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Seeing Christ in many places

Artist's annual Christmas card drawn from humble, unlikely situations.

For about three decades, Joseph Routon's oil portraits have graced hospitals, Philadelphia City Hall corridors, and private homes.

The subjects have ranged from judges, prominent physicians, and university presidents to Cherry Jones, costar of the TV series 24, whose likeness hangs in an art center in Paris, Tenn., where she and Routon are both from.

But every Christmas since 2005, Routon has turned from the secular to the sacred, painting a Madonna and turning it into a Christmas card for his friends and relatives.

These portraits rarely stray far from Haddonfield, where he lives with his wife, Joyce Ann, who is the organist at First Presbyterian Church. They stem both from his long and close ties with the church - he used to be a church organist himself, in New Mexico and Tennessee - and from his personal faith.

"We don't know where or how he will come again," Routon said in a placard next to this year's Madonna, a Gypsy woman holding a child in her lap. "But we do know that he lives in all of us."

Routon spotted the two in Rome last summer.

"I saw that the child's hand was upraised as if giving a blessing," Routon said earlier this month at First Presbyterian, where several of the portraits are hanging this holiday season and open for public viewing.

"It reminded us that Christ appeared in the most humble, unlikely circumstances and surroundings." He said that the red in the woman's pants evoked Christ's blood, and the blue of the child's wrap Christ's robe.

Since the first Madonna in 2005, copied from an El Greco painting, others have included a sleeping peasant woman huddled with her child next to a church in Florence, Italy, and portraits of the Virgin in the pose commonly associated with the Annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will be the mother of Christ.

The card with the peasant woman says, "In our time, as the rich grow richer and the poor poorer, the gulf widens between us and the Christ child." Routon said that the models for the two Annunciation Madonnas were young women in the First Presbyterian congregation.

For Routon, a tall, gray-haired man of 67 with a gentle drawl, painting has been as much a matter of genetics as convictions. His father and grandmother were artists and musicians, and two of his brothers in Tennessee are artists.

When he took his first painting class at a local college, he said, "I saw how easy it was to do."

He and Joyce Ann and their three children headed for New York City, where he took courses at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design. The job that was there for them was a church organist's position for her in Warwick, N.Y., about 50 miles away, unfortunately, so Routon had a two-hour commute - each way - over winding, hilly roads.

About 30 years ago, the organist's job opened up at First Presbyterian in Haddonfield, and the couple moved here. Routon continued his career at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

His father had designed and produced a Christmas card every year until he died, so Routon said he was really just picking up a tradition. He said that he chose the Madonna theme for his own holiday cards in honor of his late mother and that he and his wife had found several of the subjects while wandering and photographing their way through Europe.

He chose the Gypsy woman as his latest subject, he said, because "I really liked her expression - open, accepting, serene. The child was looking at me," he said, smiling, "and, of course, that added to it."