a. Once more, for the sake of completeness: the Van Gogh church in Etten-Leur.  

b. to i. The stained-glass windows. The church is sharing detailed pictures of these, together with short explanations, on its Instagram account.

j. The pulpit, and a picture of Theodorus. 

k. Final window above the pulpit, a young and older Van Gogh.


1. Van Gogh Route, Church, Etten, the Netherlands, vangoghroute.com.

2. Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, Nienke Bakker (eds.) (2009), Vincent van Gogh - The Letters. Version: January 2020. Amsterdam & The Hague: Van Gogh Museum & Huygens ING. Letter 194.

3. The picture on which this depiction of the boy Van Gogh was based recently turned out to be not of Van Gogh himself, but of his brother Theo. 


The church, its windows

Finally, then, the church. Yes, not much is left of Van Gogh’s life in Etten-Leur, but the church is still here. A very tangible thing, after all, and bigger than I’d expected. 

I’ve saved it for last, bought a ticket for four p.m. The woman in the tourist office warned me, earlier in the day, about her husband, who volunteers in the church. When someone visits who’s genuinely interested in Van Gogh, he can apparently go on for hours.

And he does. As soon as I step through the small door in the church’s side, a white-haired man in blue jeans and a striped polo shirt waves me over. He’s already started his tour, and when I approach him he launches into a recap of Van Gogh’s life story, most of which he’s just told to the woman standing next to him. She’s another visitor, I gather, looking slightly overwhelmed by the amount of information she’s being cannonaded with, the speed at which it is delivered.  

Van Gogh’s father Theodorus was parson at this church from 1875 to 1882.1 During his stay in Etten in 1881, Van Gogh atttended services here regularly. He did so mostly to keep the peace, and satisfy his family: Van Gogh had lost most of his religious fervour and fanaticism back in Belgium. In fact, it was his eventual refusal to go to church at Christmas, and the resulting row with his father, that led to Van Gogh’s decision to leave Etten and move to The Hague:

I was angrier than I ever remember being in my whole life, and I told Pa plainly that I found the whole system of that religion loathsome, and precisely because I dwelled on those things too much during a miserable time in my life I don’t want anything more to do with it, and have to guard against it as against something fatal.2

The vulnerability appeals to me. It’s something I do, guard against the past by keeping away from stuff that connects me to it. Well, I say stuff: memories, places, people. In Van Gogh’s case: the church, religion. Probably not the sensible, effective thing to do, but again, that’s not how this works. 

Van Gogh’s time in Etten, from Easter to Christmas, is depicted by the church’s stained-glass windows. They’re new, brightly coloured, and each one represents a theme, as it were, of Van Gogh’s life. The first one, for instance, depicts Van Gogh’s arrival in Etten: the church, four white sheep representing those of his siblings still living at home, a sole black sheep, standing a little ways apart.b The symbolism isn’t hard to find. 

All this is explained to me in a rapid-fire, slightly disjointed barrage of enthusiasm by the friendly guide. He’s got hundred of books on Van Gogh, he tells me, and one of them (I’ve forgotten which exactly) details what happened to the rest of Van Gogh children, how many of them died too young and too unhappily by suicide, disease, inside an institution, and blames the matriarch, Van Gogh’s mother, her genes, the madness that ran in her side of the family, apparently. 

He’s a font of information, this man, but after an hour or so my head also starts to hurt a little. In between trying to maintain eye contact, trying to follow what he’s saying, to discern the tangents from the main arguments, I steal glances at the pulpit, still the original, if I understand correctly, the framed picture of Theodorus above it, and above that, a final window, a young Van Gogh and the older one.3 Down the centre of the church, where an aisle would have led between the benches, is now a red carpet, a number of wooden pedestals, painted busts of Van Gogh all in a row.  

Day’s ended, and we say goodbye. I step outside, back into the heat, the glaring sunlight. It’s been a lovely first trip, all in all. I’ll come back here, in a week or two, and take some walks in the surrounding countryside where Van Gogh drew so many of his pictures. For now, my visit to the church seems like a fitting conclusion, a summary: the windows, the pulpit, the tangibility of the smooth stone slabs beneath my feet, stones Van Gogh might have walked on, the sediment the bricks leave on my fingers when I touch the church wall. 

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© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.