Illustration of the Month: March, 2019

This month’s illustration is based on Genesis 3: 17-19:

17“Cursed is the ground because of you;

    through painful toil you will eat food from it

    all the days of your life.

18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,

    and you will eat the plants of the field.

19 By the sweat of your brow

    you will eat your food

until you return to the ground,

    since from it you were taken;

for dust you are

    and to dust you will return.”

Go to www.hillaryasbury.com/downloads to download your copy of this March’s Illustration of the Month!

Illustration of the Month: February 2019

1 Corinthians 13

1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Please visit www.hillaryasbury.com/downloads to download your copy of this month’s illustration.

What Color Can Say

Look at this color.

What do you feel when you look at it?

Now look at this one.

What does it remind you of? Do you think of pleasant or unpleasant things? Now look at this one.

Does it hold a certain meaning or special significance?

If you said that the blue made you feel calm or at peace, that the red reminded you of emotion or anger, and that the purple signified royalty, you are not alone.  These associations are very common from person to person and it isn’t hard to see why. Blue reminds us of a clear, sunny day, a peaceful sky. Red reminds us of love, passion, violence. Violet has historically been an expensive color to make, and it is still associated with the rich and the royal. It also doesn’t occur often in nature and so it immediately stands out to us as something special.

Artists can leverage colors and use them to communicate quite a bit in their work. Sometimes they use these colors in obvious ways, relying on our common associations to aid in their storytelling. Often, they use a much subtler approach, relying on psychology to illicit a particular response from viewers. For instance, looking at the color orange can make some people hostile, while pale green can have a calming effect.

For Luther, however, it seems such subtlety was not an option.  Meant to be a visual representation of his theology, Luther’s Rose was far too important to leave interpretation to chance:

Grace and peace from the Lord. As you desire to know whether my painted seal, which you sent to me, has hit the mark, I shall answer most amiably and tell you my original thoughts and reason about why my seal is a symbol of my theology. The first should be a black cross in a heart, which retains its natural color, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. “For one who believes from the heart will be justified” (Rom. 10:10). Although it is indeed a black cross, which mortifies and which should also cause pain, it leaves the heart in its natural color. It does not corrupt nature, that is, it does not kill but keeps alive. “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17) but by faith in the crucified. Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace. In other words, it places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives (John 14:27). That is why the rose should be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and the angels (cf. Matthew 28:3; John 20:12). Such a rose should stand in a sky-blue field, symbolizing that such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed. And around this field is a golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever and has no end. Such blessedness is exquisite, beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable, most precious and best metal. This is my compendium theoligae [summary of theology]. I have wanted to show it to you in good friendship, hoping for your appreciation. May Christ, our beloved Lord, be with your spirit until the life hereafter. Amen.

Letter from Martin Luther to Lazarus Spengler, July 8, 1530

What I love about this is that long after Luther wrote this letter, we still publish summaries of his explanation of the design right along with it. It is a clear and concise delivery of the gospel, not only a perfect use of liturgical art and theology, but also a perfect use of symbolism and color.  

Little Paint Speck

Around Thanksgiving I had to had surgery and I was wildly anxious.

I had known for about a month that surgery was probably going to be my only treatment option, but when I went in for my surgical consult on a Wednesday and they told me to come back for surgery on Monday, I panicked.

I’m a worrier.

I try to keep a handle on my anxiety but it seems to get the best of me every time. I pray. I remind myself to put my trust in God. I have tricks I use to shift my thinking, calming breathing exercises, strategies for combatting stress-related insomnia. I’ve been battling my anxiety for a long time, I have the tools and I use them. They often help. Sometimes, though, nothing seems to make a difference.

As I prepped for my appointment, there was only one thing that brought me any comfort.

I was given instructions to clean everything the day before surgery: my room, my bedding, any clothes I would wear before and after the procedure. I was told to shower right before bed the night before and had been given anti-bacterial wipes to disinfect my entire body. As I scrubbed myself clean that night, I had to work pretty hard to get all the paint off of my hands, arms, and from under my nails. Try as I might, when I was done there was still a little speck of turquoise paint that wouldn’t budge from the corner of one of my nails.

