Amsterdam, 19 Nov. 1877

My dear Theo,
I feel the need to write to you again, because I often think of you and long so much for Christmas, when we hope to see each other again. Well, the dark days before Christmas are already in sight, and behind them lies Christmas, just like the kindly light1 from the houses behind the rocks and the water that breaks against them on a dark evening.
The Christmas celebration was always a bright spot for us, and may it remain so.
An entrance exam has been held at the university here for the first time — it’s here in the city that I’ll sit the exam as well.2 In addition to the usual 4 subjects of Latin, Greek, algebra and geometry, they also tested history, geography and Dutch.
Have taken pains to find a teacher of Algebra and Geometry and have succeeded, namely a cousin of Mendes, Teixeira de Mattos, a teacher at the Jewish School for the Poor.3 He gives me hope that we’ll have met the requirements by around October of next year. If I should then pass the exam, things will have gone very well indeed. Because when I started they said that 2 years would be necessary for the first 4 subjects mentioned, whereas if I should pass in October, I’ll have done more in an even shorter time. May God give me the wisdom I need and grant me my heart’s desire, namely to complete my studies as soon as possible and to be inducted into a living and the practical duties of a minister. Doing that work, and being devoted to it, I believe one would be doing what God wants one to do.
The preparatory studies (i.e. those preceding the actual theological study and practice in preaching and speaking) more or less comes down to the history, languages and geography of Greece, Asia Minor (which can be taken to include Palestine) and Italy. So I have to study these just as diligently as a dog gnaws a bone, and similarly I should like to know the languages, history and geography of the northern countries, i.e. those around the North Sea and the English Channel.
Have finally succeeded in making a map of Asia Minor, Greece and Italy, fairly large (which now includes Paul’s4 travels as well), and also one of England which finally has something of what I wanted it to have, at least Mendes sees it in it, namely that it was not drawn without feeling and love. (I put in the names from a map in the Atlas Antiquus of Spruner-Menke5 that Mendes has, because it’s one to be used for history.) Come on, do your best to take a look at that atlas sometime, likewise the one by Stieler in particular.6 Because it is artistry. (Spruner-Menke, Atlas Antiquus.)  1v:2
On Sunday I heard the Rev. Ten Kate7 on John XIV:1-6 (In my Father’s house are many mansions: Whosoever says that, what our Father’s house holds in memories for us, what it promises us). He ended with: The hour is coming in which the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of the people and shall stand up, they that have done good, unto the Resurrection of the Eternal Life.8 Blessed are the homesick, for they shall come home.9 The church was so packed that I stood.
Spent two evenings at Uncle Cor’s, once to look at old books (including volumes of L’Illustration in which I found many old acquaintances, that is really an interesting magazine, among other things an old portrait of Dickens10 and a woodcut by De Lemud, ‘The cup of coffee’,11 a young man with rather severe and sharp features and a serious expression who looks exactly as though he were thinking about that passage from The imitation, On the monastic life,12 or as though he were contemplating some difficult but good work or plan, as only a soul in need can.13 Such work isn’t always the worst, but what one does in sorrow, as it were, lives on. Happy the man who is instructed by Truth itself, not by signs and passing words, but as it is in itself,14 are good words).
Then I was also at Uncle Cor’s on Aunt’s birthday,15 i.e. last Friday, they played cards that evening, and because I can’t I sat there reading A. Gruson, Histoire des croisades (Panthéon classique 50 cmes).16 That’s a very beautiful little book, I would almost say that here and there it was written with the sentiment of Thijs Maris (herewith, among other things, a page that struck me),17 such as when he paints an old castle on a rock with autumnal woods at twilight, with the black fields with a peasant ploughing with a white horse in the foreground,18 and it also made me think of Michelet and Carlyle.
I should like so much for Pa to know that etching of A young citizen of the year V.19 Do you approve of giving it on Pa’s birthday or before then, along with some small photos of the Revolution,20 so that it forms a whole from which Pa can see what we often think about?
Perhaps you already know that there have been sad tidings today from Brussels, that Pa has already gone there. Uncle Jan, who received a telegram containing this news from Ma, telegraphed Pa and received the answer ‘Condition unchanged don’t come yet I’m here’. Uncle Jan and Uncle Cor were already set to go there together, now they’re awaiting further notice from faithful Pa. Will there then finally be an end to that long and terrible suffering?21
Goodbye Theo, write soon, old boy, if you can, may God preserve our health and give us the clarity of mind and the strength and vigour we need every day. Uncle Jan, Uncle Cor and the Stricker family send you their regards, and accept a hearty handshake in thought from

