During the last two years of his life, at Arles and at the asylum of Saint-Remy, Van Gogh painted regularly. For example, at the end of the month of May 1888, he made a trip to the Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a fishing village on the Mediterranean coast where he painted this landscape ‘of a blue sea under a blue sky’.
This painting of Van Gogh illustrates well the fifth stanza of Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of brother Sun, dedicated to sister water: Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Water, which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
«St. Francis, calls water useful, humble, precious and chaste, writes Eric Doyle. While it is undoubtedly true that water is useful, this is so self-evident as to be almost a truism. It would have done her more justice had Francis described water as vital or indispensable. Though she is vital to us, water never glories in this nor lords it over us. She is always humble, even when reminding us of her power in raging seas, torrential rains and swelling rivers. And nowhere is her humility more manifest than in springs, whence she bubbles up gently and unobtrusively, to grow gradually into great currents making their mighty way to the sea. But even if water were proud, we would readily forgive her, I think, because her loveliness, strength and richness would excuse her. She would have reason for pride. Yet the truth is water remains humble.»
St. Bonaventure compares the spiritual life of Francis of Assisi with the humility of sister water: «Those who seek water must dig deep. Similarly, the one desiring to be filled with living water must dig in him a well of humility… Humility is preparing a place where love will pour out.»
St. Francis also uses two other qualifiers to describe the water. He calls her ‘precious and chaste’… «It’s the second time, writes Eloi Leclerc, that we encounter in this song the qualifier ‘precious’. The first time was in relation to the stars. Would something of the brilliance of the stars also be present in water? It happens that sister water, rivaling the starry sky, sparkles like gems. But is it not strange that Francis, the absolute poor, dreams of such valuable substances in heaven and on Earth? He dreams of valuable stars and precious water! On his part, the repetition of such a qualifier, at a few lines of interval only, and about such different realities, retains our attention… For Francis, a precious material is most likely to symbolize the sacred.»
«We should therefore not be surprised to see this qualifier ‘precious’ associated with that of ‘chaste’ in the image of sister Water. Both attributes point in the same direction… Precious water is a living water. And this living water flows from the untouched depths of a hidden, sacred spring… Living water always has a deeper spring than the deepest well. It’s a spring without contact with the outside world, a spring which is intact, virgin, holy.»
Waters above the heavens, bless the Lord! Springs of water, bless the Lord!
Seas and rivers, bless the Lord! Give glory and eternal praise to him!
Georges Morin, ofm