Friday, November 9, 2007

The Peaceable Kingdom

I met 19th century artist, Edward Hicks, and began a life long journey with “the Peaceable Kingdom.”

Edward Hicks was trained as a carriage maker, and got acquainted with paint only as a necessary step to a finished product. Then he started to do what was called “ornamental painting,” things like tavern signs. He’d seen quite a few of those, evidently. And then he got religion. After a winter’s night of following tavern signs he saw the light. He felt the Inner Light of the Quakers and became an ardent member of the Society of Friends. He gave up drinking but not painting. The Quakers frowned on ornamental art, certainly tavern signs. But they winked. Brother Hicks needed to make a living to support his family and his other newfound vocation: that of preacher.

The man history remembers as an artist was known by his contemporaries as an eloquent preacher, a master of metaphor, and a not quite Quaker-like adversary in a conflict that eventually divided Quakerism. No peaceable kingdom there. The man who died painting the peaceable kingdom lived in an unpeaceable one, in the place you should most expect some semblance of peaceable: in the church. In his case, the Society of Friends, known as Quakers, known as pacifists, were deeply divided and finally broken apart over some of the same issues that have us quaking and dividing and unpeaceable today.

Somewhere in all of that, Hicks’ imagination was caught by Isaiah’s prophetic vision. It expressed a longing for reconciliation and unity. It acknowledged that every person had animal propensities and passions. So with carriage paint and signboards he created “The Peaceable Kingdom.”

It was a visual call for peace. The children and the animals were mild; no tension visible in postures or expressions. An ideal to make real. He painted over sixty variations on this theme over a period of thirty-some years.

Hicks had a kind of holy obsession with the peaceable kingdom. Or perhaps the kingdom had a hold on him. No mere curiosity about how a world at peace might look, but a passionate pursuit of an ideal that was as elusive—and as essential—to his world as it is to ours. He continued to bring the peaceable kingdom into sight the rest of his life, painting the subject until the very eve of his death. Moving through a chronological sequence of the kingdom paintings you start to see more than variations on composition and color. You see explorations of the meanings of Isaiah’s prophesy and their relevance to a possible reconciliation between the Quaker factions. The animals’ expressions change, as do their positions with one another. After the opposing Quaker groups actually separated, he painted tightly unified groups of animals with tense, fearful expressions as if gathered in uncomfortable and tentative peace. You wonder if Hicks kept painting that image more because he saw it less.

In one particular painting from 1834, all of Isaiah’s animals are there, some at home in the Pennsylvanian woods, and others, a little exotic and out of place, let alone proportion. Check the scale of the lion and the ox! A sermon Hicks preached during the winter of 1837 paints the lamb, the kid, the cow, and the ox as “good men and women”; the wolf, leopard, bear, and lion as “figures of the wicked” who would “cruelly destroy each other.” Interesting personality profile! All of the kingdom paintings from this period on have in the upper left a depiction of William Penn’s treaty with the Leni-Lenapi Indians, a statement about human predators and the peace needed in our political kingdoms. Isaiah’s children are there, too. Hicks painted his own children into the scene, as if to give that ancient vision a future face. A hopeful, human face.

In the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom the distinctions between predator and prey collapse. Instinct bows to a higher calling. Creatures great and small go beyond co-existence to community. They live together, sleep together, eat together, play together. The lion need not control and the lamb need not fear. The bear eats corn. The wolf looks mellow. Little children pet wild beasts. The world is a safe place even for the most vulnerable ones.

The Peaceable Kingdom. Where is it? How to love the animals in it? How to hold it and unfold it as God’s vision for us? Who are the lions, who are the lambs? Someone like Edward Hicks gives us an image, but the story of his image gives us pause, as well. It is always difficult for our vision to be clear, because we look through human experience and personal need and prejudice, and the expression of an ideal easily becomes a reflection of what is real. The animals still line up as predators and prey, good guys and bad guys. Our peace is still tentative and tense. God’s promised peace is always confident and joyful.

“The Peaceable Kingdom” hangs peacefully at the top of our stairs at home. I see in it something of Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one. I see in it something of Isaiah’s prophesy that creatures and children may be at peace, even in a new time and a strange place.

In his last painting of the Peaceable Kingdom, just before he died, Hicks portrayed a child leading a young lion off, beyond the canvas. As if to say, “Not here, not yet, but on the way. It will come. To the wolves and the lambs and all the rest. The Peaceable Kingdom. As promised.”

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