When Sawai Chinnawong, 63, first committed his life to Christ in college in 1983, the artist tried painting Bible stories using the style of art found covering the walls of Thai Buddhist temples and palaces.
Thai art typically depicts scenes from the life of Buddha or the Thai version of the Hindu epic Ramayana. At times gilded with gold, the colorful figures are painted with curved lines in two dimensions without perspective. The size of the person and the use of empty space dictate what is important in the frame.
Mirroring this style, Chinnawong painted the story of Jesus from birth to ascension. When he showed his artwork to his pastor, he was told that it looked too Buddhist. At the time, Thai Christians used Western art techniques to distinguish it from Buddhist art.
“Many [Christian] artists will draw in a Western style for safety,” Chinnawong said. “Christians often are unnecessarily nervous when we adopt Thai culture to present Christianity.”
After the critique, Chinnawong kept painting but kept his work a secret. It wasn’t until he attended McGilvary College of Divinity at Payap University in Chiang Mai in 1985 that the seminary’s dean, William Yoder, saw his artwork and recognized his potential. Yoder commissioned Chinnawong to paint a Nativity scene for Christmas for the school.
Since then, Chinnawong’s body of Thai Christian art has grown and spread. He has showcased his work at art exhibits in Thailand, the United States, and around the world. He designed Payap University’s chapel, including three floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows. He illustrated a book telling the story of Jesus in the traditional northern Thai style of art. And he’s blazed a trail for Thai Christian artists, demonstrating that they don’t have to abandon their culture in pursuit of artistic expression of their faith.
“My belief is that Jesus did not choose just one people to hear his Word, but chose to make his home in every human heart,” Chinnawong wrote in the description for a 2003 painting depicting the Garden of Eden. “And just as his Word may be spoken in every language, so the visual message can be shared in the beauty of the many styles of artistry around the world.”
From Buddhist temples to Christian chapels
Growing up in Ratchaburi province in central Thailand, Chinnawong would frequently visit the Buddhist temple near his house and watch artists paint murals on the temple walls. The images cataloged centuries of stories, replete with semidivine serpent guardians, warriors on chariots, and epic battle scenes.
In a country where Theravada Buddhists make up 95 percent of the population, art in Thailand has historically been religious, with temples and palaces showcasing the best of the country’s artwork. Art is used as a form of communication to convey spiritual truths and religious history.
Chinnawong’s first exposure to the gospel came when he was five years old and a Christian theater troupe performed in his village. Using the style of traditional Thai folk drama, the actors depicted stories and allegories of the Bible using colorful costumes, dances, and songs.
He remembered the storyline was unique in that it was not from a Buddhist epic and did not have a soap-opera-style plotline. Instead, the story depicted an elder brother who gave his life to atone for his younger brother’s sins, alluding to Jesus’ sacrifice.
The founders of the theater troupe were Joan and Allan Eubank, American missionaries who had served in the country since 1961 and the parents of Dave Eubank of Free Burma Rangers. Decades after Chinnawong watched that play, he would attend the same church as the Eubanks.
But at the time, he didn’t believe. Coming from a Buddhist family, Chinnawong was instead required to become ordained as a Buddhist monk at the age of 20. Considered a rite of passage in Thailand, men enter temples or monasteries for short periods of time to garner respect and merit for their families.
Chinnawong went on to study art at the Thaivichitsilp School of Art in Bangkok. Most of his artwork centered on depicting Buddhist teachings and the life of Buddha.
While studying in college, Chinnawong heard the gospel through a group of Christians from the Church of Christ in Thailand. He said he decided to commit his life to Christ because of the warmth the Christians showed him. He recognized the genuine love the friends had for one another and wanted to know the source.
That changed the trajectory of his life and career: With the encouragement of Yoder, he began to portray Bible stories with its characters looking Thai, dressed in Thai clothing, and living in a Thai environment. In his paintings, Christianity and Thai culture were not at odds but symbiotic.
For instance, in the previously mentioned painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Chinnawong used a style similar to the Buddhist Wheel of Life, which depicts the cyclical nature of human life. Chinnawong portrayed creation as he believes God intended it to be—in harmony. Included in the painting are elephants, water buffalo, mythical sea creatures called Nagas, and fabled birds called Hongsa, which represent the soul’s release from the cycle.
