John August Swanson’s serigraph of Psalm 23 presents a beautiful visual narrative of this familiar Psalm.It’s studied and carefully drawn,with bright colours and the lush orchestration of an icon; combining that flat, stylized look of an icon with the bright palette and strong narrative sense of his background in Latin American Folk Art.
There is no moon in this image of the night, but the stars create a luminescence to help the pilgrims. Swanson’s vision contains the wonder and awe found in star-filled night skies. He comments: “Our earliest ancestors may have gazed up to ponder the brilliance of these lights. They looked for order in the heavens, and could marvel at the many wondrous and spectacular sights held within the glowing clusters of stars.”
There’s a suggestion of Rilke’s You, Darkness here:
“You, darkness, that I come from, I love you more than all the fires that fence in the world,
for the fire makes a circle of light for everyone and then no one outside learns of you.
But the darkness pulls in everything- shapes and fires, animals and myself, how easily it gathers them!
– powers and people-
and it is possible a great presence is moving near me. I have faith in nights.”
Swanson: “The forest, with deep shadows and darkness, is a place filled with hidden sights and creatures. Since times long past, families and communities have sat around campfires, and fireplaces to tell their legends. My mother told us stories of the forests and mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico. My father’s family in Sweden spoke about the wild wolves in their local forest, as well as fabled myths of forest people and ancient creatures. People understood the dangers of the wilderness. Travelers would seek to find shelter before the darkness of the night. “
Moving forward barefoot and without fear, the two central figures travel through a valley transformed by their own faith; a “Peaceable Kingdom” (Isaiah 11) where lions and lambs lie together in serene harmony. The language of Psalm 23 has a message of strength – “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…”
Swanson comments “This story connects with our own lives, as we listen to those who encourage and empower others to speak out and stand against death, violence, and hate.”
So do the two figures represent the Leader and the Led? Perhaps it’s something like Great Heart leading Christiana (in the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress). That is to say, the troubles still have to be gone through but there is one who goes with you every step of the way. It’s going to be alright.
There is a radiant optimism that fills the picture,coupled with a sense of wonder. Though there is much that is dark, there is also beauty and joy in the journey. And as someone said:
“The journey is the mystery…the destination the answer. If you don’t have a happy ending yet, you have not finished reading the right book.”