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Painting the Bible

Some years ago I returned to my former training college, Spurgeon’s as guest preacher at the end of a narrative preaching course.  After I had preached, we repaired to a lecture room for taht peculiar form of vivisection which we call sermon critique. Along the way a Romanian student, who was having to choose his words carefully in a foreign tongue, said the following:

You haven’t preached the story you have painted it.

Every time I have struggled to construct a biblical narrative, or puzzled over the selection of the right word, those words have come back to me.

Yesterday, though, I came across a Biblical painter of another kind entirely. His story is told in the Bible Society’s magazine Word in Action, and he lives Gurage people in Ethiopia. His name is Melak Genet Brehe Grebre Kidan (on the right in the picture below), and he is 78 years old. Over the years he has painted 55 churches in the rich illustrative style you see in the picture below. Amongst a largely illiterate people he sees this as a divine mission:

God has asked us to make sure the health of the church continues and the Bible lives on in the church pictorially


My question is this – in a society where most of the people in church are literate- what are we doing (with words or pictures) to make sure the Bible lives on in the church pictorially?

With thanks to the art galleries of London

Just preparing the second in a series of sermons on Revelation, this time on the second half of chapter 1. It struck me that this passage (v.9 – 20) teaches a lot about how to read the rest of the book. However, the problem then was how to get that across – which is where the National Gallery and Tate Britain came in. Using the three paintings below, I shall aim to give some guidance on charting your way through this puzzling book.

1. Impression not description

Like Monet’s wonderful rendition of the Houses of Parliament, John’s is an impression of what he saw, rather than an exact description. Hence the repeated use of the word “like”. To try to pin it down too much is to miss the point – just as people initially missed the point of Monet’s work when they refused to display it at the Academie Francaise.


2. History no object

If you know the story of Turner’s painting , The Fighting Temeraire, there’s a lot you can get out of it. You will know that the Temeraire, a veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, is being towed away to the breaker’s yard. You might compare the ugly angular appearance of the steam tug with the ethereal beauty of the sailing ship. You might see in the setting sun a reflection of Britain’s diminishing naval prowess at the time of painting. Then again – you might not. If you don’t know all that history you can still enjoy the painting. In a similar way, with the book of Revelation – you can either run absolutely every historical symbol to earth (and get a lot out of it in the process) or take it at face value.


3. Get the message

There is no ‘side’ to Stubbs’ famous painting of whistlejacket. There is no fancy landscape, no nobleman to ride him. This is a beautifully executed painting of a horse – nothing more and nothing less. Sometimes our reading of Revelation is overly complicated. At heart the book is neither there to confuse nor frighten – but to encourage.  When all’s said and done, beneath the bizarre details of each passage there is an underlying message about sovereignty and providence, I believe.


So there it is – a pictorial introduction to the book of Revelation. It makes sense to me – but whether it makes sense to others remains to be seen!

Watch this space…

Two perspectives at once

Following on from yesterday’s post, some thoughts on holding two perspectives together at once.

In the 16th Century,  Spanish monk St John of the Cross had a vision of Christ, seen from an altogether new perspective. So as not to lose this startling vision, he sketched it out on the edge of a manuscript.


Centuries later a very different Spaniard, Salvador Dali, picked up on the image and painted the masterpiece below. Painted between 1950 and 1951 he employed Russell Saunders, a Hollywood stunt man, to pose for the role.

Russell saunders: 3.bp.blogspot

For days on end, Saunders was tied to the cross in Dali’s studio for twenty minutes at a time, so that the artist could capture his perfectly sculpted physique. Dali wanted his to be, as he put it, ‘a beautiful Christ’.


As well as being extremely beautiful, there is something  odd about Dali’s painting. If you look carefully, the perspective is impossible.  We are at once looking up to the boat and down on the shoulders of Christ who is suspended in the air above the boat!  If only we could achieve something of the trick which Dali has executed here we might gain some of God’s dual perspective. He, of course sees both what is and what might be. He looks both down and up, forward and back, all at once.

