Contextualized Art

"Mayan Crucifixion," acrylic on bark paper.

I intend this painting to depict Jesus' crucifixion as a self-sacrifice of bloodletting, much as the ancient Mayan rulers did in order to open communication with the spirit world, and to participate in the renewing of the cosmos.

Here I am representing Jesus opening a portal (called the “heart of God”) to God the Father (shown at top) through the shedding of his blood, which pours out from his wounds. His blood causes two cornstalks to grow from the ground with Adam and Eve sprouting from the tops. The corn stalks represent resurrection, though the Mayan concept of resurrection (in their mythology) is somewhat different from the biblical meaning. In this painting the corn plants symbolize the saving and resurrecting power of Jesus' blood on behalf of the human race, who are collectively represented by Adam and Eve.

In this painting, then, we see the moment of Jesus' death as He is falling into the mouth of “White Bone Snake," a spirit serpent the ancient Maya believed swallowed the soul of the deceased, transporting them to the underworld. As this happens, He stands upon a sacrificial bowl. The three glyphs on it read, "Raised Up Road God Lord/the substitute/(for) man.” Jesus substituted Himself in our place to take the wrath of God that we deserved. In so doing, He defeated death, offered eternal life to humanity by opening a direct relationship between God the Father and mankind, and even set the stage for the ultimate renewal of the earth and the cosmos itself, something that the modern Maya people still seek today.

“Mayan Resurrection," acrylic on bark paper.

This is a Mayan-style image of Jesus dancing out his tomb, based on an ancient image of a Mayan king’s sarcophagus lid which depicts him rising out of the jaws (literally) of the underworld after death ( I wanted to create a joyful and biblical image which shows the love and hope offered in Christ’s resurrection and triumph over death. He is reaching up to God the Father, who is calling Him out of the tomb from His throne in heaven.

The ancient Maya believed that at the time of death, the soul entered a multi-level underworld known as Xibalba. There the soul would be tested by the Gods of Death, reenacting a confrontation originally fought by two mythical Hero Twins. Through their victory over death, these twins were able to resurrect their deceased father, the Maize God, from an opening in the earth. Mayan kings would reenact this triumphant story by performing a dance that represented the emergence of the resurrected Maize God out of the underworld. I have based this image of Jesus on a similar dance performance as the literal God-Man who died, and by so doing defeated the true god of death, Satan. Afterwards, he returned to the land of the living in a dance of triumphant joy (Hebrews 12:2).

In ancient Mayan culture the color blue symbolized the waters of Xibalba, and therefore death itself, and this color can be seen inside the doorway of the tomb. As he dances, Jesus holds a flint knife in this right hand. This is a reference to the Hero Twins who, while being tested by the Gods of Death, defeated them by decapitation with a flint knife (

The corn stalks on each side represent resurrection (by association with the Maize God), though the Mayan concept is somewhat different from the Christian meaning. Two angels stand on top of each stalk supporting the cloud/glory that surrounds God the Father on his heavenly throne.

God the Father is surrounded by a sky band, which represents the ecliptic, i.e., the path of the sun, moon, and planets through the heavens against the background of stars. His headdress is made of green quetzal bird feathers. Mesoamerican rulers wore headdresses made from quetzal feathers, symbolically connecting them to Quetzalcoatl, the creator god and god of wind. In this painting, I would say they represent the Holy Spirit. God the Father wears a chest emblem which has the glyph for "Father.” The glyphs to his right read, “He creates/Sky (Heaven)/(and) Earth.”

Here’s a translation of the remaining glyphs:
Top Row: Resplendant/Sun/Precious
2nd Row: He was seated/in holy lordship/God-Man Who Descends From the Sky/Holy Lord/child of/Heavenly Father/Holy Lord/[is] His Holy Name
3rd Row: He was buried/and then it happened/emerged from/tomb/God-Man Who Descends From the Sky/Holy Lord/Death/His sacrifice
Bottom Row: Darkness/Moon/Darkness

Regarding the idea of using contextualized ancient art forms with modern Mayans, a missionary who’s lived in Guatemala for 30 years commented:

“There seems to be a disconnect between ancient art and the 21st century Mayan. If Mayans of 15 centuries ago saw your portrayals, they might have made some sense of it. By analogy, most British moderns, if taken to Stonehenge, would not relate to it. They’d need a specialist explain to them what they were seeing.”

So, these paintings would probably not make an impact on most contemporary Maya, or be embraced by Mayan evangelicals. But nevertheless, the paintings have been for me a good theoretical exercise in visual contextualization. In a real life missions context, however, any type of contextualized art form would require multiple reviews by locals (both believers and non believers) before using it in a wider context.

This is an approximately 20'x8' canvas I painted as a mural for my local church in North Carolina in 1998. It depicts the scene from Revelation 7:9-10. The style is based on Egyptian art and I have adapted the scene to reflect the ethnic clothing of each person standing behind Jesus, plus adding some color to their clothing as well. The face of the Heavenly Father isn't shown, though that of Jesus is shown since He came to earth as in human form. The River of Life (Revelation 22:1) flows from beneath God's throne, which is emblazoned with two winged cherubim just like the lid of the Ark of the Covenant.

"Ascension," gouache on papyrus paper.

Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus rises into the air from the Mount of Olives to meet His heavenly father, who is depicted as a cloud. Two disciples kneel in reverence (Acts 1:8-9).

"Jesus Prays in Gethsemane," ceramic bowl. Painting style based on Tibetan thangka paintings.

"Risen Lord of Heaven and Earth," ceramic bowl. Painting style based on Tibetan thangka paintings. This depicts the risen Christ, floating above the empty tomb which once held His dead body. He hold the earth in His hand, showing his authority over it. He holds his right hand in the Abhaya Mudra position, which means "Fear not." His legs are in the Lalitasana position, a posture of royal ease for kings and gods. Above Him is God the Father, by whom Christ was sent to earth to save all who would believe in Him.

"Jesus' Work on the Cross," gouache on paper. Painting style based on Indian miniature paintings. Jesus "crushes" the head of Satan by destroying death on the cross. This particular scene is based on an Indian painting called "The Great Goddess Durga Slaying the Buffalo Demon (Mahishasuramardini)."

"Dancing Jesus" combines Tibetan influences with forms inspired by the ancient art of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It is based on Genesis 3:15, a prophecy given by God to the Serpent: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” The cross behind Jesus shows how he has accomplished this victory, through his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection three days later. The cloud behind him represents God the Father. The falling blossoms represent blessings from Heaven. He holds the world out of reach of the Serpent, saving all those who would turn to him.


Experiments in visual Bible translation.


Fine Art