02 May 2010

Psalm 22, concluded

The text below is part of a paper I presented along with my painting of Psalm 22 at Saint Louis University, 29 April 2010.

When given the opportunity at the beginning of the semester to consider a final project which would express something more personal than a research paper, I immediately took to the idea of doing a painting. It was unclear to me at the time how this would take shape, what sort of psalm I would choose, etc., but I felt strongly I should allow myself the time to reflect on what could be done with it. In the early months of this semester, I was gripped by a powerful sense of anxiety and dread, finding much of what I was doing professionally and personally fruitless and meaningless. The ongoing clouds overhead – uninterrupted for more than two weeks in the winter – did nothing to assuage these feelings and the crippling effect they began to have on me. So it was natural that I turned my sights to the psalms of lament, hoping out of desperation that the act of painting itself might help lift me from the pit of malaise that engulfed me.

Technical elements: the drawing

I asked a colleague who teaches art for a large sheet of paper so I could start sketching out some ideas. It is usually at this point in the process of painting I am most reluctant and frustrated, trying to translate to a blank page what exists clearly in my mind. But in this case, having chosen Psalm 22, I began without any image other than what the psalm itself provides. I stuck the paper on a board in my classroom, and much to my surprise, began feverishly drawing. First, the central figure of a man with one hand extending upward and the other clutching his ribs, his body totally naked.[1] His outlook haunted me immediately: his countenance was not directed heavenward as in so many images of kitschy piety, but the eyes looked out directly, intentionally at the viewer. I leaned him against the skeleton of a wind-swept tree to foreshadow not only the cross and the traditional interpretation of this psalm as vox Christi, but also because while the tree is barren of leaves or fruit, it is not dead. The tree expresses the absence that is winter, a theme we have discussed in relation to the corresponding spiritual dimension of absence. It was in drawing the tree more than any other element of the painting with which I most closely related, enduring at the time my own struggle of desolation.

Animals have not been a prominent subject in any of my artwork to this point. In fact, the majority of my paintings deal with people, skies and trees. The bulls were a challenge both anatomically and expressively. The psalmist makes it clear the “strong bulls of Bashan”[2] have encircled him, mouths gaping like “a ravening and roaring lion.”[3] I tried to draw the bulls in circular form, suggesting a motion of running around the isolated psalmist, trapping him as it were from any hope of escape. While the psalmist employs images of other beasts and enemies, I felt the bulls could most evocatively express the terror of his predicament. Their tongues hang out of their mouths and their bloodshot eyes are directed to those of the psalmist. I wanted to give the bulls an expression of almost perverse desire to taunt and destroy.

The landscape of the drawing is practically blank. I didn’t want frivolous background detail to detract from the action in the foreground of the piece and I used the landscape to reinforce the psalmist’s isolation, in a land unyielding.

Technical elements: the painting

I purchased a 30” by 40” canvas, knowing it would require significant space to properly place the various elements of the piece with the detail they required. As such, from the finished piece it is clear some spatial problems remain (e.g., much of the bulls’ bodies are off the canvas). Nevertheless, I began by drawing with charcoal on the canvas itself, enlarging the elements from the drawing. I decided to use oil paint as oils are much more forgiving and malleable than acrylic or watercolor. After finishing the charcoal sketch on the canvas, I used burnt sienna and cobalt blue to create the underpainting. After this dried, I started working from the top of the canvas down to the bottom.

Since the sketch contains no color, I wasn’t sure what to do with the sky. At first, I painted the entire sky a reddish-orange hue, suggesting the strong emotion of dread and fear. Unsatisfied with the result, I then painted over it (again, thanks to the forgiveness of oils!) with the purples, blues and reds that now make up the sky. It was suggested by an artist-turned-bartender friend of mine to continue the circular motion of the bulls into the sky. I was grateful for the suggestion and implemented it. Symbolically, then, the sense of being encompassed by the enemy extends beyond the literalness of the bulls into the vastness of the sky, reinforcing the urgency of the psalmist’s plight and his powerlessness to overcome it. Because of the colors of the sky, it isn’t clear whether night is setting in or dawn is breaking, and this serves, too, to indicate the disorientating experience of intense dejection expressed by the psalmist.[4]

I then painted the tree imposed upon the sky, first just the dark frame of the twisting branches and trunk. The limbs reach out to one side of the painting as if severely wind-whipped and claw the sky as fingers from a hand. The tree and its allusions to a reaching hand further illustrate the sense of pining. I highlighted the underneath of the branches as if the source of light is from the suffering psalmist himself. While the tree appears uninviting and severe, it remains the one thing against which the psalmist can rest his weary frame and it provides a kind of secure refuge against the circling bulls and sky. In this vein I am reminded of some images of Jesus taking up his cross in an almost lovingly way, embracing the very tool of his destruction as it is also the tool of redemption. The tree in the painting is meant to convey a similar paradox.

