I recently received a request that was extremely unusual coming from a theologically orthodox, evangelical church: create three large paintings for their newly renovated building. More remarkable still was that the commissioning pastor turned down my routine offer to submit a few rough ideas for him to approve. He wanted to see how God might inspire me, and he didn’t want to interfere. This rarely happens, regardless of who, or what organization is doing the commissioning. I had to pinch myself. Evangelicalism hasn’t had a rich tradition of supporting the arts, although I now see this changing. I don’t even attend this guy’s church. It’s a new, non-denominational church called Beggars’ Gate. They meet at the corner of 29th and Garfield in Loveland, Colorado in a creatively renovated building that formerly housed a bar and restaurant.
I cocked my head when I first heard the name Beggars’ Gate. It didn’t strike me as a very alluring name for a church. But then I realized that was probably the point. If someone would stay away because they felt the name was beneath them, then it’s a thought-provoking name indeed. Humility is a prerequisite to coming to God for salvation. If one thinks one has something to bring; something to add to God’s gift of salvation, then he or she doesn’t understand the spiritual poverty of his or her situation. Rightly or wrongly, the most common criticism I hear against church people is self-righteousness and hypocrisy. A church with a name like Beggar’s Gate would have to really work at being either of those.
In thinking about the beggar idea, I recalled the things that God offers to us according to the Bible; things that we have no hope of acquiring by our own effort. I’ve tended to shy away from “religious painting”, but I know from past experience that these things are very difficult to depict in paint without lapsing into the cheesiness and sentimentality that has often typified evangelical subculture. Following are some thoughts I had around the main Beggar’s Gate painting, pictured below.
I resisted the idea of depicting a literal beggar at first because it seemed too obvious. But then I became captivated by the idea of visually quoting Michelangelo’s “Creation” from the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s archetypal image depicts Adam as a perfect, godlike being, and in fact, you could argue that the Bible implies that’s what Adam was. In the painting he’s reclining, in a position of reliance on his Creator, but he’s clearly an impressive figure, naked and unashamed. However shortly after the creation account, the scriptures describe the fall of man from Life – he is separated from God and begins his slide into darkness, depravity, and death. Everything else that follows in the Bible is the story of our relational Creator restoring his creation to life and communion with Himself.
Which brings us to our present situation. I’ve repainted Adam as a beggar; emaciated and needy. He’s clothed in dirty rags – his own attempt at covering his disgrace. He represents our fallen human condition. The child clothed in white, who brings him a cup, represents the spiritual rebirth made possible through God’s Messiah. She is doing the work of the church. But what she offers doesn’t come from an earthly source:
“…whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jesus – Jn 4:14)
“…If any one thirst, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the scripture has said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now this He said about the Spirit, which those who believed in Him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given.” (Jesus – John 7:37-39)
Here Jesus claims to fulfill centuries-old Hebrew prophecy.