Sunday, 8 December 2013

Art for Advent (8): ‘The Peaceable
Kingdom’ by Edward Hicks

‘The Peaceable Kingdom’ (1826) by Edward Hicks, The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent (8 December 2013). The readings for today in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Isaiah 11: 1-10; Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19; Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3: 1-12.

The Old Testament reading includes Isaiah’s prophetic vision for the peaceable kingdom:

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

Last Sunday, when I began this series, I chose as my first work of Art for Advent Noah’s Ark (1846) by Edward Hicks, which is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

This morning I return to the work of Edward Hicks, and have selected his ‘Peaceable Kingdom,’ which reflects this morning’s lectionary readings.

The Peaceable Kingdom paintings are the most recognisable works by Edward Hicks (1780-1849). In all, he painted 61 versions of this theme. My choice this morning was painted in 1826, and is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC .

Many people probably think of Hicks as a self-taught and naive colonial folk artist. But his paintings were an expression of his Quaker beliefs and values, which were an expression of his Christian faith, underpinned by quietism, simplicity, self-discipline, pacifism and a spirituality that trusted in the Inner Light or Inner Spirit of Christ.

In his many versions of ‘The Peaceable Kingdom,’ Hicks depicts the lion as quick-tempered and wilful; the wolf is full of melancholy and reserved; the bear is sluggish and greedy; the leopard is buoyant. These were animal qualities with potential violence as well as rage, egoism and greed personified.

The peaceable kingdom slowly evolved as his signature subject. His symbols of the animals were joined to a quotation of Isaiah’s prophecy in this morning’s reading (Isaiah 11: 6), with Isaiah's words – at times paraphrased – lettered on the borders, or false frames, around the paintings, and the child placed centrally.

Later, he introduced the founders of American Quakerism, including William Penn signing a treaty with the Indians in Pennsylvania.

These paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom by Hicks portray a balance of difficult and unresolved issues. The lion-ego poses the greatest threat. The wild animals are domesticated and pacified by loving kindness.

A divided tree split by lightning is a major element in these paintings, representing the weaknesses of the wilful self, which is self-willed, egotistical, greedy and lustful, in conflict with the purer self, bathed in the Inner Light of Christ. At a more polemical level it may also represent the internal divisions that were splitting American Quakers into different branches and sects, some of which he saw as dead wood.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Saint John the Baptist declares: “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3: 10).

Edward Hicks allows us to see the Light of Christ, which we are anticipating at Advent, being poured out freely on all living beings and the world, speaking to that which shines within every one of us.

Tomorrow:The Dream of Saint Joseph’ by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

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