Your loving brother

That news about Uncle Hein comes while I’m writing this.

Paul Stricker will in all likelihood have to return to Holland because of his health.22
A good letter from Johan van Gogh, and Willem23 is also doing relatively well, but does have to look after himself and be careful.

After some days, all the miseries suffered by the Crusaders before the walls of Antioch were seen as trivial and mild compared with the woes they suffered within them. Hunger and thirst were beginning to harass them dreadfully. As long as there was any fodder left for the horses, they kept them to drink their blood; some days later, they found themselves forced to kill them, in order to feed on their flesh. Plants of whatever kind were avidly devoured. People ate the leaves of trees, and boiled animal skins. Even the dried leather from pieces of armour provided nourishment. Hunger lent this food an exquisite and delightful flavour. And it was not only the lowliest among the Crusaders who found themselves cast into this state of destitution; the same suffering made all men equal and brought all heads to the same level. Commanders, soldiers, women, maidens, all suffered together. The people bemoaned their hunger with loud cries, and none could assist another, nor escape the scourge. Even Godfrey found himself with no horses and no money.
It is reported that several unhappy people dragged themselves, half dead from inanition, through the streets of the city, crying: ‘O Lord, may Thy name be blessed!’, and they consoled themselves in the hope that the sufferings of this life would have their reward in the next. But the same resignation did not hold sway throughout the army, and desertions recommenced; William the Carpenter, forgetting the oath he had made to remain true to the sacred cause, fled for a second time. Alexius Comnena, from whom help was expected, turned back on learning of the agonizing situation of the Christians of Antioch. Some hours after the return of Peter the Hermit, who had been sent to the infidels’ camp to order them to abandon the siege of Antioch and to give free passage to the Christians, and who had reported nothing but threatening words, a strange excitement was seen to seize the Christians, incensed at the haughty words of the Turkish commander. Their pale, defeated faces, their dull, lifeless eyes suddenly revived, and their bowed, wasted bodies stood up straight and proud. All was made ready for the battle that was to take place on the following day, and people prepared themselves with prayers and religious processions. It was the day of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and this circumstance increased still further the army’s courage. All the troops, with the exception of the Count of Toulouse and a small number of soldiers from Provence, who were left behind to hold the garrison of the Citadel, left Antioch and were drawn up in battle order on the plain that lay before the city. The advance guard was preceded by priests and monks carrying the Crucifix in their hands, calling aloud for Divine protection and crying out in the words of the Psalmist, ‘Be Thou a tower of strength to those who put their faith in Thee’. Every incident seemed to be a favourable omen, and even the morning dew, making the air fragrant with the scent of roses, was seen a mark of Heaven’s special favour. (And they won the fight.)

It was on 15 July 1099 that the Crusaders took possession of the Holy City. Almost 3 years had passed since their departure from Europe. It was towards three o’clock in the afternoon, the very hour at which the Saviour expired on the Cross; an empty space opened up on the ramparts. The Turks retreated.24

Godfrey de Bouillon. On a fine evening in August 1096, a man of about 36 years of age was leaning in a meditative attitude on the sill of a window of the superb Castle of Bouillon, his gaze fixed on the turrets placed next to the crenellated walls, whose finials stood out in dark brown silhouette against the dull whiteness of the sky. Darkness spread slowly over the horizon, and a few stars appeared in the sky like golden eyes. In a huge courtyard below him could be heard the clatter of armour striking armour, the voices of men of arms talking amongst themselves, the neighing of restless horses and the orders issued by the squires to the soldiers.25 The end of the book is: It was a personification of that Spirit of God Who, ever young and strong, lives through the Centuries and beyond them.26

