Good Shepherd Fresco

The Church of the Good Shepherd in Fairhaven is a small white stucco building sitting lightly on a hill overlooking the Acushnet river and barely visible as one approaches the town traveling East on Interstate 195 through New Bedford. Its size might lead one to think it a wayside chapel, yet inside this tiny building can be found a man of truly gigantic proportions, standing 30 feet tall with a shoulder span of eight feet. He is the “Good Shepherd” of Fairhaven, a creation of lime, sand, water and pigments of various hues.

A person entering this church to worship may feel as though someone is staring at him from the rear wall of the church. There this Good Shepherd endlessly leads his flock, bearing a lamb in one arm and holding a staff in the other.

The Good Shepherd of Fairhaven is the creation of Robert W. Bruce, former clergyman, owner, newspaper publisher and, most importantly, fresco painter. He conceived this Good Shepherd (DATE) years ago when he moves to Rangeley, Maine, and came into contact with the local Episcopal parish, also known as the Church of the Good Shepherd. ccc

The symbol of the Good Shepherd intrigued him. Research revealed it to be a theme rarely used in the history of Christian art, except for a marble statue of a statue dated about 300 A.D., the Good Shepherd found in the little mausoleum of Galla Placidia, and the more recent and probably best known interpretation by urbanized sentimentalized Christ.

The symbol of the Good Shepherd intrigued him. Research revealed it to be a theme rarely used in the history of Christian art, except for a marble statue of a statue dated about 300 A.D., the Good Shepherd found in the little mausoleum of Galla Placidia, and the more recent and probably best known interpretation by urbanized sentimentalized Christ.

The symbol and theme of the Good Shepherd struck a responsive chord in Bruce, stirring up memories of his youth when he worked alongside his father caring for as many as 1200 feeder lambs on their farm near Topeka, Kan. He figured that when Jesus spoke of a shepherd, his herders had in mind a man who slept out in the woods or on the plain, living off the meager provisions nature provided. The contrast between such a man and the rather urbanized shepherd shown in most paintings spurred Bruce to paint his own Good Shepherd.

It was in egg tempera and arranged in triptych fashion as a kind of altar piece for the church in Rangeley. The result was not entirely satisfactory. It has had some admirers, but more found if not to their liking, even a little grotesque. What some might consider grotesque was always a part of Bruce's thinking. For him, godliness and physical beauty are not necessarily synonymous.

The tempera painting never found a home in the Rangeley church, and Bruce did not feel he had really achieved his vision. Many years before, at the beginning of his art education, Bruce had become fascinated with artists on which to execute their ideas and interpretations. Michelangelo always loomed large in his mind; he looked to him as one of the greatest artists of all time. His choice of fresco was therefore logical. “Fresco was for centuries the standard way of painting on walls, and it was always spoken of as the supreme art.” he says. “Fresco has peculiar quality of color and luminosity which no other medium has.”

In February1971 he wrote to ten different Churches of the Good Shepherd in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, offering his fresco at no cost and asking only for a cot in the church basement for accommodation. Seven churches failed to acknowledge his letters. Two others declined for lack of wall space.

The one affirmative response came from the parish, Fairhaven. He met with the priest and the vestry in the spring and showed his sketches. Each member was impressed, and a later meeting with congregation on a Sunday morning brought further encouragement.

Work on the fresco began in October, 1971. First, a small window was boarded up and sealed, then the entire area on the Church's rear wall was covered with polyethylene film. Firing was nailed in place to hold the metal lath.

The most spectacular step in the basic preparations was slaking the lime in a long bin in the boiler room. When the water mixed with the powdered lime, the temperature in the bin rose to 600'. Great clouds of steam poured from the rear door of the building causing one passerby yo fear that the church was on fire.

The lime preparation was then mixed in careful equation with sand and applied to the metal lath creating a rough base coat. After it had cures, a second, finer coat was applied in December. A full-scale perforated sketch on a huge sheet of paper obtained from a local mattress company was hung in place two weeks before Christmas with the help of a college student in the parish and the vicar's wife. Bruce went over the sketch with a cloth bag containing powdered charcoal which filtered through the perforations and imprinted the sketch on the wall. Then, removing the paper, he painted over the charcoal lines with egg tempera to bring the sketch into bold outline. The staging was then pulled down so that the church could be cleaned, decorated and made ready for the Festival Eucharist’s celebrating the birth of Christ, the Good Shepherd.

The actual painting began in January, Once the face was completed, all reservations among parishioners faded. It expressed strength along with loneliness, emotional suffering and pain, all softened by the suggestion of an inner tenderness or compassion. While Bruce worked, he had many visitors, children and adults from various churches interested in a work that has a truly ecumenical appeal, along with a number of art students from the Swain School of design in New Bedford. The painting was completed in the last week of February.

Article written by Richard T. Clark