I suppose it would be difficult to say exactly when it all began. Our lives are often led by providence long before we know what the destination is, and so it was with min. Twenty-two years ago I completed a Master’s Degree in early Christian art history from Tulane University which I had been led to do somewhat outside my will and which I hadn’t the slightest idea of how it would ever be used. More than anything else I wanted to be a creative artist, and so I returned to that pursuit only to find eminent personalities calling me from far and wide to paint their portraits. It wasn’t exactly my idea of creativity, but I was so inundated with commissions for five years that I was forced to master the art of fine portraiture. When that was accomplished, I was finally permitted to paint as I wished, and to teach, for nineteen years…until this saga began.
It was Christmas Eve 1989, late at night. While our household lay sleeping, somewhere in the attic overhead a disaster was brewing. Because of a construction flaw in the chimney of our home our whole world was soon to be consumed by flame. We barely escaped with our lives, but the paintings in my personal collection along with most of our otherworldly belongings were lost. In utter exhaustion and despair, my husband, Brian, and I fell asleep late on Christmas afternoon when the first calling came to him in a dream. He was told that I was to paint a great painting of Jesus Christ. He woke up to tell me, but – like so many who ignores the first calling – I said, “go back to sleep,
you’re just feeling the prayers and sympathies of our friends.” The next morning we discussed it further, but with my whole career being secular in nature, I really didn’t see where it would fit in. Nevertheless, the inspirations kept pursuing me. They wouldn’t turn loose. Month after month they infiltrated my mind. Brian would occasionally ask me bout my feelings on it, but I hadn’t surrendered to any serious consideration of the mater. There was still so much to do in putting our life back together, and so much work to do in replacing the lost painting, that I had little attention for anything else.
A year later, in the fall of 1991, I was exhibiting my art in Los Angels at the second largest art dealer show in the United States. While there, I felt compelled to look objectively and to evaluate the mature of that art scene and where it was leading. In abject honesty, I have to say that I couldn’t find anything there but commercialism. When money is the only reward for production, how can any personal or aesthetic growth occur? If this context is where my career has led me, I thought, then I have some serious reconsideration’s to make. Too often, it seems; we conform to patterns of success and, in so doing, deny ourselves the sense of personal fulfillment that success should bring. I realized that I could no longer allow the accumulated momentum of my career to dictate my future actions. I had to renew myself and my commitment to the arts on much sounder and worthier principles than any I had seen at the event in Los Angeles. On the way back home to Texas, while driving through the New Mexico desert, I willingly discarded all that I had perceived myself to be working for in the previous decade. I just dropped it off somewhere along Interstate 40. After doing that my mind was flooded with incredible impressions of beauty, and at the same moment Brian asked “have you thought about that painting of Jesus
lately?” At last I agreed to take on the project. But now came the hard part. It’s one thing to change a direction, and quite another to deal with oneself internally and with the world as it is externally.
Not since the 17th century (before the age of reason) has any major artist centered his career around religious subjects. Oh, certainly there have been exceptions where a gifted artist, as an act of devotion, would create something for the church. But by and large, the mainstream of art has been thoroughly secularized in the last
300 years. Any artist who seriously stepped outside the banks of that secular stream forfeited his ability to have any influence over his peers, or even to be deemed a peer. As religious subjects were starved out, weaker and weaker artists gravitated to them to fill in the void. Consequently the whole area became an ever-increasing liability to the status of important artists. Most of them wouldn’t touch it at all regardless of their religious beliefs. Due to that gap, most earlier paintings available for study or comparison were either antiquated in their realities or weak in their presence. Even the few rare exceptions which were technically strong and emotionally compelling were so detached from the evolution of art that I drew very little help from them. How does one put back a bridge that was burned 300 years ago? And so I considered what it was like to be on the distant side of that bridge.
In the Renaissance, to produce a religious painting was not just a devotional gesture or a way of tithing one’s talents back to God. No! It was the very most important thing an artist could do. It was central to his worth and the value of all he did. There it was in a flash! I knew the key word was importance. The bridge had never been burned; it had just deteriorated and washed downstream as a religion had been devalued by society. Christian artists who had avoided the subject for fear of social or professional retribution, as well as those who had made weak “token” contributions, had all assisted the negative momentum. It was time to take a stand in honor of both my Christian and artistic heritage. In recognizing the authority extended through the concept of “importance”, I knew how my life would be aligned to this project and how I would have the power to proceed: It was to be the most important thing I had ever done, perhaps would ever do. But here’s the crucial thing about importance’s. Something truly important becomes the center of one’s life, and all that one is becomes integrated with that importance. In my case, I am a fully educated art historian, past professor and museum curator, as well as accomplished artist with work in prominent national and international museums. Therefore, if it was to be the most important thing in my life, then everything I did on this project had to reflect and exceed the competency and responsibility level that I had previously established in the rest of my career. So the challenge had been presented to me on many levels, but I hoped that in, answering to it I would also make a contribution on more than one level. It was a great privilege in itself to be called to paint our Lord Jesus Christ, but if I were also able to help rebuild the lost bridge, so that Christianity and the arts could re-unite in a more important and meaningful way, then that would be a special victory.