In the hours leading up to the surgery I was very on-edge.

My surgery was scheduled for early afternoon, but my doctor’s morning operation ran late. I was forced to wait around for hours in pre-op and my anxiety just continued to build. At one point, though, I looked down at my hands and I had to smile. I saw that stubborn little spot of paint on my nail and was instantly comforted. It gave me something to hold on to, something I could take with me into the operating room, something I could look for when I woke up from the anesthesia. It reminded me of who I was, that I was uniquely created with purpose- loved by my God.

The Annunciation

The Annunciation is a very common subject in classical art.

Almost every Medieval and Renaissance master painted their own version of this scene, and its easy to understand why. It centers around one of the most fascinating and mysterious aspects of our faith: the virgin conception of our Lord. It depicts a moment which not only signals the advent of our hope and salvation, but also one which is rich with potential for creative exploration.

Many Annunciation paintings are staged similarly.

Fra. Angelico, The Annunciation. 1435-45.
Tempera on board, The Prado, Madrid.

The angel Gabriel arrives from the left side of the painting, he has interrupted the devout and humble Mary who sits or kneels, reading Scripture. Her reaction to his appearance ranges from serene to startled to knowing and wise. It was assumed that viewers at the time would recognize the scene on sight; the words exchanged between Mary and the angel are often left implied, though some artists painted dialogue flowing from their mouths. White lilies can be found in the background, or being offered by Gabriel, symbolizing Mary’s purity. The Holy Spirit descends upon her: this scene represents the moment of conception as well. In Fra. Angelico’s Annunciation, we are reminded of exactly what is at stake when we view the far left section and spy Adam and Eve as they are expelled from Eden.

These pieces are full of symbolism and meaning: the perfect example of a painting meant to be “read” like a story.

The Annunciation, Paolo de Matteis, 1712, 
Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis.

I think one of the reasons why this scene fascinates painters and viewers alike is the intensity and gravity of what Mary is hearing and accepting in faith: the drama of the moment, the pure humanity of it. I think its why this subject has been painted over and over again throughout history. I read the passage and I want to go back in time, to be a fly on the wall, just to see Mary’s face, hear the shock in her voice, watch as she experiences the joy and pain of realizing who she is going to give birth to, witness the faith she exhibits as she humbly submits as God’s servant.

I think we have an innate desire to draw closer to these deeply intimate and human moments that surround our Lord’s life here on earth.

Annunciation, unknown, 1420,
 Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

These moments show us who Christ is to us: heralded by angles, conceived by a virgin, born of a human woman. He is God. He is Man. He made himself one of us so that we might one day be one in him, and we cling to these snapshots of his life as we cling to the hope we have in him.

Illustration of the Month: January 2019

“Mount Sinai”

This month’s illustration is based on Exodus 19:

1 On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. 2 After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.

3 Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you a will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

7 So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. 8 The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.

9 The Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” Then Moses told the Lord what the people had said.

10 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death. 13 They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.”

14 After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. 15 Then he said to the people, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations.”

16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain b trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.

20 The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up 21 and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. 22 Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.”

23 Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’ ”

24 The Lord replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or he will break out against them.”

25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.

Click here to download a copy of this month’s illustration.

Nobody Doesn’t Like a Nativity

I love nativity scenes. I love the art of them, that they are all so unique. Whether made from a mold or hand carved, these small sculptures become interactive artwork when we set them out, recreating the scene as we like. This is liturgical art at its best: artwork which tells a story, loud and clear. We always have Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child. Often we have a donkey, there to tell us what sort of conditions Jesus was born under. Almost always we have wise men, bowing and offering their gifts. Sometimes there is a shepherd, a sheep, and an angel, to tell the story of the shepherds in the fields who were visited by angels heralding the birth of our Lord. Together, these pieces come together to tell a familiar Christmas story, and when most of us look at them we know exactly what they mean.

