Vincent van Gogh painted several versions of seemingly well-worn boots and shoes. It might well be that they had significance beyond a mere still-life representation. Indeed, in a preserved letter to his extraordinary faithful brother, we have an insight into his early perception of life as a form of pilgrimage and travel, with all its novelty, stimulation, pain and challenges. Enclosed with the letter was a copy of a sermon he preached at a small Methodist church in Richmond, London, the theme of which is best revealed by one short extract:-
It is an old faith and it is a good faith, that our life is a pilgrim’s progress – that we are strangers on the earth, but that though this be so yet we are not alone for our Father is with us. ( based on Psalm 119 v 19)
Van Gogh could not be described as a conventional Christian by any means but he commenced his career as a worker in the Lutheran church. His idiosyncratic behaviour, particularly his focused zeal, was received less than positively by many of his parishioners, and mental health problems were always an underlying condition. Consequently, he was eventually removed from his post by the church authorities. It was then, with the encouragement and support of an extraordinary faithful brother, that Vincent turned his full attention to art.
The painting in question immediately suggests two observations – the boots appear to be both sturdy and well-used. Strong and reliable footwear, over time, is shaped into comfortable alignment with the individual contours of the feet. A new pair of shoes has an initially rigid and fixed shape but feet are surprisingly variable! The desirability of ‘breaking-in’ new footwear is well known to us.
We can imagine Van Gogh’s own boots carrying him across different landscapes and human situations in search of interesting and inspiring subjects to draw and paint and, if boots could speak, they would certainly have a great deal to narrate. After all, they would have accompanied an arguably ‘wild ‘and complex personality across a diverse human terrain encompassing emotions such as enthusiasm, sadness, vigour, tiredness, loneliness, isolation, and joyfulness. Indeed, all the emotional seasons of life. Consequently, Van Gogh’s boots might offer an appropriate metaphor for our own personal journey across the landscape of life.
PAUSE FOR A SHORT TIME AND ALLOW THE IMAGE TO EASE YOU INTO REFLECTING UPON YOUR OWN JOURNEY ACROSS THE VARIABLE TERRAIN OF LIFE.
Give thanks for the gentle, easy and joyful walks.
Give thanks for the Divine Presence as you walked the difficult pathways, even those times when it was not easy to discern the nearness of God.
Ask for Grace and Faith as the journey continues.
There are many Biblical references to feet and shoes as metaphors for spiritual and theological concepts. The prophet Isaiah exclaimed ;
How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation.
Isaiah 52 : 7
The reference to the mountain brings two ideas to mind. Firstly, a mountain represents the highest possible elevation for proclamation to the whole world. All can see and all can hear. Secondly, the ascent to a mountain over harsh terrain is costly to feet , especially those shod with ancient sandals. Cuts, bruises, and dirt take their toll. Such feet, at the end of an ancient journey to the top of a mountain are anything but beautiful! Isaiah’s idea of beauty lies not in the feet themselves but rather in the journey made and the message carried.
As we enter the year 2022, with a degree of continued social and personal uncertainty, we are reminded that our journey in life, both as individuals and members of our spiritual community, centres on the beauty inherent in our carrying and displaying the Good News of the Gospel of Christ. I suspect that the writer of the epistle to the Ephesians had Isaiah in mind when he exhorted the young church to be “strong in the Lord”:-
Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with
the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with
the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. ( Ephesians 6 : 14 )
So, let us wrap ourselves in the cloak of the Gospel and put on the shoes of readiness as we enter another blessed year with all that it will offer, both delights and challenges. In the words of Dag Hammarskjöld :-
To all that has been, THANKS. To all that is to be YES!
Terry Rees January 2022