I spent the month of October in diligent study, research and prayer. The first thing that came to me was the title of the painting. It was to be called “The Lamb and the Lion.” With that concept in mind, I could now focus the project into a narrower range of concentration. There were many artistic decisions to be made, but more importantly, there was the age-old problem of having no physical description of Jesus written in the New Testament. Reasonable calculations, however would lead to certain probably conclusions. To start with, we know that He was incredible charismatic. When only a child of 12 He charmed the priests in the temple; and everywhere He went as a man, people flocked to see, hear, and even touch Him if possible. His instant appeals to strangers and children were legendary. We also know that He was born into the house of David, the fairest of the Hebrew tribes. In talking with friends of mine from that part of the world, I learned that “fair” by Semitic standards would range
from golden-brown to red-brown hair with hazel to blue-green eyes, but would not include blond or bright red hair, not true blue eyes. As a man who lived most of His life outdoors, His complexion would have been hearty and robust. Finally, we know that He was a carpenter.
In those days a carpenter was not a man with a power saw and a pick-up truck – 2000 years ago a carpenter was a veritable “Paul Bunyan” who started from scratch with the tree in the forest! The research was fascinating, but when all was said and done, I felt little more power to act than when I began. Interesting as it all was, I didn’t feel that piecing features together would produce am image with character and strength. I didn’t feel that I had the right to project my own personal ideas, and to top it off, no one in the world could model for Him. It seemed as though I had come to the end of the road and was looking at a stop sign. All I could do was pray. I pleaded to be shown how to paint Him or else to have this commission taken from me. At that moment a presence entered the room unlike any I’ve ever experienced. The Holy Spirit, as I’ve known it, is a warm spiritual glow that envelops me. But this was different in that it stood at a distance from me in it’s own space. Although it was invisible, it displaced the air so conspicuously that I could see the air currents rippling in waves about eight feet in front of me. The presence called my name, though in no human words I know and then shot a beam of energy from itself to a point between my eyes. I presume it implanted something into my optic nerve, for a radiant picture projected before my eyes. It was the image of Jesus that I was to paint. I couldn’t ask for a more vivid or realistic picture to work from, and it was there for me to refer to from that moment until the completion of the painting. That was the source of the final image you see in the painting. No human subject was every used. It may seem like I’m being a bit casual about an experience which one would expect to be emotionally overwhelming. The truth is, it was an intensely moving experience, and more than that…a glimpse of infinity. But it’s impossible to relay in words the impact of such an occurrence. For three days I was so absorbed into it and so speechless that I couldn’t even tell Brian what had happened. It was as if for a moment I was taken to the speed of light and spellbound there while I looked upon the face of Jesus. From that moment forward my life has not been the same, not even in the smallest way. Those close to me say my eyes even looked very changed. After that, the events of every day unfolded perfectly as they should, and each hour of work was a living dialogue with the master. We spoke of large and small things, but it was all so peaceful and gentle, like soft rain or morning sun.
The story of the sheep is a special part of it all, too. The vision came to me in late November, and I wanted to begin the painting as soon as possible while the experience was fresh. The first order of business was to find a ewe and lamb to model for that part of the painting. Having no idea how difficult it would be to find a lamb in late November, I called rancher after rancher with no success. Brian suggested that we go to a local farmer’s market on Saturday morning. We arrived early in hopes of being the first in line should there be a lamb for sale. As it turned out, tow lamb had been there and they had both been sold already. I was so disappointed, but we looked a little further and found one more rancher who had a few sheep but no lambs. I noticed one stately white ewe that was obviously pregnant and asked about her. She was a mouflon, he said, and would have her lamb in January or February. It occurred to me that perhaps that would be the best option anyway, because I would be able to see the lamb when it was new born. After taking her home, I was so fond of her and so taken with her beauty, I decided to do a little research on sheep. What I found was
delightfully shocking. The white mouflon sheep is thought to be the oldest domesticated breed of sheep in Europe, the ancestor of all our domestic varieties, and it was commonly herded in the Middle East 2,000 years ago. If I had looked the world over, no more perfect piece of the puzzle could have been found and fit into place. Rather than wait for the lamb to be born I proceeded with the painting, leaving an empty space where the baby could be placed. Every day was a perfect painting day, its development proceeding with an ease and sureness unlike any I had ever experience.
On February 6, however, I had done all I could do without the lamb. The painting could only be developed so far and no further over an incomplete composition. I was content to wait and rest, but providence was not. On February 7 th , we arose before dawn. Casting our flashlight toward the barn, we caught our first glimpse of the little ram we call Precious…still wobbly and wet. The face and figure of Christ was the first part of the painting to be finished. After all, it was the constant and central element to which everything else must be aligned. Toward the completion of the painting I stepped back to inspect my work and was pleased with what I saw, but what happened next I did not expect. As I walked to the side of the canvas the whole figure of Jesus turned to face me! Then elation I walked to the other side of the canvas. He turned to face me there as well. Where I was in the room made no difference – He always faced me. There are other paintings in the history of art, my own included, where the eyes follow the viewer from left to right, and we know why that happens. But never before have I personally seen a whole face
and figure behave that way in a painting. There is no logical reason for it.
The painting was finished on March 12th . Since then the word of mouth has spread so rapidly that strangers ring our doorbell daily asking to see the painting. The looks on their faces, the emotional responses and the blessings received are as much a sight to behold as the painting itself. Where all of this leading, I wouldn’t dare to guess. But certainly, as the painting’s destiny unfolds, the story will continue. Now before us is a living reminder that He who was laughtered at as a lamb, shall return to his people as the Lion of Judah.