Bible stories lovingly portrayed in Christ Lutheran mural

  • Artist Mary Swain, 84, proudly shows her painting, "Bible Stories for Children of All Ages."

    Artist Mary Swain, 84, proudly shows her painting, "Bible Stories for Children of All Ages." Courtesy Christ Lutheran Church

  • Susan Vevang, right, describes to the congregation how Mary Swain created her Bible story mural.

    Susan Vevang, right, describes to the congregation how Mary Swain created her Bible story mural. Courtesy Christ Lutheran Church

Published3/13/2009 12:02 AM

Michelangelo spent four years painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It took Palatine resident Mary E. Swain only half as long to complete her mural masterpiece for Christ Lutheran Church in Palatine.

The project began about two years ago when Ron Entzminger, then head of learning ministries at Christ Lutheran, saw a blank wall in an alcove sometimes used by the 3- and 4-year-old Sunday school classes.


"Originally I thought we could have some scenes painted on the wall. But, it turned out the wall is too high, so it would be difficult to do," he said.

Instead, it was decided a painting on a large canvas could work. Entzminger turned to the one person in the congregation he thought had the skill.

Swain, 84, does not have an art degree. She had her own ceramic studio for a time, but the talent seems to just naturally flow out of her.

"I think I grew up with pencil and paper in my hand," she said. "I didn't have formal schooling, it's just something I did."

It took about three months for her to figure out what kind of style to use for the mural. She chose gold and earth tones for her palette.

"I wasn't going for an ethereal look, I wanted it to look real," she said.

She modeled the main scene of Jesus with children in the center of the canvas after a work by artist Richard Hooks and. She did the rest of the painting in that same style.

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"I wanted to show the love Jesus showed the children surrounding him, because children have to know love first," Swain said.

The other scenes in Swain's mural were based on pictures from "The Bible: Its Story for Children" and "The Bible Story, King of Kings/Volume 9," books she found in the library at Immanuel Lutheran School in Palatine where her grandsons attend. She said she wanted the scenes to match the books, so teachers could pick out a story, read it and then tie it back into the mural.

Entzminger obtained permission from the books' publishers to use them as a basis for the mural.

Swain has an aversion to the odor of oil paints, so the mural was done with acrylic paint.

"(Acrylic) is done with washes, so it's layer upon layer of colors, instead of laying them side by side as you do in oils," she said.

Swain worked about 1.5 to 2 hours at a time, always at the same time of day, so the natural lighting was the same.

Even so, Swain said she might never have finished the project if not for the help of her friend, Susan Vevang.

"She's my muse. When I was down, she was up," she said. "Sometimes my eyes would just blur. She could see small detail."


Vevang would help outline scenes in pencil on the canvas and Swain would paint them.

The mural is like an artistic Trivial Pursuit game of Bible stories. Can you match each scene/symbol with the part of the Bible it's from?

One scene that trips people up is two men rolling away a stone. Many think it's Jesus' tomb, Swain said. But, the stone was already rolled away at Jesus' tomb. No, it represents Lazarus' tomb, she says, chuckling.

She speaks passionately about the scene where David is in Goliath's shadow.

"It's a menacing shadow. He is standing in the shadow of the fear - everything is blotted out, except the giant. It shows the children how they had to have courage," she said.

It's not just children who appreciate the carefully constructed mural. Entzminger said they decided not to put it in the alcove because it would be too hidden there. Instead, the mural will hang on the wall in a stairway where everyone can see it.

"It kind of became the whole church's project," Swain said, adding that also is how she came up with the mural's name: "Bible Stories for Children of All Ages."

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