The first time Lucy McTier was commissioned to paint the Crucifixion she turned it down.
“I was very young, I was 24, and I didn’t feel that I had the capability of painting it, both skillwise and emotionally,” said the Stapleton, Ga., resident.
It was only after a fully realized career as an artist and more than 25 years’ exploring her faith that she felt ready to portray the culmination of her savior’s purpose with the color and depth she felt it deserved.
On Oct. 29, she unveiled The Ladder at Louisville United Methodist Church.
Two years ago, McTier said a client again discussed commissioning a Crucifixion, and while that never materialized, it got her thinking seriously about what her take would be on a subject so fundamental to her faith.
“If you look at traditional Crucifixion paintings, at the landscape and the figures, the perspective, it’s just complicated any way you look at it,” she said. “I had the idea that it had to be so close to the biblical account that when they saw it they would be drawn to read more about it, but also, that they’d think, yes, that’s how I imagined it.”
In the summer of 2016, she accepted that a historically accurate image was not really what she most wanted to portray.
“Scripture says Christ was marred more than any man, that he was beaten beyond recognition,” she said. “But when I think of the Crucifixion, what I was seeing and feeling is the beauty of the Christ. There is beauty in the cross and that’s where the truth is.”
When she began to paint, McTier said that Jesus’ image was the first thing she sketched out, white on a black canvas. She listened to Handel’s Messiah, which she says is scripturally based, while she worked. A devout Christian who has a close relationship with her savior, the image of Christ himself came fairly easily, like a lifelong friend sketched from memory. It was the cross itself and the background, his placement in the world, that she spent the most time researching and working out how to best represent.
McTier said that one theory is that the main post of the cross was a tree. That led her to study the roles of both the olive tree and the fig tree as symbols throughout the Bible.
She prayed and prayed about it and kept coming back to John 1:51, in which Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of man. This led her to the story of Jacob and his dream of a ladder.
“The way he described the dream, it was a sign to us,” McTier said. “The way he described it is the ladder was set on earth with the top reaching to heaven and God stood above it.
“Several times God talks about trees being like his people. The holy spirit is all about the olive tree. Also the fig tree in John 1, I started thinking about two trees and then there it was, the helix, DNA. It’s how we’re put together. And when we think of DNA, we think of life.”
So she started studying models of the building blocks of life and how it resembles a spiral ladder.
“So the ladder then truly becomes our link to God almighty,” McTier said.
Throughout the roughly 5-foot by 7-foot painting, are hidden symbols taken directly from Scripture, that kept coming back to her while she researched.
A Bible study teacher, McTier said she recently read something in her lessons about how God includes little things in Scripture because it delights Him.
“Not that we will get it right away, but in searching for His face, they will finally get there,” she said. “They compared it to Easter eggs. People who hide Easter eggs are doing it because they want to see your joy, they want to share in your joy in finding them and being excited about opening up. Because it’s a surprise. And I feel like God is like that in that He created us in his image and He delights in when we recognize His hand in our lives.”
At the foot of the cross, as in many more traditional Crucifixion paintings, there is the suggestion of a human skull in the rocks. McTier said that painters like herself have included it there as a symbol that this is when Jesus defeated death, but the skull is also supposed to represent the skull of Adam as the first man and then Christ is there as the fulfillment of mankind.
In preparing for her presentation, McTier made a list of all the scriptures that led to decisions for the painting, but she said it takes 30 minutes just to read them all.
Her research has led to plans for 11 more paintings all based on the symbols she discovered while studying the Crucifixion.
The point of all of her faith-based paintings, of all the imagery and symbolism they contain, is in service to removing the veil in search of God’s messages to man.
“I’m hoping that since we are living in a very image-driven culture, that it will draw people to question what is going on here, to ask ‘What is that,’ and ‘why is that there.’ I want people to seek the Lord,” she said.