Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear

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If you’ve ever tried to paint a self-portrait, here’s what you find—only the truth will work. In school I was given this art assignment, and as I went back and forth from the mirror to the paper, I tried to draw what I saw. The thing is, I also wanted to improve upon what I saw—brighter eyes, a more chiseled nose, greater definition in my cheekbones. Here’s what vanity got me—a portrait of someone who didn’t really look like me and a B-.

goghbandaged-ear1.jpegVincent van Gogh (1853-1890) painted over 40 self-portraits. Some are not honest at all. In fact, there was one he did during a period when he was fascinated by Japanese art, so he rendered himself with the distinct shaved head and Asian eyes of a Buddhist monk.

But one of his self-portraits stands out to me and has a lot to do with my fascination for this Dutch post-impressionist. It is “Self portrait with Bandaged Ear.” He painted it in 1889, the same year he produced Starry Night and the year before he took his own life by tragically and poetically shooting himself in the heart.

gogh-japanese-self-portrait.jpgIf you know anything about van Gogh, chances are its that he cut off his ear—and then you may know something about him giving it to a prostitute. At this point, the details get a bit fuzzy. Some say it might have been the result of a form of epilepsy, others say it was a reaction to stress. He reportedly wrapped the ear in a newspaper and delivered it to a friend, who happened to be a prostitute, and asked her to guard it for him carefully. After that, he was put in an asylum. And here’s where it gets interesting.

Back in those days, psychological maladies were simply called “madness.” Debilitating depression? Madness. Paranoia? Madness. Acute epilepsy? Madness. Cutting off your ear and sending it across town? Madness.

He was officially labeled “mad.” Add to this the fact that van Gogh was also something of a growing celebrity in the art world. So along with his madness he now had a mountain of humiliating shame to go with it.

So what did he do? Lay low? No. He painted. And at least twice, while in the asylum, he painted self-portraits. And in both of them, the bandaged ear is on display, facing the viewer. What is truly fascinating about this portrait is how the artist was willing to capture this moment of great shame—not once but at least twice—and paint with the bandaged side showing.

Its an incredible indictment of my heart. How willing am I to lead with the fact that I’ve got a lot of things in me that aren’t right? Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear hangs in my office (not the original) to remind this pastor that if I’m drawing the self-portrait wrong, I’m concealing from my congregation the fact that I am broken. My wounds need binding. I need asylum. And if I can’t show that honestly, how will anyone see Christ in me?

Here’s some irony: today Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear is worth millions, but what the artist is showing us in it willingly is his own spiritual and relational poverty. He faithfully captures his greatest moment of shame. He shows the bandaged side. And probably no one reading this could afford to buy it now.

This is analogous to how I believe God sees His people—fully exposed in our short-comings but of incalculable worth to Him—and it is how we should see others, and be willing to be seen by others.

Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


10 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Thanks, Russ, for this post. Great stuff.

    I once heard a sermon from a preacher who had been divorced years earlier. He told the story of the time a friend came to visit him at his office. He was admiring the wall hung with photos of the preacher with his happy family, the photo of the preacher shaking hands with the Governor, the college diploma, the seminary diploma, the diploma for his honorary PhD.
    “Why isn’t your divorce certificate up there in a frame?” the visitor asked. “I’ve heard you say that you learned more from that failure, that brokenness than all your successes put together…”

  2. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Our humanity is the handle by which others relate to us; if we present ourselves hypocritically, deceitfully, hiding the things we’ve done, we’re missing out on an opportunity to transmit the power of Christ in us to others. To put it another way, strong positives come from strong negatives. When we fully and utterly know our total weakness and inability to “be like Christ” in our human effort, God’s power is perfected in that knowing and is expressed more thoroughly by our actions in our daily life. That’s why a person with a dark past can make such a great pastor. The power in the preaching comes from his being saved out of that negative, dark background. This is continually modeled in stories, in songs, in movies; the darkness and discord produce tension which leads to a liberating release, a feeling of victory and power.

  3. Profile photo of Matt Conner

    Matt Conner

    @mattconner

    Ron brings up a great verse with “God’s power is made perfect in our weakness” and I recently had to preach through that entire passage and those around it. It was an interesting study, for sure, but the fascinating part was that it can actually be translated: God’s power comes to its completion in our weakness.

    In other words, God’s power is never fully realized until we are ultimately weak. The meaning is largely the same, but I love this connotation instead. Perfect is a word that remains unapproachable at times, even its on the side of God (which is usual).

    Just some thoughts…

  4. Caleb Land

    Thank you for this post and for this “blog conversation.” I have been a huge van Gogh fan since I was privileged to see much of his work on display at the high museum in Atlanta a few years back and I’ve devoured his book of letters.

