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-.
Vincent 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.
If 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.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).