As we move into our season of Advent, my thoughts are still swirling about my recent experience of illuminating the four Gospels in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Over a year ago, Crossway publisher (ESV) commissioned me to do five major paintings, 89 alphabet letters (as illumined letters for each chapter heading), and over 140 pages of hand illumined work, and I have been more or less sequestered in my studio to focus on what some have called the "commission of the decade." However enduring or significant it will turn out to be, I am still in awe of what I experienced while embarking on this project.
There has not been a commission of an individual artist like this for some time, and excepting the likes of Barry Moser and William Blake, no one has really even tried to translate a contemporary visual diction into direct relationship to the text of the Bible. Of course, there are calligraphic visions (most notably the St. John's Bible) that have adorned the Bible, but what I was interested in was the fusing of the contemporary, abstract images that take the influences of Rothko, Rouault, Pollock with the visual vocabulary of 16th Japanese paintings into a distinctive Twenty-First Century offering; I wanted to dare to create a new paradigm in visual language through this project. I also wanted the offering to be readable, accessible, and even useful in worship; every detail is a theological discourse as well as visual design.
Why would one take this journey? The only reason that I can even begin to think in such audacious terms is because I believe in the audacity of the Incarnation. The greatest mystery, and the miracle of miracles, is that God became a man to dwell among us—that he took on flesh. That was not simply a single temporal event in history, but because of the resurrection, it has become a continuous unveiling of an incarnational history in the making. That means that "taking on flesh" continues to be generative. The Bible makes this ontological journey to the birth of our Savior into a great, expansive adventure of grace that Christians recognize as the "Great Commission.” But the very development of portraiture, visual perspectives, and scientific discovery owe their initial impetus to the audacious claim of the Incarnation: that since God became fully human, individual faces can be celebrated, and, even in the broken universe, a consistent, individualistic and rational expression can be valid in a "closed system" of nature. As Jesus taught us in Matthew six, we need to "consider the lilies" before we can engage in the work of the Kingdom. That act of faithfulness through and to natural reality around us forces us to create in the "now," to trust our senses, and even revel in the fragile beauty of our world. We, just like the Magi, need to follow the stars to their logical destination.
So in my studio, I "consider the lilies," and take my Magi journey through the desert of the contemporary art world. I take earthly pigments (azurite, malachite, gold, platinum) and mix them with Japanese hide glue; I paint on hand-lifted Kumohada, made in the cold valley of Imadate, Japan, using brushes particularly made for heavy, granular pigments. As I pour these extravagant materials, I "paint with Jesus' tears," ephemeral and yet enduring, compassionate yet prophetic. Christ's tears are embedded in every page (sometimes literally as a theme), as an offering of God's incarnation in the Atomic age. Our imaginations, in the last century, lead to the greatest of destructions. The arts and sciences together have now a greater responsibility of not just creating something new, but reversing the curse created out of our own fallen intuitions and knowledge. That is our new Manhattan project, the star we follow into our new century, leading us on towards Christ's generative Reality.