Now here’s what I was thinking about while drawing that map of England that you’ll see at Christmas: If you look at a map of the world, you will see, in the left-hand upper corner of the Eastern Hemisphere, two Islands, lying in the sea. They are England and Scotland, and Ireland. England and Scotland form the greater part of these Islands. Ireland is the next in size. The little neighbouring islands, which are so small upon the Map as to be mere dots, are chiefly little bits of Scotland — broken off I dare say, in the course of a great length of time by the power of the restless water. In the old days, a long long while ago, before Our Saviour was born on earth and lay asleep in a manger, these Islands were in the same place and the stormy sea roared round them, just as it roars now. But the sea was not alive then, with great ships and brave sailors, sailing to and from all parts of the world. It was very lonely. The Islands lay solitary, in the great expanse of water. The foaming waves dashed against their cliffs, and the bleak winds blew over their forests; but the winds and waves brought no adventurers to land upon the Islands, and the savage Islanders knew nothing of the rest of the world, and the rest of the world knew nothing of them. Dickens, A child’s history of England.27

In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said ‘Let there be Light’ and there was Light. And God saw the Light that it was good, and God divided the Light from the darkness. And God called the Light ‘Day’ and the darkness He called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.28

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was Life and the Life was the Light of men. That was the true Light which lighteth on every man that cometh into the world.29


Br. 1990: 133 | CL: 113
From: Vincent van Gogh
To: Theo van Gogh
Date: Amsterdam, Monday, 19 November 1877

