John's Gospel, Australian style

What connection can there be between the Hunter, rugged outback Australia, and the Gospel according to John?

John's Gospel, Australian style

What connection, too, between a lamb, an elephant, and that same Gospel?


The connection in the first instance is Fiona Pfennigwerth – a resident of Kotara, a natural history illustrator, and one who delights in the theology and artistry of John’s Gospel.


In a recently launched publication, The Gospel according to John, illuminated, in landscape format, Fiona has illuminated the Gospel with the light, the life, the starkness and the brilliance of our outback.


‘Illuminated’ it is. Not ‘illustrated’. John’s message in this work is represented to Australian sensibilities by landscape, flora and fauna that cast a unique, invigorating fluorescence that possibly only Australians can savour.


We are familiar with illustrated works, where pictures give a visual parallel to accompany the text. We may be aware of mediaeval illuminated treasures, such as the Book of Kells, where the Gospel texts are embedded in ornate, swirling motifs, Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours. Fiona’s inspiration is more from this genre, but distinctly Australian; as Australian as Kells is Irish.


Did the disciple/theologian or the illuminator initiate this project? They seem to have fed each other with a desire to combine love of word – especially the Word – with love of images in something beautiful.


Something beautiful had already been achieved in a companion opus, The Scrolls Illuminated, with Australian-themed borders and illustrations bringing light and vibrancy to five festival books from the Bible. The lovers of the Song of Songs embrace in the sensuously caressing trunks of gumtrees. Israel’s legendary beauty and heroine, Queen Esther, is a dazzling azure kingfisher in flight!


Something similar, but more profound, was required for John. Fiona suffered, “blank with ideas”, searching for the medium to illuminate John’s rich tapestry of themes and inventions.


Illustrations from a garden of “bible plants” at Charles Sturt University in Canberra had to be rejected as “too pretty for John”. Jesus was not “soft” but “confrontational”, so he could not be adequately illuminated from the confines of a small-scale, man-made garden, regardless of its biblical connections.


The work of the late documentary journalist, Paul Lockyer, reporting on the explosion of life gifted to the outback by the flooding rains of 2011, was the insight that seized Fiona. The outback, stark and beautiful in its dry state, but transformed by an outburst of life in flora and fauna following a deluge, was the very ‘garden’ for John’s story. “My illustrations emphasise John’s themes of light and life reflected in the impact of water in the semi-arid regions of outback Australia.”


Providential arrangements allowed Fiona to immerse herself for a month in the landscape that would illuminate John’s gospel.


A holidaying friend made available her reliable car for the only month that Fiona could devote to her bush odyssey. Fiona was able to complete obligations to her Newcastle University students, free to head west to a land bursting with life and colour to be captured by camera and watercolour.


Not quite forty days in the wilderness, but a blessed time of discovery, quiet and reflection, soaking up the spirit of the land in its breadth and its detail. The artist used the bonnet of the borrowed car as an easel for watercolour canvases, or as a platform for a camera to capture that which was not sufficiently still-life.


Fiona could not have dreamed of stage-managing the appearance of a lamb, poking its head from a saltbush (‘behold the lamb of God’), or another lamb on a dam wall outside Broken Hill, regal and vulnerable, to illuminate the lamb of sacrifice.


A month outback but years indoors. A work such as John Illuminated involves years of gestation, progression, alteration and completion.


The text itself was set, of course: John’s Gospel in the English Standard Version, though with some acknowledged enlightened ‘tinkering’. But how to format John to bring out the layers and interwoven themes? A lifetime of knowing Jesus through John’s profound theology brings forth a desire to communicate this relationship through word and image. Fiona spent two and a half years through many iterations matching text to page layout, then bringing illustrations to the task.


What emerges?


Landscape layout was a first breakthrough. It is ideal for the breadth of John and the vastness of outback. Coloured text is inspirational. Red ochre underpins the narrative – the soil and rock where the story unfolds. A bluish shade carries words and passages revealing God’s blessings. As Fiona asserts, “A key thing with John is God offering blessings to those who trust him.” Then black text in those parts where John skilfully presents the trial theme; Jesus the trustworthy witness giving evidence to, and against, a world lost in darkness. The Innocent is condemned and the false accusers and witnesses are guilty. Black works.


Sparingly and judiciously, Fiona has employed a larger, more scripted lettering for key phrases – “I am the light of the world”, for example. Likewise, judicious use of bold type draws one to Jesus’ “I am” assertions, so enlightening in John. The Jewish festivals which Jesus appropriates and fulfils in John are brought gently to the reader’s attention.


All this gentle spotlighting doesn’t detract from the flow of the text. It’s meant to make one aware of rich threads woven through the story. It’s enough to make one curious, to keep one aware that John’s account is enigmatic, and to wonder, “Why have you done that! What are you wanting me to find?”


Finding the Truth in John is what life is about. “What are you seeking? Come and you will see!” Fiona’s John Illuminated invites and rewards seeking and seeing in a way that other presentations might struggle to achieve.


In Aurora in December 2012 I reviewed Saved by Beauty, concerning Dorothy Day, twentieth century ‘Apostle of the Poor’. From Dorothy Day I have appropriated her Dostoevskian mantra, “The world will be saved by beauty.”


In Fiona Pfennigwerth’s Illuminations I experience beauty, a foretaste of the fulfilment of beauty that awaits.


And what of the elephant? “John’s Gospel is like a pool in which a lamb may wade and an elephant may swim.” This quip is Fiona’s paraphrase of an observation traced to Gregory the Great. Jesus is accessible in John to the humble wader and to the indulgent plunger. In John Illuminated he relates readily to Australians, simple waders or capable swimmers, who savour the distinctive light and rugged beauty of “the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit”.


The Hunter is blessed to have Fiona Pfennigwerth – artist of nature, disciple and theologian – to bring Australian light to ancient sacred texts.


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