“In this highly layered and symbolic composition, I have used primary colors to tie heaven and earth together,” Chinnawong wrote in the description. “God’s all-seeing eye takes in the whole of creation, here represented by slivers of God’s cosmos. … The metamorphosis of all life, part flower, part animal, takes place in my Christian view of the continuity of all things in heaven and on earth.”
In another painting, he presents Jesus, in pain and bleeding from a crown of thorns on his head. This is a departure from traditional Thai art, as holy figures are typically depicted as tranquil, composed, and victorious.
“Buddha is never seen suffering in our iconography, but as a Christian I have to depict the suffering of Christ, which is the hardest spiritual concept for us to understand or accept,” he wrote in a caption under the painting.
Word of his art spread, and in 2003-2004, Chinnawong spent a year at the Overseas Ministries Study Center as its artist-in-residence. His work also appeared in exhibits at Yale University, at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City, and in galleries in Switzerland and many Asian nations.
Sharing the gospel through Thai art
Beyond this global reach, Chinnawong also paints for his own people. Thai people usually think of Jesus as a Westerner, which adds a degree of separation between them and the gospel narrative. Part of the reason is that Thai Christians are accustomed to seeing images of a white Jesus with a full beard, and Thai Christian publishing houses mostly translate Christian literature from the West.
However, “when we use a Thai style of art to draw Jesus’ story, Thai people can relate to it more,” Chinnawong said.
In 2010, Chinnawong worked with Paul De Neui, a former American missionary to Thailand, to write and illustrate a book about the story of Jesus called That Man Who Came to Us.
Told in the style of the Vessantara Jataka, one of the stories of the life of Buddha, Chinnawong and De Neui’s book follows the theme from Isaiah that “a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (11:1). The pages are interspersed with Bible verses in English and Thai, along with pictures depicting scenes from Jesus’ life and ministry. At the end of the short book, the symbolism and imagery in the drawings are explained to the reader.
“For the Thais who are non-Christians or people who have never had contact with Christians before, I think it is easier for them to understand [the story this way], as it is in their culture,” Chinnawong said.
In the drawings, Mary, Jesus, and the other characters are wearing traditional Thai garments and sitting in homes readers would recognize. In the scene where Jesus is a child studying with the temple teachers, they are reading from folded palm branches, the material used for religious texts during that era. During the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples share a traditional Lanna-style dinner by sitting on the ground and eating off low circular tables.
De Neui remembered showing a group of Thai pastors Chinnawong’s drawing of the Prodigal Son. In the image, the son is kneeling on the ground in front of the father. The father is sitting in a gazebo with his hands outstretched to him, looking up and over the son.
The pastors all agreed the father’s posture was exactly how a Thai father would respond, but they didn’t agree on why. One pastor said the father was looking up because he didn’t want his son to see his tears. Another interjected that it was because the father was lifting up his son. A third said the father’s posture seemed to say, “I don’t want you to grovel like a dog,” and he was looking up to elevate his son’s position.
“It was little insights like that that took this exercise into a whole different dimension,” De Neui said. “It’s almost like cultural theology through the art.” The discussion with pastors helped De Neui write the explanations of the drawings in the back.
Prodpran Klassen, a Thai Christian living in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, said the thoughtful illustrations helped her think more deeply about Jesus.
“It’s interesting to look at the details. I was trying to see if there’s meaning hidden in the picture, like symbols,” she said. “I think for a nonbeliever, it can create curiosity about Jesus, since some pictures aren’t straightforward.”
Listening to Jesus’ story
Chinnawong taught at Payap University from 1989 until his retirement in 2019. He became an inspiration for a younger generation of Thai Christian artists who learned how to incorporate their culture with their faith. He and his wife, Kummool, a pastor at Thamma Nikom Church in Chiang Mai, have two adult children.
Currently, Chinnawong is working on contemporary pieces that use perspective, shadow, and lighting, expanding beyond the traditional two-dimensional art style. He recently painted a piece titled The Birth of Jesus for a Christmas auction at his church. In the painting, baby Jesus is lying in a wicker basket hanging from the ceiling of a raised wooden house.
Chinnawong said most artists don’t set up barriers between artistic styles that are considered Buddhist, Islamic, or Christian. Rather, they believe art exists to hold meaning. Buddhist artists sometimes use the universal image of Madonna and child to represent motherly love, he noted.
“Thai Buddhists generally like storytelling,” Chinnawong said. “They grow up listening to stories of wisdom, so they will listen to them, whether it is Buddha’s or Jesus’ stories.”
With additional reporting by Angela Lu Fulton.