Tom Turner Portrait of Jesus - Painting our Picture of Christ

By Julie Z. Lee on December 18, 2007

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The portrait of Jesus has always alluded us; the pictures we do have of what the Messiah may have looked like have been mere speculation. There have been legends of a document written by Pontius Pilate in 1514, describing Jesus as a blue eyed sheperd with a head of cascading curls; the ancient Greek assumed that the Jewish carpenter resembled Apollo; and still more radical ideas hint that Jesus may have been mishapen.

History reveals our inability to accurately describe Jesus, so who, today, would be as bold as to paint a picture of Christ?

Certainly, not Tom Turner, an associate professor of art at Pacific Union College. Well, at least not without some convincing.

Last fall, Mic Thurber, pastor of PUC Church, decided to present a series of sermons that painted a picture of Christ. He used the analogy that Jesus’s life was the brushstroke of God, painting a picture of Himself on the canvas of life and history.

“What I wanted to do was pull from the Gospel of John the kinds of things that would illustrate who God is as pictured in Jesus,” says Pastor Thurber. “I simply picked different places in John with an eye towards what this might reveal about God.”

Selecting a different theme for the upcoming seven weeks, Pastor Thurber put together a composite of Jesus through stories. Then, he had the idea of asking someone to paint a portrait of Jesus during the sermons.

Pastor Thurber approached Tom, who teaches photography but also has a master’s degree in painting. Tom was reluctant.

“Every artist has a different image of God,” says Tom. “I had a hard time imagining one portrait that would best reflect Him.”

Tom suggested a siloheutte instead, which wouldn’t be as definitive. Pastor Thurber turned down the idea—he wanted a portrait. After a couple weeks to mull it over, Tom came up with the idea of creating a composite portrait of Christ by using different models for each facial feature such as the eyes, nose, and mouth. It was a project he had done before, so he felt comfortable with the concept. Pastor Thurber and Tom finally agreed on a watercolor composite of Christ as he is revealed in different people.

On Sabbath morning, Tom set up his makeshift studio at the front of the church and selected a different person from the congregation for the week’s model. He was careful to make the best possible use of variety in ethnic background, ages, and gender.

The congregation had mixed reactions at first, since Pastor Thurber didn’t offer much explanation for Tom’s presence. Early on, they found the painting a distraction.

“People told my wife that they were really enjoying the service,” says Tom. “But ‘we don’t know what in the world your husband is doing.’ It wasn’t until around the third sabbath that people understood what was happening.”

By the time the series and the painting neared completion, people were eager to get copies of the final result.

“People kept telling me how they enjoyed watching Christ develop on paper,” says Pastor Thurber. “Everyone broke into applause when it was finished. He did a masterful job.”

There’s no telling whether the painting will be recorded in history as yet the most accurate painting of Christ. One thing’s for sure, the congregation will recognize a bit more of Christ in each other.