For today’s Advent offering, I’ve chosen a painting by American artist Edward Knippers, who is best known for his vivid and drama-filled paintings of biblical tales and themes. Eschewing the ‘spiritual’ focus of other Christian artists, Knippers prefers to portray biblical characters as embodied characters, who are very much part of the world and who stand, often naked, stripped of everything but the drama in which they appear.
The painting by Knippers I have chosen for our Advent calendar is one titled Jacob and the Angel, which is based on the Genesis 32.22-32 tradition, where Jacob spends the night at the river Jabbok, wrestling with a mysterious (divine?) figure. Like most artists before him, Knippers has interpreted this figure as an angel, and typical of his style, he presents this heavenly figure as a massive and solidly muscled figure, whose impressive frame stands out dramatically against the twilight sky. This is no ethereal divine presence engaged in a wrestling match with Jacob, but a corporeal force to be reckoned with, who grapples with Jacob, skin on skin. You can almost feel the heat of exertion radiating from their bodies in the cool of the night. There is something rather majestic – or perhaps homoerotic – going on here.
Through this painting, Knippers expresses his belief in an embodied divinity – a God active and present in the physical world. His angel looks fully human – if it weren’t for the title of the painting, we might assume this image was simply of two wrestling men. The figures’ nakedness too strips away any sense of time or place, allowing them to transcend the specific location of the biblical tradition to take on a more universal significance. As Knippers himself insists, “The human body is at the center of my artistic imagination because the body is an essential element in the Christian doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection. Disembodiment is not an option for the Christian.”
For an excellent discussion of Knippers’ work, including this painting, see Ronald Reynoso, “The Cross, the Wilderness, and the Virgin: The Contemporary Christian Iconography of Edward Knipper” – available on academia.edu.
See you all tomorrow for more Advent delights