is depicted absolutely dark.
The dark color of the church is van Gogh’s symbol of the empty and unenlightened preaching of the priesthood which left him with hostile feeling and alone when he was forced to leave the profession and duties of a minister of religion in 1880. In Starry Night, van Gogh exposes to view, however, that he did not close the door on his faith and on the God, just the practices and doctrines of the church.
Importantly, Starry Night discloses van Gogh’s journey from the darkness of the inside of a church, with its relation to his past life in Netherlands, to the feeling of exultation and happiness of the mystic’s exchange of thoughts and emotions with God through nature. While many critics have claimed that the painting shows van Gogh’s rejection of Christianity and the miraculous, his comment that “When all sounds cease, God’s voice is heard under the stars” actually comes from the emotional mood of his “evangelical period,” 1877, and shows his spiritual conviction lasting for a lifetime (Letters 3:185).
The next compositional component of Starry Night, the cypress, that shoots up into the heavens like a large flame, represents van Gogh’s own as well as the world striving for ultimate release from the pain, misery, and loss experienced in this world and ultimate harmony and union of the soul with the infinite and divine. During his St. Remy period in particular, van Gogh painted many works depicting the cypress as the prevalent picturesque image.
In his letter about one of his paintings with the tree, the painter explained his fascination with the cypress to Theo, his brother and the close friend: “You need a certain dose of inspiration, a ray from above which is not ours, to do the beautiful things. When I had done these sunflowers, I looked for the contrary and yet the equivalent, and I said this is the cypress….
It is as beautiful as the Egyptian obelisk” (Letters 3:185). It is the starry sky, however, full of shining light and vibrating rhythms that predominates in Starry Night. In the philosophy of the transcendental Romantic artists, with whom van Gogh was in intimate relations, as well as the beliefs of northern Romantic landscape painting, the sky is often representative of endless time or the Infinite Being (Eitner 1970, p. 27).
In his “Nine Letters on Landscape Painting” (1815-1824), Carus stated, “The clear quintessence of air and light, is the true image of infinity, and since our feeling has a tendency toward the Infinite, the image of the sky strongly characterizes the mood of any landscape under its lofty vault. ” (Eitner 1970, p. 50) This feeling of pain, emptiness, and weakness induced by hungering for the infinite is one of van Gogh’s most persistent personal and artistic qualities. The sky, especially the star-filled sky, often summoned up, for van Gogh, a joyous and mystical feeling.
Van Gogh further stressed his concern with expressing the infinite with his use of a deep occasionally somewhat purple blue as a backdrop for the varying in intensity, shining stars. Possibly the painter used this symbolic color with intent to evoke the idea of infinity, mysterious, mystical mood. Another important symbolic characteristic of Starry Night is van Gogh’s unusual shape of the moon. It is entirely different from other depictions of the moon in his other paintings.
In his letter to Theo, Van Gogh wrote of his association of the galaxy on the night shiny sky with timeless existence and the all-powerful love of God, and it was possibly to this remembrance that Starry Night speaks: “The moon is still shining, and the sun and the evening star, which is a good thing — and they also speak of the love of God, and make one think of the words: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’” (Letters I:127). It is worthy of notice that van Gogh speaks of the sun and the moon and the evening stars all glaring together, and of how deeply he experiences God’s love under this night sky.
There are, in part, van Gogh’s memories of the past, when the future painter was making preparations for the Christian ministry. Just as van Gogh had felt God’s constant appearance in the night sky in Amsterdam, he still felt divine love when he looked at the supernatural “vault of heaven” above St. Remy. Van Gogh referred to darkness in the painting as “blessed twilight,” because it was in the mystical hours when the day turns into the night and the world is plunged in a miraculous and superhuman obscure light that he seemed most aware of the divine:
Twilight is falling — “blessed twilight,” Dickens called it, and indeed he was right. Blessed twilight, especially when two or three are together in harmony of mind and, like scribes, bring forth old and new things from their treasure. Blessed twilight, when two or three are gathered in His name and He is in the midst of them, and blessed is he who knows these things and follows them too (Letters I:142). Starry Night symbolizes the obscure reality that van Gogh had begun to accept as true that he was coming to the end of his earthly troubled life.
The tired painter was looking to the prospect of eternal release in death. Van Gogh’s Starry Night is in a middle between the two worlds of heavenly place of harmony and troubled earth, life and death. Coming of the night, the impressive image of the tree as it rises upwards into the sky, and the stars, which represent van Gogh’s desire for long-awaited union with the God, evoke meditation about death and eternity.