Cover Story: It seems strange to sit in the sanctuary during Lent and watch a young woman painting a canvas in the front of the church, while scripture is being read and the pastor is delivering his sermon. We worship through the written word, vocal messages and music, but rarely do we use visual art to express our praise.
Pastor John Wallace of Dover First Moravian in Ohio, had heard of just such a program and decided to try it in his church. He visited the local high school’s art show and viewed the work of some of the young people from the church, then asked them to participate in Sunday Lenten Services.
Pastor John gave the artists a specific scripture lesson directly from the Bible, and asked that each interpret it in paint before the congregation. Although he provided paint and canvases for them, the only guidelines he gave were to read and understand the passages, pray about them, and decide how they would interpret them.
As it turned out, all of the artists were young women who felt some anxiety about performing their craft in front of a congregation. They worried that they might not finish before the end of the service, or that those watching might be judgmental or annoyed by the distraction of their painting. They need not have worried.
Layne Gerbig, daughter of Don and Fran Gerbig of Dover, was assigned the Scripture John 3: verses 1-17, when Nicodemus came to Jesus and questioned him about his miracles, and Jesus talked to him about being born again through faith. Layne chose an abstract style to interpret the passage. She painted a large sun representing Jesus at the top of the canvas. Then she added numerous smaller dots, all in warm colors, to represent Christians of faith moving toward the light of salvation.
“It is hard to put faith into words,” says Layne, “but with art you can, because you can actually see the symbols. I was really able to express myself through the painting. I was also nervous because I was the first artist, but the congregation was very excited about it, and complimented me highly.”
“Can you think of a more inspirational setting than a sanctuary with the sun shining through the stained glass windows?” she asked.
John 11: verses 28-34, was the passage given to Hailey Rogers, daughter of Paul and Linda Rogers of Dover. In interpreting the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, she chose to paint an empty tomb, with the stone rolled away and light shining through the opening. Then she added ribbons of many sizes and shapes to represent the wraps that had been taken from the body of Lazarus.
“They are also supposed to symbolize the sins we are wrapped in until we decide to follow Jesus,” said Hailey. “The most amazing thing happened while I was painting. The sun came through the window of the church and through the back of the canvas. It cast the shadows of the wooden braces holding the canvas, and it formed a cross right across the painting. I’m a perfectionist and didn’t like the idea of people watching me work, but everyone connected to the cross and the painting, and I realized what you do doesn’t have to be perfect in order for people to be touched by your message.”
“Since having this experience, I now feel closer to God when I paint. I never really thought about it before, but I do now,” said Emily Burrell, daughter of Terry and Julie Burrell, of Dover. “My verse was John 9: verses 1-12, about the man who was born blind and then given sight by Jesus. The disciples had asked if it was his fault or his parents, and Jesus said it was neither, that he had been born blind so that the work of God might be shown. It sounds like it would be simple to interpret, but I found it unclear. Finally, I decided on a drooping flower to represent the blind man, and light at the top to represent Jesus and his power.
Elaine Stingel, daughter of CSM John, and Joyce Stingel of Dundee, nearly chose not to participate in the project because she was so busy preparing for graduation, as well as running track for the school. At the last minute she took the assignment of John 20: verses 1-18, in which Mary Magdalene discovered the body of Jesus was missing from the tomb, and then became the first person to see him as the resurrection began. Elaine painted two large angels sitting on either side of the tomb.
“I am a very detail-oriented person,” she said, “but I deliberately left the faces of the angels blank so that anyone viewing the painting might see them through their own eyes. Now I’m so glad I participated. I learned you have to put time aside for God, no matter how busy you are.”
It was Bryn Cronebach, daughter of Melanie and Brian Cronebach of Dover, who truly left her mark on the altar. In her nervousness at interpreting Acts 2: verses 1-4, which describes speaking in tongues on Pentacost, she dropped her brush and left a dab of bright orange paint on the carpet. “Pastor John said we will leave it there for posterity,” she laughed.
Her painting portrays the Holy Spirit as a large white dove with outspread wings, hovering over bright orange flames, and music notes depicting a universal language that can be understood by everyone. “The neatest thing of all was that one of the women in the congregation, Dawn Miller, wrote a poem about the Holy Spirit while I was painting. Imagine: art, inspired by art, inspired by God,” she said.
The girls agreed on the many benefits of the experiment. “We all had control over what we would do,” said Elaine. “This was something that required skills that not everyone has. It is nice to be recognized for your abilities. Pastor John is an artist himself, so he had a true appreciation of what he was asking us to do. He said it was interesting to him to be talking to the congregation, while the focus was on us.”
Emily said that church members got to see a side of them they might never have otherwise, and that they themselves discovered hidden gifts in their work. Bryn, whose father is an artist, commented on how nice it was to express feelings through doing something you love, and to know how proud your parents are of you.
For most of us, the thought of ‘religious art’ brings to mind the Italian Renaissance painters, Michelangelo, his painting in the Sistine Chapel; Leonardo de Vinci’s depiction of the Last Supper, and Raphael’s Angels, rather than the simple interpretations of young students. The youth’s paintings touched their congregation in new ways. They expressed a unified desire that other churches try the project in hopes that it might give them renewed faith and a different way to offer praise.
“We hope others will try this so that their young members can have this wonderful experience,” said Hailey, and Elaine summed it up nicely when she said, “If you want to get your full measure from your church, you have to put in as much as you take out.”
Lee Elliot is a member of First Moravian Church in Dover, Ohio. Photos courtesy of First Moravian.
From the April 2012 Moravian Magazine