The First Time I Painted Jesus
Thoughts on Liturgical Art and Church Commissions.
The first time I painted Jesus was for an altarpiece for the college chapel where I was employed as an art professor. It was rare to get commissioned by my place of employment, but I was excited for the challenge. As a Christian, I had looked at images of Jesus ever since I could remember and as an artist, I was partial to the European tradition. I looked at Velasquez, Rubens, Rembrandt and Titian paintings and wanted to do something that could become part of the large and awe-inspiring body of work that are the images of Jesus Christ. As a teacher and student of art history I have an interest in the Early Christian images of Jesus produced both in Rome and in Constantinople. All of this visual information had to be assimilated and then it was time for me to design my own version. As an artist I preferred to work from life, so I needed to find a model who matched my idea of Christ. While I was working on my ideas, the college hosted a regional art show and a man walked in who had the build and stature of my idea of Christ. He also had long hair and a beard and mustache. After he agreed to pose, I asked what he did for a living. It turned out he was a 33 year old carpenter. I was surprised by the coincidence of his occupation and look, and felt like I had found the right model.
I chose a more traditional look. A year after I finished the altarpiece I was able to travel to the Holy Land and see some of the sites and people for myself. It didn't change my vision or idea of how Jesus should look. It made all of the paintings and images from history more real.
Recently I have been commissioned to paint a series of images for a small church in Minnesota. The church had been given a memorial and it was decided that it would go to commission artwork. With the pastor's leadership, they decided to have a Last Supper painting for the chancel wall near the communion rail in the altar area of church. They already had an altarpiece with sculpture. I gathered some young men and posed them for the Last Supper. It is hard not to be influenced by Leonardo da Vinci's famous version even though it is not considered historically accurate. Reclining in a Roman style of eating, just isn't very pictorially satisfying and the audience understands what you are trying to communicate. It is a very complex and difficult image to convey.
The congregation responded so well it gave the pastor the freedom to suggest a series on the life of Christ. I was commissioned again by the congregation with a vision for a series of eight paintings to be hung in the nave of the church.
The next painting was the Resurrection. It is so difficult to imagine such an event and the pastor and congregation understood that as art, it is more of a symbol to evoke the memory of the readings in the Bible. I had asked if the church wanted to use the ancient designation of a gold leaf halo to identify Jesus. I also liked the idea of using symbols of rebirth and hope like the lilies in the foreground.
The next painting was the Nativity. I had been to Venice recently and had seen a Tintoretto painting of the nativity with wood slats that showed the sky and landscape. I really liked that idea. I also added the donkey and ox to illustrate Isaiah 1:3, "The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger." The lamb was added to remind the viewer that Jesus is the lamb of God and the staff for the good shepherd.
After that painting came the Crucifixion. In some ways this is the most difficult because not many people want to look at such a revolting Roman death scene. I wanted to depict the moment when the sky was going dark and the pain was paramount. There is scattered light and an indifferent crowd. The dramatic sky is matched with the pain expressed in the curling toes of Jesus on the cross.
With each painting coming nearly six months apart, the excitement from the congregation grew. Money had been received from families either through donations or memorials. It was decided that Jesus in the Temple would be the next painting. I needed to show a young Jesus in a setting with theologians engaged in discussion. I wanted each man to show a different reaction to the young boy. I also had the idea to include Mary and Joseph in silhouette in the tunnel as a way to complete the narrative.
Jesus gathering his first disciples allowed for me to paint a landscape from the region. I needed fresh images of the Sea of Galilee, typical boats and models I had used in the Last Supper. The splashing water was particularly exciting to add motion to the painting.
With the Ascension there was a special request. It should be based upon their altar piece sculpture in the front of the church. That sculpture has a special place in the history of the congregation as it was in the church when it was founded.
The project is ongoing. I am currently working on the Transfiguration. With each of these paintings I am trying to provide the narrative of the life of Christ in a way that will reassure the congregation every time they come to church. The paintings are fixed and unchanging as the truth of Christ's life and death on the cross and resurrection and ascension are fixed and unchanging. Generations of congregation members will come to this church with a sense of ownership in the visuals that direct their thoughts and comfort them in the truth of the Gospel.
Each time I receive a commission to paint Jesus I feel truly blessed with the opportunity to use my art to help further the truth of our salvation through Jesus Christ.
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