As preachers our constant prayer has to be that he would lend us just a little more of his perspective each time we preach.

Perspective is everything

Just a few moments ago somebody tweeted the words “God, this view is depressing”, with an accompanying photo which rather proved his point!  Drab, grey, featureless walls and a small rectangle of colourless sky were not likely to lift anybody’s spirits. It made me wonder,though – what God’s view is like?

I have always loved the work of photographer Yann Arthus Bertrand, and below is one of my favourite photos. It shows a tree in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya.  What I love is the way that all the hundreds of animal tracks converge on this one place – a small patch of shade in a barren landcsape.

Photo: Yann Artus-Bertrand

I would love God’s view of the church to be like that. I would love it to be a place which people seek out; a place where they find succour and nourishment, and then continue their journey stronger than they were before. Of course, I’ll never know whether that is how it looks to him or not. I am privy neither to his perspective nor his intent. I hope we’re getting there though…

As preachers and church leaders we have to hold together his perspective and ours – an upward and a downward view.  More of that to follow on a subsequent post, involving a monk’s doodle and a  patient male model – but for now, enjoy the view!

Holiness and chaos

A little while ago I wrote about Leonardo Boff’s encouragement for us to “decipher Jesus” and looked at Claude Mellan’s remarkable engraving of the face of Christ. On this post, though, we are faced with a very different prospect. In the wake of Saturday’s terrible bombing at the Coptic Christian Saints Church in Alexandria – the face of Christ on a church mural is seen spattered with the blood of the victims.

The tragedy and poignancy of this barbaric act are written far more eloquently in the image above than ever they could be in my words. The pictorial clash above captures at once the conflict of darkness and light; the rejection of peace by violence and the ongoing presence of Christ even in our worst moments.

Just after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, Craig Barnes, Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Pittsburgh Seminary wrote that “preachers actually live for these moments of crisis. What we do best, and better than anyone else in town, is climb behind a pulpit and speak into the fear and chaos with a sacred word.”

Do we, I wonder?

A warning for the preacher

Just spotted the following video on a “round up of 2010”. It demonstrates a “fail safe” automated parking system by Volvo, intended to avoid accidental collision by automatically engaging the brakes when a nearby object is detected:

Watching it I am reminded of the following little prayer, from Haiti, which I pass onto other  preachers whenever I get the excuse:

“Lord, help us not to talk too much

Because talking too much is like driving too fast

Sometimes the brakes are not good

And we pass by the place where we intended to stop”

Enough said, I think!


The preacher’s palette

A good rest this week, and the opportunity to read some of my Christmas books. One in particular has caught my imagination this time around – Neil Macgregor’s History of the world in 100 objects. The book does what it says on the tin, and takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of civilizations  through 100 objects drawn from the British Museum’s vast collections. One particular item which made me think was the item below – the Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy (c. 1350-1400 AD)

Picture : British Museum

In his discussion of the piece Macgregor refers to a medieval text The Rules For the Icon Painter, from which there are selections below:

  1. Before starting the work, make the sign of the cross. Pray in silence & pardon your enemies.
  2. Work with care on every detail of the icon, as if you were working in front of the Lord himself.
  3. During work, pray in order to strengthen yourself physically and spiritually; avoid above all useless words & keep silence.
  4. When you have to choose a colour, stretch out your hands interiorly to the Lord and ask his counsel.
  5. Do not be jealous of your neighbour’s work; his success is your success too.
  6. When your work is finished, thank God that his mercy granted you the grace to paint holy images.

Just about the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me after a narrative sermon was a Romanian student who said “you didn’t tell the story – you painted it” It is highly unlikely that 2011 will ever see me painting an icon – but I hope to paint many sermons. Having a set of these rules with me as I do so may be no bad thing!

Richard Littledale

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