Spurgeon, Art, and Incarnation

The entirety of Christianity hangs upon a single word – incarnation. Literally translated “into flesh,” incarnation speaks to the unique moment in history when Jesus Christ was made visible. “The infinite,” Spurgeon once preached, “has become the infant.”

In the spirit of John 1:14, when the “Word became flesh,” we at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary are excited to announce our recent partnership with Petru Botezatu – a Romanian artist who will make visible for us the life and legacy of Charles Spurgeon.

Petru Sculpting SpurgeonPetru’s testimony – much like his art – is a reminder of the intervening grace of God. Born after Romania was subsumed by Communist Russia, Petru opposed the dictatorial regime of the Soviet Empire and became a victim of terror, torture, and imprisonment. At the age of 19, he was convicted of leading a counter-revolutionary movement against the state security – a crime that carried a twelve-year sentence. Miraculously, Petru escaped from prison and was invited to join the Faculty of Fine Arts at Bucharest University. This opportunity launched him into a vocation of painting Christian art in the Byzantine style throughout Orthodox Romanian churches. Petru would later return to post-Communist Romania in 2001 to paint over 60,000 square feet of Christian frescoes.

In 1986, Petru fled to Austria as a refugee. He immigrated to Canada and opened art exhibits in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal. In 1994, he was commissioned by Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, to create a series of paintings in its chapel, along with “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) in its dome. Some of these witnesses include Perpetua and Felicity, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, William Carey, Lottie Moon, and Charles Spurgeon.

In a recent conversation, Petru reminded me that Christian art – though it has often been abused in the past – can also be a conduit for evangelism. In the medieval era, when the language of the Church failed to match the language of the people, it was not through words but windows – the “poor man’s Bible” – that the salvation story was often transmitted. In this way, Petru believes that painters can become preachers whose easels can exegete the deep truths of Scripture.

Spurgeon was an artist. In “Illustrations in Preaching” (later published as Lectures to My Students), Spurgeon challenged ministers to follow Christ’s example in using analogies and illustrations in their sermons.

Often when didactic speech fails to enlighten our hearers we may make them see our meaning by opening a window and letting in the pleasant light analogy. Our Saviour, who is the light of the world, took care to fill his speech with similitudes so that the common people heard him gladly: his example stamps with higher authority the practice of illuminating heavenly instruction with comparisons and similes.

Spurgeon pencil drawing of a birdHistorically, a straight line may be drawn from Spurgeon, who was a master of metaphor, to seventeenth-century Baptist pastor John Bunyan, whose bestselling allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Spurgeon had read over 100 times. After Spurgeon moved to London in 1854, his vivid vernacular stood in high relief against the typical, soporific Victorian sermon. Lacking neither in pathos or power, Spurgeon’s arresting use of language attracted not only London’s working class, but also artists like John Ruskin and Vincent van Gogh, who tried to emulate his preaching (with little success). The widespread popularity of Spurgeon’s preaching was indebted, in no small degree, to the incarnational and textured way he translated Scripture into the common language of the people. Even today, Spurgeon does not fail to hold our 21st-century attention with pithy, colorful quotations that are as tweetable as they are true.

Spurgeon Pencil Drawing of a birdSpurgeon could paint with paragraphs; but he could also use a pencil. His 1849 bird drawings – slated for publication by B&H Academic later this year – reveal the young preacher’s earliest artistic abilities, as do the sketches he would later send to his wife, Susannah. It is of small wonder that his son, Thomas Spurgeon, became an accomplished artist in his own right.

Petru is currently working on two sculptures and eight paintings for the Spurgeon Center. These paintings will depict pivotal moments in the preacher’s life including his conversion in Colchester, baptism in Isleham, pastorates in Waterbeach and London, and also his famous “Fast Day Sermon” at the Crystal Palace. Petru hopes that his artwork will follow Spurgeon’s advice in “turning ears into eyes” so that future generations may remember the incarnational love of God illuminated through Spurgeon’s life. It was not beneath God to descend to us, and it must not be beneath us to become flesh for others. As Petru likes to say, verba volant, pictura manent – “spoken words fly away, pictures remain.”

Spurgeon once told his students, “Our figures are meant not so much to be seen as to be seen through.” Through word and art – paragraph and pigment – we at Midwestern Seminary are excited to invite Petru to join our vision for the church in casting as much light as possible on the God who informs, reforms, and transforms the world through the faithful witnesses of servants like Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

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