The Vision of Isaiah
68x80 inches, oil on canvas, 2017
Collection of Duke Divinity School. If you are interested in commissioning or donating a sacred work for an institution, please contact the artist.
Text carved on the frame:
In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord. He was sitting on a lofty throne, and the train of his robe filled the Temple. Hovering around him were mighty seraphim, each with six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with the remaining two they flew. In a great chorus they sang, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty! The whole earth is filled with his glory!" The glorious singing shook the Temple to its foundations, and the entire sanctuary was filled with smoke. Then I said, "My destruction is sealed, for I am a sinful man and a member of a sinful race. Yet I have seen the King, the LORD Almighty! "Then one of the seraphim flew over to the altar, and he picked up a burning coal with a pair of tongs. He touched my lips with it and said, "See, this coal has touched your lips. Now your guilt is removed, and your sins are forgiven." Isaiah 6, 1-6
Notes on the painting:
The painting, “The Vision of Isaiah”, depicts the moment when a seraph touches Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal. The powerful passage of scripture lends itself well to the medium of painting because a single image tells the story, yet tells more than just the story. The heavenly bright being descending to Isaiah conveys the truth that every good thing, including salvation, comes from above, from something stronger than mortal man. The story acts as a powerful metaphor of the gospel. Commentaries on the passage say that the burning coal and smoke-filled temple would have been signs of condemnation and judgment. Instead, the burning coal touches Isaiah’s lips and he is cleansed.
The great curtains at the temple entrance represent the spirit of God. They lovingly envelope Isaiah and flow through the temple, filling it like the train of God’s robe in the biblical text. They are also a reminder of the curtain at the entrance of the holy of holies, rent in two at the crucifixion, a symbol of man’s unmerited access to God by the sacrifice of his Son. At the far end of the temple, they part to reveal the throne and alter of God, who is symbolized by the setting sun, placed just above the throne.
The biblical text which wraps around the painting is hand-carved into the frame and was conceived from the beginning as a necessary element of the work, which took over a year to complete.
Angels have been depicted in paintings throughout Art History. In Isaiah’s vision, they are not the fairy-like or cherubic angels of popular depiction. They are the four seraphim, traditionally the highest order of celestial beings. The word “seraphim” has connotations of “fire” or even “serpents”. Their singing shakes the great temple. Two sets of wings cover their face and feet, and one set is outspread in flight. The artist pictures them with heads tilted back almost impossibly with only the wide-open mouths showing. The wings themselves are based on drawings from high-speed photographs of song birds in flight.
Although the painting as a whole is from the artist’s imagination, many parts are based on painting studies done from life. The temple with its massive pillars rising out of deep grass is based on the ruins of the Greek temple at Paestum in southern Italy. The mountain landscape is from studies near the artist’s home in North Carolina. The distant islands are based on paintings of the rocky coast of California.