My family didn’t always have a nativity. In fact, we didn’t get one until I was probably a pre-teen, and as a child I thought there was a very serious reason for that. For whatever reason, I thought that protestant Christians weren’t allowed to have them. I thought that images of Jesus, of any kind, were strictly prohibited. I thought that crucifixes were attached to Catholic identities; that, living in the joy of the resurrection, only empty crosses were permitted for protestant Christians. I don’t know where the idea came from, but I had a notion that this was a hard-and-fast rule across most denominations, especially my own.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I was taken to a church member’s house for a Christmas party and found an ornate nativity set displayed prominently on their mantle! I was shocked. There was Jesus. Right there, that was a baby statue of Jesus. I looked around in horror. No one else reacted. Surely, they all saw it too? Were we just going to pretend we didn’t notice? I don’t remember who I was with, which adult, but I vividly remember our conversation sounding something like this:

“Look! Over there! Do you see that?”

“Yes! Isn’t it pretty?”

“That’s Jesus! Why do they have that?”

“…What do you mean?”

“Isn’t that a Catholic thing?”

“No. It isn’t a Catholic thing. It’s a nativity.”

Now, I’ve since learned that crucifixes aren’t just for Catholics, and neither is artwork containing images of a Christ figure. While many protestant Christians do oppose rendering any representations of Christ’s likeness, some freely do it. Still others are only comfortable with illustrations or small pieces for personal devotion. But the one thing that no one ever seems to question is Jesus’s likeness in nativities. What I was trying and failing to ask with my little kid words so long ago is why?

Is it because of tradition? Is it because our families have always had nativities so we set them out every year without a moment’s thought? Is it because they are simply a staple in our Christmas decorations? Is it because the Jesus we find in our nativities is meek and mild, small and unassuming unlike the Jesus of the rest of the New Testament? Do we allow the image of him in our homes because he is a baby, seemingly not yet the God-Man Jesus we worship?

I hope not. I hope the reason no one really bats an eye at nativities is because they tell a readable story that we need to hear. I like to think that that we diligently set out our Mary’s, Joseph’s, and Jesus’ each year because the reminder of that story, the comfort and joy it brings, means something to us. We value it. This is what liturgical art should do. It tells the stories of the Bible. It communicates the mysteries and comforts of scripture. It provides a centerpiece around which the gospel can be shared and taught in churches and homes.

This is an important function that liturgical art performs, and nativities do it so perfectly. In fact, they are so popular, such a cherished part of many Christmas celebrations, that you can even find them in the homes of non-believers. This is the gospel, being brought into the home by the arms of the very person who needs to hear it.

My fear is that we will come to the conclusion that representations of Jesus are indeed idolatrous, because if that’s so then I think we have to chuck our nativities in the trash and that would be such a shame. It would be a shame to lose the one piece of liturgical art which is loved by Catholics, Protestants, and non-believers. It would be a shame to deprive people of the comfort and joy our nativities remind us we have. And it would be a shame to reject such a valuable tool for telling the story of how our Salvation came to us. 



Cover art: Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst, oil on canvas, 1622,Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

Love the Mess

The first creative act in history was a perfect one.

Everything was done with order, purpose. It was intentional, loving. Great care was taken for every little detail, every little life. God created the world. And with each new piece of his creation he called it good. Good. Until he created humanity. God created humanity and do you know what he called it? Very good. God created us in his image and it was very good. But then sin entered the world.

God’s very good creation made a mess of what he had perfectly created.

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from my cousin. Her daughter loves to create art but hates the mess that often comes with creative projects, and she asked if I would send along pictures of my creative mess so that this little one could see that “real artists” are, indeed, messy.

I did not disappoint.

Many artists have pre-work rituals they go through which help them transition into the proper frame of mind to work, and mine consists mainly of organizing my work area and materials. It’s a nervous, methodical process during which I clear my space, organize my brushes and order them by size from biggest to smallest, prepare my palette with paint ordered according to the color wheel, and organize my paint tubes to correspond. I then arrange, and sometimes rearrange, my remaining tools and materials until I am satisfied all is in optimal order to begin work. I’ve said in previous posts I like things “just so”, and I really do, but the moment I get into my working frame of mind or “the zone” as some call it, all of that painstaking organization goes out the window.

Chaos breaks loose.