The mountains and trees on the distant horizon suggest the barrenness of the land. The mountains are utterly bare and the trees seemingly lifeless, a ghostly landscape. As in the drawing, I left much of the background intentionally bare, only hinting at shadows. Beneath the figure of the psalmist, I changed the color of the ground to ash.[5]

I have no idea what a bull of Bashan looks like, but can only recall images of bulls from farms along the roadside. I chose hues of brown so that the bulls would not be terribly distinct from the earth around them, again suggesting the theme of the psalmist being totally encompassed by the enemy. I paid particular attention to their eyes and mouths, trying to express through their faces the rage they feel against the suffering poet. I painted their tongues to resemble that of a man’s, so that the image of the bull used by the psalmist would not be interpreted too literally. Similarly, the bulls’ eyes have a sense of human emotion in them, reddened with destructiveness.

Finally, I painted the psalmist. This proved to be the most difficult component of the piece, even though I am usually more comfortable painting human figures than any other. I struggled to mix the right colors. At times they proved to be too light and at others too dark. I finally blended a set of pale flesh tones indicative of sickness and exposure. The result is an almost phantom image at the center of the painting. Clearly distinct from the darkness around him, the distinctions within the form are ambiguous and ill-defined. I did this intentionally to express that while the psalmist feels very separate from the chaos outside of him, he is also struggling mightily from within. I wanted to depict him unfinished and blurry since that is how I interpret him to be in the psalm: unsatisfied, pale and weary. Resting on his legs, he appears disjointed[6] and uncomfortable. Clutching his ribs with an undefined and withered left hand, he extends his right arm and hand to the sky. It is this hand in which I intended the remaining verses (22-31) of promise and praise to God to be depicted. I do not mean to suggest that God is literally above – in the direction the psalmist is pointing – but to say he is outside the scene itself and indeed encompasses it entirely.[7] I suppose if animation could be expressed here, I would have his right hand moving in every direction. When I paint portraits – unless they are of actual persons – I typically struggle with what color to paint the eyes. I decided before I even began work on the canvas that the psalmist’s eyes would be a blue-gray and as deep as I could manage. Lighter eyes seem to me to allow more investigation.


As the semester progressed and the weather improved, I found myself emerging from the malaise that had held me captive throughout the winter. As my mood recovered, I continued on through the painting. This psalm, which has held a prominent place in my experience of the Psalter over the years, has become more meaningful to me than ever. This has more to do with reflecting on individual verses and themes as they came to be expressed through the painting than the painting itself. I was able to engage in a kind of lectio divina over the course of the last few months with the thirty one verses of Psalm 22. And while it is obvious to me that the shift in the seasons has helped in overcoming my interior winter, I think spending significant time and energy placing myself in this psalm did more than anything. To spend several days for instance, reflecting on the bulls of Bashan, or a weekend in solitude imagining what posture the psalmist would be in at different points throughout the psalm engrossed me and provided a script for my own situation of existential angst. I found I could embody the words of the psalmist; I could cry out to God in lament, I could make demands of him to come near, to be present and hear the sound of my groaning; I could identify with the surrounding images of despair, the harsh environment and the sense of rejection such an environment provides; I could then turn to authentic praise to God for listening to the sound of my cry.

So now, nearly five months after first conceiving the idea for this painting I come to the end of it. It has been at times an incredible challenge and burden. At certain moments I would slam down the paintbrush, curse at the canvas and go for a walk. I’d leave it alone for days at a time; I’d neglect cleaning the brushes and palette. Sometimes I forgot about it completely, walking by it several times a day without looking at it. And just as unexpectedly, I’d resume work and feverishly paint for hours at a time. Doing this painting has taught me more about the psalm which has taught me more about life. This path is full of uncertainty and suffering. It is rife with betrayal and disappointment, a series of letdowns and fraught with illness. It is filled, too, with glimpses of unadulterated joy and grace. My hope is that this painting articulates some of the mystery of being alive, and the always-layered experiences we have with God.

[1] Ps 22:17, 18. “I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.”

[2] Ps 22:12. “Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.”

[3] Ps 22:13. “They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.”

[4] Ps 22:2. The ambiguity about time of day and its relation to the psalmist’s ongoing groaning: “O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.”

[5] Ps 22:15. “My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.”

[6] Ps 22:14. “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.”

[7] Ps 22:27-30. “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. For the kingdom is the Lord’s: and he is the governor among the nations. All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul. A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation."

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