Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Advent 2015

"One Peaceable Kingdom"

 

Edward Hicks (1780-1849) was a folk artist from Bucks County Pennsylvania.  In 1803 he joined the Society of Friends and later became a Quaker minister.  He married and supported his growing family by painting carriages, houses, tavern signs, and household objects.  About the time he turned forty, Hicks painted the first of his works he entitled Peaceable Kingdom.  By the end of his life he had painted as many as one hundred versions of same scene based on Isaiah 11:6-8.  He never sold these paintings, but gave them away to friends.  Sixty-two of them are known to have survived.

The version I knew best growing up was the Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch, which hangs in the Reynolda House Museum.  It's typical of Hicks's work in many ways:  Christ stands to the right surrounded by various animals, including a lion, a lamb, and a cow.  What made this painting special to me was the fact that Hicks painted all of this as happening across the state line up at the Natural Bridge.  I found this surprising since I'd never heard about Jesus hanging out in Virginia, but I figured we just hadn't gotten to that part of the bible yet.  Maybe Mary and Joseph stopped there after the flight to Egypt.  I did wonder why the Virginia tourist people weren't putting up billboards to publicize the fact.  After all, we had signs about George Washington spending two nights in Winston-Salem.

Hicks didn't just paint his peaceable kingdoms in Virginia.  He set most of them in his home state of Pennsylvania.  Christ and the animals were always to the right.  Sometimes he added a child or two to play with the snakes (although those never appear on the canvases, too PG-13 I guess).  And occasionally he put in groups of Quakers waving signs or William Penn signing a treaty with the Delaware Indians.  The plants and some of the animals were also distinctly American.  Some of my favorite versions include a black bear, a wolf, and what looks to be a giant mole in the pack of animals.  So was this early American folk artist just phenomenally confused?

What this untrained artist was attempting to do was to put Christ and the wonderful vision of Isaiah into settings his family and friends could understand while providing them with examples of what the prophet was talking about.  What was more just and peaceful than William Penn actually buying Pennsylvania from Native Americans instead of just pushing them off the land or killing them?  In the version I knew best, he even spelled out his message to make sure you got the point (although as a kid I found it kind of hard to figure out which direction you were supposed to read it):

When man is led and moved by sovereign grace.

His grim carnivorous nature shall cease.

And not one savage beast be seen to frown.

A little child shall lead them all in love.

Hicks was just trying to help all people "see the salvation of God" one Peaceable Kingdom at a time.

 

- Christopher Hendricks

peaceable kingdom.png

 

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