The thing is, when I get into “the zone” everything else falls away. I lose track of time, I forget to eat, I don’t notice if the room becomes too hot or too cold, sometimes I don’t even hear outside noises or the voices of others. It seems like nothing exists but me and my work (and I get a lot of work done like this) but all of my organizational skills also seem to fall away. Along with everything else I seem to forget to consider, I forget to pay attention to where I set my brushes, if I accidentally drop a paint tube, or if I’ve sat in paint. It’s a mess! But this is my process and I have come to love my process- mess and all. I don’t mind that I go through the motions to lay out a perfect work space just to lose myself in creativity and destroy it.

I don’t mind getting my hands dirty for the sake of art.

In fact, sometimes I really enjoy it. I love being up to my elbows in oil and terpenoid. I love walking away from a project and realizing that I was so passionate about my work that I didn’t notice or care about the paint that dried in my hair and on my face. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a clean and tidy artist. There are some creative geniuses out there who work only under pristine conditions and, who knows, maybe my cousin’s daughter will be one of them.

Thing is, our God wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when it came to his creation.

When we made a mess of everything he created, he didn’t hesitate. God put on flesh to save us. God took on our sin, lived in our reality, bore our curse.

He became our mess so that we might have a perfect life in him.

Illustration of the Month: December 2018

“Prince of Peace”

Mary and Joseph look on as the wise men kneel before the Christ child and we are reminded that our Savior comes to us in our humanity, in our brokenness, and not by our own merit.

He comes to us first, while we are still sinners, unworthy, and in need.

Download a free copy of this illustration here.

Proceeds from the sale of this image benefit the Lutheran Social Services of Southern California.

A Gospel for Van Gogh

I suppose Vincent Van Gogh isn’t quite what we’d consider a religious artist. His style is unique and expressive; the subjects of most of his paintings include landscapes, still lifes, and figures, and although less popular than his other work, he did actually create some religious pieces. When you consider that his father and grandfather were ministers and that he was once dedicated to following in their footsteps, it isn’t all that surprising. The fact remains, though, that one of his most famous pieces is a rather unflattering painting of a church.

In 1877 Van Gogh began studying theology in Amsterdam. The academic requirements were too strenuous, however, and the teachings incongruent with his beliefs, so in 1878 he relocated to Brussels to pursue a shorter program and become an evangelical missionary. After three months he left to take a position as a lay preacher and evangelist in Belgium. He was eventually asked to leave the position due to his extreme beliefs and behavior. Fueled by his family, who made it very clear how disappointed they were in his repeated failures, Van Gogh suffered a major spiritual crisis soon afterwards. In 1880 he abandoned all hope of a religious career and turned his sole focus to art alone.

A decade later Van Gogh, who was suffering from severe mental illness and emotional instability, had settled in the south of France where he painted “The Church at Auvers”.  This painting clearly reflects his turbulent feelings for the Church. The sky is dark, foreboding, and the church has cast a shadow over itself. Its colors are dark and muted, the lines of its structure are eerie and otherworldly. Indeed, the only part of the painting which looks joyful is that which has not been touched by the shadow of the church.

“The Church at Auvers”, 1890, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

What a sad reality we witness when we view this painting- not one lived only by Van Gogh either, but by many of those who have been deeply wounded by the Church. What a troubling thing to realize that this is a reflection of how so many people feel when they behold their neighborhood church. “The Church at Auvers” doesn’t look comforting, or like a house of God. It looks scary- threatening. This is not how I see my church. Its not how I want others to see it either but I can see how it happens, how pain caused by our sinful nature gets in the way of the Gospel.

Imagine what would have happened if Van Gogh had a different relationship with the Church. What if he had been given different support or better encouragement? What if he had encountered a better theology or had the Gospel spoken to him more often? What if he had been rejected less by the Church and loved more by it? It doesn’t sound like Van Gogh was cut out to be a preacher, but would he have been more dedicated to speaking the Gospel through his artwork? Would he have at least had a better relationship with the Church or even suffered less?

Perhaps nothing would have changed. Maybe he would have been just as agitated with the church and would have endured the same anguish. We’ll never know. I still can’t help but wonder, though.