    I have his “The Good Samaritan” on my office wall (not your usual youth pastor material, I know) for similar reasons. I always think of van Gogh as the Samaritan, a man who was abused and left on the side of the road by the “ministers” and religious types of his day. It is a reminder to seek out and always make time for the lowly and downtrodden, mental problems or not.

  5. Profile photo of Russ Ramsey

    Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Caleb,

    Yeah, he was, in some ways a samaritan left alone by the religious types. Its tragic to think of how, during his missionary days, his attempts to truly know the peasant community he was assigned to by getting down in the mines with them was regarded by his “higher up’s” unbefitting a man of the cloth.

    He’s a complex character too, in that he’s not a mere victim of the church. For years I have really wanted to “co-opt” van Gogh into the Christian fold, thinking, “Look at how the church treated him,” but he was harsh toward the church too. I honestly don’t know if he was a Christian or not. In his writings, and even in some of his works he was very hard on the church. (Check out the famous Starry Night. The only building in the picture that has no light inside is the church.) You could argue that he had a right to be, but its hard to know how much of his rejection of the church was a rejection of the people of the church, and how much was a rejection of God. God knows. I’m uncertain. I know what I hope.

    So I think you’re on to something complex here. We are called to seek out and always make time for the down-trodden, but I think we are also called have compassion on the legalists and Pharisee types.

    Tim Keller, a pastor in New York City, in an excellent sermon on the prodigal son, cautioned younger brother types against finding the mercy of the Father, delighting in it, committing to reciprocating by always welcoming back prodigals, but then saying, “But I’ll never have anything kind for those elder brother types– those legalists. They’re ruining the church.” Keller says, “Don’t you see, the younger brother becomes an elder brother toward elder brothers.”

    Thats a tough charge, I think. It convicts me.

    Anyhow, that’s just a thought you brought to mind. So thanks for that.

    I love that Good Samaritan painting. I used to have a copy, but I gave it away. Did you know its an imitation of one painted by Eugene Delacroix (1789-1863) Vincents is a mirror image. You can see them side by side on http://www.biblical-art.com.

    Peace,
    Russ

  6. Caleb Land

    Russ,

    Thanks for the thoughts and the encouragement. God has called me, at least for the last five years or so, to minister to the “elder brothers.” In spite of my best efforts to get out, and in spite of the fact that most of the guys my age are leaving the “established” church, God is keeping me here and constantly reminding me that He still wants to be glorified and taught here as well.

  7. kay morrison

    russ-
    i too am a fellow van gogh lover…as an artist and believer i am inspired and encouraged by his progressive development…his first extremely brown works are almost indistinguishable as ‘van gogh’s’. this speaks to the growth process; no one begins at starry night.
    i love the truth you bring of van gogh’s willingness to explore his brokenness and shame. it is convictng. all too often i think i am willing to expose my ‘bandged ear’ only when it is healed, in a past tense place instead of in the current, bloody mess. i find my brokenness more palatable from a distance, not leading with it but looking back at it. and that creates distance too to the glorious beauty of Christ at work in my woundedness.

  8. Jim A

    Russ –
    What a great post about humanity and the plastic surgery desires of our hearts. What the second half of your post reminds me of is Frederick Buechner’s “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale”.
    He suggests in the first half of this great book that those hurting in the pews of a church would be comforted by the pastor that does not try to hide the fact that even they bleed when they cut themselves in the morning with their razors. That the pastor is every bit as human as they are and to tell them anything different would reduce the good news they have to share to an empty promise.
    I suspect Buechner would, if presented the idea, agree to have “Self portrait with Bandaged Ear” placed on the cover of any new printings of that book.

    p.s.
    Luckily, the “Baby Einstein” video on Van Gogh leaves off the details of the ear and the prostitue. I’m trying to think about how I would explain that to my 4 year old! 🙂

  9. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Thanks Russ. your post has stuck with me since I first read it several weeks ago and I think about it almost every day. It reminds me to be mindful about my own self portrait i carry around with me everywhere I go. Is it real or have I dressed it up and in so doing hidden the work of grace in my life? My woundedness puts God’s grace on display. (and yet at the same time, I don’t want to walk around bleeding on everybody.)

  10. Kevin Hames

    R.E. Baby Van Gough – Have you noticed that Vincent Van Goat, the puppet surrogate for Van Gough in the video, wears an bandage on his ear? My kids haven’t noticed it yet, but I have to laugh every time I see it.

    Thanks to everyone for the thought provoking discussion, and thanks to AP for providing a place on the web where I can relax and learn without fear of stumbling across the negativity so prevalent in many other web sites.

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