Friday, January 4, 2019

In Good Company

Working drawing for Baptismal Mural. (St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Council Bluffs, Iowa) Copyright © Edward Riojas

Copyright © Edward Riojas

One client requested that I alter an idealized crowd to honestly reflect a more diverse segment of society. Another client asked if it was possible to insert members of the congregation into a depiction of a crowd. Yet another showed me a photo of a shy, unsung hero – the subject of a memorial – so that I would not inadvertently paint the person prominently into a crowd. When it comes to sacred art, a crowd is not simply a crowd.

These three instances point to our desire, as members of Christendom, to be intimately connected with depictions of the company of saints. It should come as no surprise. The world may see a crowd as a sea of nameless faces, but those who sit in pews understand that the faces of the saints are written in the palm of His hand. They are not nameless.

Age and experience amplify this. As we grow older, the carefree days of youth are replaced by heartbreak and separation and death. We know, however, that death is not an end; that space and time are not barriers to the Lord; that we stand together with all the saints, whether they be here in time or there in eternity.

For this reason, more consideration is given to depictions of crowds in sacred art, and otherwise-strange requests are not brushed aside. For this reason, I am careful to consider the demographics of a crowd and facial expressions of the same.

In the case of a recent project, it didn’t matter that there were thousands in that crowd. I needed to put myself in the helpless crowd of Israelites as they walked dumbfoundedly through the Red Sea on dry ground. This amid a far greater display of the glory and power of God, and a foreshadowing of our own Baptism as helpless humans under the power of God’s grace.

What is perhaps even more telling are the occasional reactions to those depictions of crowds painted with decidedly less consideration. It doesn’t matter that I invent heads and faces in a crowd instead of using live models – someone in the crowd will be recognized. A young woman once approached me at the dedication of a mural and asked me, with tearful eyes, how I knew a particular person painted in a crowd of saints. I didn’t. Out of ignorance, I had taken a shot in the dark and hit a very tender spot.

Tenderness and hurt buried by time can suddenly surface when facing a crowd. As a testament to the power of art, I have discovered that depictions of the company of saints – particularly the youngest among us; the “least of these” – can recall deep sorrow. Thankfully, what I paint can also bring comfort in the Hope of the resurrection. Without such Hope, there would be little reason to pick up a brush at all.

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