National Museum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam

Van Gogh’s “Pietà,” painted the same year, 1889, as Gauguin’s “Self-Portrait with a Halo.”

Representing himself as Christ, Van Gogh displays the singular style of painting that he had developed over nearly a decade. Perhaps its most significant feature is the symbolic use of color. The picture plane is divided into areas of intense sapphire blue juxtaposed with citron yellow. Rather than depicting Christ with a halo, Van Gogh used an intense yellow light to convey the mystical quality and spiritual nature of the dying Jesus. As he explained in a letter to his brother Theo, “I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.”

Mary’s robes cascade in folds of various shades of blue, from light indigo to royal, so dark it appears almost black, making a marked contrast with the luminous glow of light that strikes her right arm and face. This deep blue, characteristic of the visionary sky of his famous “Starry Night” was Van Gogh’s symbol of infinity. In a previous painting, the “Portrait of Eugene Boch,” he described his symbolic use of blue: “Instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I paint infinity, a plain background of the richest, intensest blue I can contrive.”

Van Gogh has rendered a deeply personal portrait of Christ’s suffering and Mary’s devotion. The Christ figure, who bears the red hair and beard of Van Gogh’s self-portraits, is emaciated, his eyes closed, his head bowed. He appears to be dead, but Mary, clothed in the garb of the nurses who tended Van Gogh at the asylum in St. Rémy where this painting was made, has stayed by him, her face sympathetic but her distant gaze ethereal, even hopeful. Her arms present the figure with expectation rather than enfold him in grief. Both figures are bathed in a radiant blaze of golden light from the sun rising behind the jagged cliffs, portending Christ’s resurrection and ultimate triumph and the rebirth Van Gogh hoped to find for himself through the healing of the asylum at St. Rémy.