1. Cf. hymn 200:2, hymn 271:2, and the hymn ‘Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom’.
2. This entrance examination to the Faculty of Arts at the University of Amsterdam took place on 9 November 1877; that year there were 28 candidates. See Jaarboek der Universiteit van Amsterdam (1877-1884). Amsterdam 1885, p. 64.
a. Van Gogh’s ‘en’ in the name of the school is incorrect and misleading.
3. It is not clear which Teixeira de Mattos is intended. Wim Heijen, who has researched this family, thinks that it was probably Isaäc Teixeira de Mattos, a retired doctor who could have volunteered as a teacher at the Israëlitische Godsdienst Armenschool (Jewish School for the Poor), from 1871 a continuation of the Nederlandsch-Portugeesch-Israëlitische Armenschool (Dutch-Portuguese-Jewish School for the Poor). In the account-book of the Portuguese-Jewish community, Isaäc Teixeira de Mattos occurs frequently as a moneylender. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, two members of the Teixeira de Mattos family had been members of the board of governors of the Portuguese school for the poor.
Another candidate is a nephew of the aforementioned, another Isaäc Teixeira de Mattos (in 1881 an office clerk), who felt compelled to become involved in the care of the poor. See SAAm; I. van S. Mulder, Verslag van de commissie belast met het toezigt over de Nederlandsch-Israëlitische godsdienstige scholen binnen het synagogaal ressort van Amsterdam. Amsterdam 1863, p. 11; W.Chr. Pieterse, Inventaris van de archieven der Portugees-Israëlitische Gemeente te Amsterdam 1614-1870. Amsterdam 1964, p. 18 and Wim Heijen, ‘Teixeira de Mattos. Bankschandaal tastte goede naam aan’, Ons Amsterdam 49-6 (1997), pp. 160-164.
4. The apostle Paul.
5. Spruner-Menke, Atlas antiquus. Karoli Spruneri opus, tertio edidit Theodorus Menke. Göttingen 1865. The atlas consists of 31 plates with explanations. ‘Britannia et Hibernia’ is map no. 18. The makers of the atlas were Karl von Spruner von Merz and Theodor Menke.
6. Adolf Stieler, Hand-Atlas über alle Theile der Erde und über das Weltgebäude. Gotha. This much-used atlas originally stemmed from 1817-1823, but was completely revised in 1871-1875 and subsequently reprinted a number of times. The complete atlas comprised 90 maps, which were also sold separately (Stieler 1876).
7. On Sunday, 18 November the popular minister J.J.L. ten Kate conducted the 10 a.m. service in the Zuiderkerk.
9. Van Gogh’s later addition – ‘Blessed are the homesick, for they shall come home’ – was inspired by the Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5.
10. The portrait of Dickens, drawn by Achille Isidore Gilbert and engraved by Burn Smeeton, appeared nine days after the death of the writer on the front page of L’Illustration 28 (18 June 1870), p. 429. Ill. 1858 [1858].
11. An engraving after La tasse de café (The cup of coffee) by Aimé de Lemud, in L’Illustration 6 (1 November 1845), p. 136. Ill. 1046 [1046].
12. ‘La vie monastique’ (The monastic life) is the title of book i, chapter 17 in L’imitation de Jésus-Christ, the French translation of De imitatione Christi by Thomas a Kempis.
13. Van Gogh could have become familiar with the current expression ‘A soul in need’ from a publication on Tissot; see letter 158, n. 26.
14. The opening lines of book i, chapter 3 in L’imitation de Jésus-Christ (ed. 1850), p. 7. Quoted, with variations, in letter 135 as well; cf. also letter 108, n. 17.
15. Johanna van Gogh-Franken turned 41 on 16 November.
16. Auguste Gruson, Histoire des croisades. Racontée à la jeunesse. Paris n.d. This book appeared as no. 247 in Panthéon Classique et Littéraire, a series of inexpensive schoolbooks that were put on the market simultaneously by a number of publishers in various countries.
17. See the end of the letter.
18. This is a description of Matthijs Maris, The castle ploughman, 1875-1876 (Cardiff, National Museum of Wales). Ill. 1860 [1860]. This painting was owned at the time by E.J. van Wisselingh, who lived in Amsterdam, where Van Gogh might have seen it, though it is possible that he had seen it as early as 1875-1876 in Maris’s studio in Paris.
20. The French Revolution of 1789.
21. The condition of Uncle Hein, who had been ill for years, had worsened. Alerted to the situation, Mr van Gogh travelled on Sunday, 18 November to Laken, whence he returned on Wednesday, 21 November. Writing to Theo after Uncle Hein’s death on 26 November, he said: ‘So you already know that I left a week ago Sunday for Brussels and came back on Wednesday evening. There seemed to be some change then, but at last he was released from his suffering and died yesterday morning at 4 a.m. Fortunately he has been relieved of that heavy burden. The last few days he no longer regained consciousness, but on the last day I was with him he recognized me and stroked my hand, since he could no longer speak, and gave clear signs that he understood my words. Again, it is fortunate that his suffering is over, but his death affects me deeply nonetheless’ (FR b2571, 27 November 1877).
22. Paul Stricker, who was working in the Indies, was forced by poor health to return to the Netherlands. Mrs van Gogh wrote to Theo: ‘It appears to be neurosis; his stomach refused to take food. The doctor appears to have said that he must return to the Netherlands, so any illusions of his fine position there and his prospects are a thing of the past’ (FR b2569, 21 November 1877).
23. Johan and Vincent Wilhelm van Gogh, sons of Uncle Jan. Johan had left on 6 January 1877 for the Dutch East Indies, where he worked on Java as a planter. Vincent Wilhelm was an administrator at the Cinchona and Tea enterprise at Payung (Madjalengka, Cheribon). It is not known what was wrong with Wilhelm, who had married Maria Christina Elisabeth Musch on 25 July 1877 at Cianjur.
24. Van Gogh joined together several passages from Histoire des croisades, which he took from pp. 53, 54, 55, 56, 74 and 71 in the 1845 Brussels edition.
25. Ed. Brussels 1845, p. 8.
26. Ed. Brussels 1845, p. 200. In the book this closing line is in the interrogative.
27. Beginning of Charles Dickens’s A child’s history of England, of which there were a number of editions. See Master Humphrey’s clock and A child’s history of England. Introduction by Derek Hudson. Oxford etc. 1981, p. [129].