From a very early age, self-taught artist Laura James was puzzled by the conventions of religious art.
“At home we — had a big book of Bible stories, where everyone was a yellow ochre color,” she said. “Servants were always a kind of grey color and strangely apelike.”
But each of the 38 paintings comprising her “Gospel Dreams” collection is far removed from that inhuman chromatic aesthetic. The artworks, which will grace the walls of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music until Feb. 28, pop with vibrant hues and rich shades.
Many of the paintings in “Gospel Dreams” were commissioned by Chicago-based Liturgy Training Publications for a new, illustrated reading of the Gospels.
The expressive faces of her painted figures and James’ placement of Biblical text on some of the works have an arresting effect over Institute pedestrians. All insure that the exhibit has received substantial traffic in the less than five days since it has been open.
But while the appearance of her paintings in a book and in an exhibit increased James’ exposure, the assignment reduced one crucial aspect of the project — time.
“Because the book was already well underway when I signed on, I had to paint 25 paintings [out of the 34 that appeared in the publication] in four months,” James said.
For each scene James was to depict for the book, the artist consulted not just the primary text submitted by her editors but also versions of the story from the Schofield Reference version of the King James Bible and the Contemporary English version. James also turned to books about religious art and consulted treatments of the subject by different painters in order to glean the overarching, enduring elements of a scene.
Along the way, her editors critiqued the intermediate sketches. While James counts the Ethiopian religious artistic tradition as among her greatest influences and gives many of her painted subjects Ethiopian features, Liturgy Training Publications wanted more diversity for the book illustrations.
“They particularly asked that I include more Caucasian people, old people, children and women,” she said.
Though Liturgy, an emissary of the Roman Catholic Church, commissioned the work, James says it can be found in the pews of several other denominations’ churches as well. She cites the edition’s easy-to-understand language and lack of stridently Catholic overtones for its universal appeal.
Liturgy’s published “Book of the Gospels” is on display at the exhibit in a glass case, which also contains pamphlets about James’s other works. Additionally, nine of the “Gospel Dreams” paintings are for sale, and some of the works are on loan from their current owners. James said she felt gratified by the unusual nature of the show.
“I don’t have many exhibits with nearly 40 paintings. I really love to see so many of them together,” she said. “I like to see a big exhibit.”
And while the subject matter of the paintings is undeniably religious, the artist hopes viewers unfamiliar with the Biblical stories will still be interested. Inspired by the Ethiopians’ predilection for picture-laden manuscripts, James includes many handwritten words in her tableaux.
The nature of the writing varies — from “Names of Angels,” on which heavenly beings float against a field of black-inked angel names (from Adnachiel to Zaphiel) to “Kingdom of Heaven Parables,” in which long, descriptive passages are written on painted scrolls that form a part of the visual narrative. But the artist believes these verbal interpolations serve to clarify the message of the painting and even pique the interest of the viewer unfamiliar with the story depicted.
“The paintings tell a Biblical or religious story that has meaning. Someone might be able to look at it and know that, but it also has words so that people can read it,” she said. “It adds clarity to what I’ve painted. There’s a story there that’s accessible.”