One of the most famous and beloved paintings, Starry Night (MoMA, NYC), has mesmerized academia and the general public alike for over a century. What has confounded everyone is the inspiration behind the artist’s visionary canvas. Theories range from the literal to the literary. The latter includes suppositions the image blossomed from some literary source: the Bible or Walt Whitman, usually. This article advances the painting was inspired by Dante’s vision of the Empyrean Heavens, his tenth and final sphere, where the Trinity, in perfect balance, turns the cosmos.
While it remains uncertain if Vincent read The Divine Comedy, his existing letters reveal a more than cursory familiarity. Most notably was his opinion that the pinnacle of artistic achievement included the portraits of Frans Hals, and quote, “Dante’s Paradise, the Michealangelos, and Raphaels, and even the Greeks.”
As a denizen of Provence, Vincent was immersed in a culture in which Dante’s shadow still loomed large. In May, 1889, Vincent admitted himself as a patient at St. Paul’s, a Catholic asylum nestled in the Alpilles, its landscape famous for inspiring Dante’s Gates of Hell. Vincent had just moved fifteen miles from Arles where, for a millennia, sarcophagi had been stacked at an Ancient Roman necropolis. The site inspired Dante to pen, “Even as at Arles where stagnant grows the Rhone” beginning his sixth circle of hell, the realm of heretics.
“it was well within Vincent’s purview to paint images inspired by literature, especially at the confluence of poetry and theology”
Vincent admired and studied many whom adored and recreated images from The Divine Comedy, including: Giotto, Delacroix, Hugo, Carlyle, Corot, Doré and Rodin. Beyond the scope of this article, there is a broad base of circumstantial evidence suggesting Vincent not only studied Dante but painted numerous scenes from the Commedia. Further, it was well within Vincent’s purview to paint images inspired by literature, especially at the confluence of poetry and theology.
Among literal interpretations, art historian Albert Boime’s “social history” theory is the most widely accepted. Based in no small amount of scientific research, he had three UCLA colleagues at the Griffith Park Observatory wind-back time and recreate the pre-dawn cosmos outside of Vincent’s asylum window the morning he reported painting Starry Night.
“Vincent’s imagination, therefore, though grounded in reality, created most everything else.”
They determined the two brightest orbs were analogous to the placements of the morning star, Venus, near the skyline of the Alpilles, and the moon, in the upper, right-hand corner. Boime and his own lead astronomer, however, disagreed about the placement of the remaining stars, one determining the Aries constellation, the other, Cygnus. Vincent’s imagination, therefore, though grounded in reality, created most everything else.
Boime posits Vincent may have read Camille Flammarion’s Popular Astronomy which included a depiction of a spiral nebula, perhaps inspiring Vincent’s turbulent sky. While Vincent may have seen this image, it is nowhere near to-scale in his Starry Night, suggesting more relevance than a mere scientific phenomenon.
While Starry Night’s hamlet is reminiscent of the nearby town of St. Rémy, it was not viewable from Vincent’s vantage point, as evidenced in dozens of other canvasses he painted from inside his room. As Boime pointed out, the moon, that early morning was not in its crescent, but gibbous phase. Boime further noted Vincent’s apparent artistic struggles with creating this heavenly body, attempting to dispel the belief that it is somehow a sun-moon combination, perhaps in eclipse.
Vincent added many other elements including: the Protestant church’s spired steeple barely piercing the roiling firmament, dwarfed by the towering, flaming Cypress, a symbol of death in the Mediterranean. For all these reasons, the painting cannot be accepted as merely literal.
Regarding Biblical inspiration, theories of allegorical depictions of the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelations, Joseph’s visionary dreams or a sublimated Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane have been deemed largely Ptolemaic. This is due to more recent research that has better organized Vincent’s existing letters, more fully defined his personal Christology as Groningen, and explicated his Symbolist art phase as merely seemingly syncretic. Biblical allusions, however, are due credit for positing the paradox that is Vincent’s sun-moon combination.
“Whitman, like Vincent, linked the stars, death and immortality.”
Art historian Hope Werness pointed out that American poet Whitman, like Vincent, linked the stars, death and immortality. She found many commonalities between the men, between Whitman’s poetry and Starry Night. Werness did not attempt to over-interpret or define the elements within Starry Night, stating:
“Van Gogh created an image of divine love and of the glory and immensity of the cosmos. In the painting, man’s temporal and terrestrial existence is contrasted with the immutable and eternal nature of cosmic time.”
I cannot disagree with this and will fully admit that I may be guilty of over-interpretation. But I am always reminded of Vincent’s admonitions to “look closely,” for there are wonders and mysteries hidden within the greatest masterpieces.
“I believe Vincent’s cosmos was inspired by Dante’s description of the Empyrean”
Therefore, I believe Vincent’s cosmos was inspired by Dante’s description of the Empyrean, his tenth and final sphere of heaven where God, the sun-moon combination, reflects upon Christ, the morning star, and the Holy Spirit aflame, breathes equally between them. I find the citron-yellow, sun-moon combination to be a brilliant metaphor for the conundrum that is God’s mystery; an enigma that may have been necessitated by the Commedia’s final line:
My yearning aligned in the Holy Spirit as it moves the sun and all the other stars.
One simply cannot paint a sky full of stars with the sun in it! Yet, Vincent seems to have found an ingenious way of doing so. Just as ingenious was his ability to give form to the Holy Spirit with his celestial, pulsating, helix. It should be considered more an example of his haloing technique than swirling clouds or nebulae. The remaining ten stars, more like living, breathing flowers? They may represent Dante’s ten heavenly spheres.
In conclusion, a few excerpts from Dante, the pilgrim, on his journey to the Empyrean:
So, with your intellect swept bare,
I will inform you with light so alive
That it will shimmer as you look on it.
Deep in the heaven of divine peace
There whirls a body in whose power rests
The being of all things that it contains.
The heaven after it, with brilliant stars,
Distributes this being to different essences
Distinct from it and yet contained within it.
The other circles by various degrees
Dispose the separate powers in themselves
To their own proper ends and propagation.
These organs of the universe proceed
As you now see, from grade to grade, obtaining
Their power from above and acting downward.
Within that loving light on which I looked
And which is always what it was before
By the sight that gathered strength in me
As I gazed on, what was One in appearance
Was altering for me as I was changing.
In the profound and shining-clear Existence
Of the deep Light appeared to me three circles
Of one dimension and three different colors:
God reflected upon Christ and conversely
Rainbow upon rainbow, the Holy Spirit
Aflame, breathed equally between them.
Like a wheel turning in perfect balance
My yearning aligned in the Holy Spirit
As it moves the sun and all the other stars
Jared Baxter presented The Power behind Starry Night: Vincent’s Empyrean Vision at The Asian Conference on Arts and Humanities 2015.
Image | Starry Night – Vincent van Gogh Wikipedia