Friday, March 20, 2015

Edward Knippers and the Episcopalian Imagination

I've been meaning to write a post about Ed Knippers since before I actually started this blog.  A recent interview on Prosblogion with Jennifer Frey has prompted me to get around to it.

Frey, a philosopher at South Carolina, says, "Embodiment is a huge theme in my work, and one of the things that drew me to Aristotelian-Thomism in the first place is the attention paid to the fact that we are a certain kind of material animal, and that we shouldn’t entertain wild fantasies about ourselves that ignore this or downplay it."

Then she goes on to say that her goal as a philosopher is to resurrect a hylemorphic picture of human beings.  Since I happen to be writing a book with precisely the same goal, I find this encouraging and congenial!  But this isn't a post about hylemorphism.  It's a post about painting.

Ed Knippers doesn't have a lot to say about hylemorphism, but his painting is strongly oriented toward human embodiment, with particular focus on the Incarnation.

For an excellent introduction to Knippers, see this profile by Theodore Prescott in Image.  For what it's worth, I am not sure whether the picture above--St. Peter Led From Prison--is especially Incarnational or anything.  I just really like it.  But Prescott presents an image called "The Pest House," which is obviously strongly Incarnational.

This shows Christ healing lepers, but as Prescott says, it's not a sanitized, simpleminded study of these healings.

"What is particularly disturbing to some people is that the figures in the Biblical narratives are usually nude. The Pest House (Christ Heals the Sick) is one of a series of paintings about the character of Christ. It presents a nude Christ, his back to us, turning from his ministrations to a figure on his left who is writhing in agony. He is reaching out to touch a standing man whose body is covered with Kaposi's Sarcoma, the skin cancer frequently associated with AIDS—our contemporary version of leprosy. The few other figures in the painting sprawl and writhe, or shrink back into the darkness, in fearful anticipation of Christ's visit. And then there is a particularly disturbing corpse, evidently advanced in decay, lying on a table in the right foreground. [...] Although the light on the ravaged body Christ reaches toward suggests that something supernatural is happening, we see no easy healing. The painting's central concern is with a different and more difficult order of miracle. The painting shows Christ with us—in the flesh—ministering to a sick and infirm humanity as much through his willingness to share our circumstances as through his ability to get us out of this pest house. It is neither a painting nor a theology designed to support desires for an easy and painless visit from 'the great physician.'"

The body on the table is the key to the painting.  Prescott mentions it but seems to miss the Eucharistic imagery, which is of course immediately connected to the Crucifixion of Our Lord, and his role as the Suffering Servant.

"He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."  (Isaiah 53: 3-5, cited from the KJV in recognition of Knippers's Episcopalianism)

The Incarnation, the Sacraments, and our embodiment are all tied together.  Christ comes to us in the Sacraments because we still need his presence among us.  He doesn't magically give us freedom from suffering or death.  But in taking on our own sufferings, he has redeemed them, and us.  Again, the centrality of the body to Christianity is connected to the Sacraments, and also to the Liturgy.  (It's not simply hyperbole when Fr. Z says, "Save the Liturgy, Save the World!")  These things are all of a piece.  Knippers, as an Episcopalian, belongs to a church that has held onto much of the liturgical/sacramental side of Christianity, and makes it all part of his painting.

Norman Rockwell, as it happens, was raised in an Episcopalian family, and as a member of the choir, spent many hours every week in his richly liturgical church.  I've argued elsewhere that you can see the "Episcopalian Imagination" in Rockwell.  In my book, I go into this in much greater depth, and show how the Episcopalian Imagination comes out in surprising ways in quite a few of Rockwell's pictures.  He's not a religious painter like Knippers, but he could never outrun his upbringing, and it showed itself in ways that perhaps he himself wouldn't have recognized.

(I am, of course, adapting the term "Episcopalian Imagination" from Father Greeley's "Catholic Imagination.")

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