By Thomas Hastings – Executive Director – OMSC@PTS
This is the first in a series of eight posts that spotlights paintings from our Artist in Residence program in dialogue with Christian scripture to offer spiritual windows for reflection and prayer. These reflections are based on Princeton Seminary’s Summer 2023 Chapel series. You can view the service from which this post is based HERE
SCRIPTURE READING: Genesis 1:1–3, 6, 9, 11, 14–15, 20, 24, 26–31, 2:1–3
God’s love for creation is instantiated in the way all things hold together. This story proclaims that nothing is made for itself alone, everything and everyone is part of and contributes to the whole. The first three days God creates a habitat, the next three days God creates inhabitants to fill the habitat. But the order of God’s creation is neither fixed or mechanical. God creates a contingent, dynamic, and complex world, which reflects God’s steadfast love and desire for relationship with creation. Indeed, as God’s image bearers, you and I are called to be faithful stewards of whatever part of the creation we inhabit (1:28; 2:15).
Biblical Art created by Christians from other cultures opens a window into the rich hermeneutical potential of Sacred Scripture.
The artist who painted this breathtaking scene is Sawai Chinnawong. He was deeply influenced by a series of lectures on the history of Christian Art given at Payap University in 1984 by artist and professor Nalini Jayasuriya, another OMSC Artist in Residence whose work we will consider in a later post.
What about this scene feels unfamiliar? Is it his depiction of a Buddhist temple as the heavenly habitat? Is it the animals, which are typical of those appearing in illustrated Thai manuscripts: lions and tigers, deer, cattle, rabbits, squirrels, and fish; pigs, goats, dogs, snakes and roosters as well as monkeys, etc..
Is it the sea creatures? If you look at the bottom of the painting, you will find dragon-like creatures called Naga. In Thailand, Naga embody both natural power and supernatural powers. They can make rain, ensuring good harvests to the farmers, and they are protectors of sacred spaces.
Is it the sky creatures? On the sides of the painting you will find birds called Hongsa. These are mythical birds of passage representing the release of the soul from the cycle of life.
Reflecting on the motivations behind this work, Sawai shares:
My work represents influences from many styles…I believe Jesus Christ is present in every culture, and I have chosen to celebrate his presence in our lives through Thai traditional cultural forms. My belief is that Jesus did not choose just one people to hear his Word, but chose to make his home in every human heart. And just as his Word may be spoken in every language, so the visual message can be shared in the beauty of the many styles of artistry around the world.
“In this highly layered and symbolic composition, I have used primary colors to tie heaven and earth together. Gold and red are our traditional colors of holiness; they form the basic color scheme.”
“God’s all-seeing eye takes in the whole of creation, here represented by slivers of God’s cosmos. . . The metamorphosis of all life, part flower, part animal, takes place in my Christian view of the continuity of all things in heaven and on earth.
PRAYER: Gracious Lord of All Creation, grant us ears to hear, eyes to see, and minds to consider the inexhaustibly rich ways your Word is heard, seen, and pondered by Christians of every nation, tribe, people and language, who in John’s vision, “stand before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” Amen.