It would not be completely accurate to say that I come from a long line of Presbyterians, but perhaps it would be better to say that my family is thick with Presbyterians. And when I say thick I mean it in the best sense of the word full, because there are a lot of us–at least going back a few generations. My grandfather on my mother’s side used to make a joke to explain the number of his offspring, “No we’re not Catholic, just passionate Presbyterians.” Chuckle, chuckle. Ha. That was my grandpa for you, and a loving lively bunch we remain.
The joke for the next two generations would be slightly different–something to explain “another Presbyterian minister marrying into the family” or “surviving as a preacher’s kid,” or just the small world connections that exist in something like a denominational church. Although I didn’t get tempted into ministry, or long-term missionary work, or seminary, I’ve always had a place in my heart for beautiful liturgical art, or art that expresses the deepest places of the spirit and soul and seeks to honor God in its making. Which is why when the latest art project came my way, I felt as if my shoulder was being tapped, if gently, to tell me it was my turn this time.
A friend thoughtfully offered me the project of creating a new portrait of John Calvin in honor of his life and 500 years of reformed faith for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (http://www.pcusa.org/calvinjubilee/index.htm). The idea was to portray Calvin as the pastor and the person he must have been— based on some of his writings– perhaps a kinder, gentler version of the man than we might be familiar with, but with a sense of the tradition he helped shape. I gladly accepted the offer and began to do my homework.
Many of the existing portraits of Calvin were painted after his lifetime and show a severe and craggy countenance, usually a profile or 3 quarter view. I found an interesting book on the subject titled John Calvin: a 16th Century Portrait, by William Bouwsma, that featured a rare portrait of the young Calvin looking directly at the viewer, a man almost unrecognizable from his later self. I did my best to combine aspects of the portraits I had access to, knowing that the features of the real man might be found in there somewhere.
The process of creating this piece was challenging, and like any art work involved a series of choices along the way, as to approach and technique, composition and color. But what was especially difficult was the portrait part of the portrait. How to get it right, how to do this figure justice and convey a more sympathetic yet still strong and dignified version of him? My original idea was to use the words from Calvin’s writings to make up his face, or to weave them into the artwork so that they would become part of him and surround him. In the end it was simpler to choose Calvin’s favorite Latin motto as a kind of frame for his face, and an indication of the architecture that he was a part of building and breaking through. The motto reads: COR MEUM TIBI OFFERO DOMINE PROMPTE ET SINCERE, “I offer you my heart, Lord, readily and sincerely.”
If I learned a little more about Calvin during this process it is that he was like all of us, human and flawed, but with a heart that yearned for good. So for my beloved Presbyterian family, those living and the ones who have gone before, this one’s for you.