The Bearers of the Burden – 19 March, 2018

This picture, entitled ‘The Bearers of the Burden. (Miner’s women carrying sacks.)’ is by Vincent Van Gogh. Drawn in 1881, it is one of his first works as an artist.

In 1879 Van Gogh moved to The Borinage, the coal-mining district of Belgium, to serve as a missionary. He immersed himself in the community, sympathizing with the dreadful conditions among the poverty stricken men and women working in and around the mines. He spent time underground with those working the mines, and gave away his food and clothing to those in need. His aesthetic lifestyle left him weak, and he was judged a failure as an evangelist. He began to draw instead.

Here we see women carrying coal, bent over by the weight of their burden. In the distance we can see a village where there is a church. The high bridge and the lightened sky serve as contrast to the dark figures at the front of the image, serving to emphasise the darkness and oppression depicted here. The women walk in line, their bodies becoming one with their burdens and the pit-head where they have been ‘scratting’ for coal. As well as the central figures there are two more following, their hands raised to hold the sacks that run over their heads and down their backs This gesture is reminiscent of medieval pictures of the road to Calvary, where women raise their hands to their faces in horror as they see Christ led away to suffer. On the tree to the right there is a small public shrine that contains a crucifix. These women then are ‘watched’ only by this Christ, who suffers amongst them.

Yesterday we entered Passiontide. The emphasis in this last part of Lent is on the suffering of Christ. We are encouraged to follow through to Holy Week, Good Friday and then to the Resurrection. The prayers and spiritual disciplines of these days become more demanding, especially for those for whom the whole year is a kind of Passiontide because their daily burdens in life are so heavy. We pray ourselves and for all who are heavy laden….

 

Let not the flood overwhelm me
nor the depths swallow me up;
let not the pit shut its mouth upon me:
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.