A powerful show of religious paintings called “Violent Grace” has just opened in the Gallery at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Chatham.
Artist Edward Knippers was on hand last week to help his friend of about 40 years, curator Sandra Bowden, hang the 30 or so paintings, linocuts and monotypes. All but one takes as its subject a New Testament story, with many depicting an aspect of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The sole painting from the Old Testament is “Moses and the Burning Bush,” a 2008 oil on panel.
A critic has said that Knippers’ work poses the question, “What does it mean to be an artist of faith in an art world that is largely perceived to be secular?” Knippers has devoted his career to reviving the biblical narrative through art.
“I look at my art as a calling that the Lord has allowed me to be able to do,” Knippers says.
Step inside the gallery and straight ahead and slightly upwards is “Angel at the Crucifixion,” a 1986 oil on panel. The four-by-12-foot painting grabs your attention. The nude angel, with his large hands and feet, is contorted among the clouds, some of which are menacing storm clouds. He is like no other angel you have seen.
“The Christian world of Edward Knippers is a dark, turbulent, nearly savage and very earthly place of struggle, turmoil, and trial populated largely by fleshy, burly, carnal men,” a critic writes in the beginning of Knippers’ 2015 book “Violent Grace: A Retrospective.”
Knippers grew up in Florida, a child of parents who were devout members of the Church of the Nazarene. After studying art at Asbury College in Kentucky, Knippers went on to earn an MFA at the University of Tennessee. Since the early 1980s, Knippers has been based in Arlington, Va. Arlington is convenient to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. And Knippers has been such a frequent visitor to the permanent collections at the gallery that at one point, he recalls, the cafeteria workers wanted to arrange for an employee’s discount for him—they assumed he was employed at the gallery.
The figures in Knippers’ paintings project tension. Muscles are on display; facial expressions are sometimes tortured. And almost all the figures are naked, with genitals never hidden. As Knippers says in his artist’s statement, “Physicality is messy; it is demanding and always a challenge to control.”
“The body is the only common denominator of mankind,” Knippers says, standing near a trio of paintings on “The Prodigal Son.”
“This is how God sees us, just as we are,” Bowden says, adding that the lack of clothes makes for “timeless” paintings—we can’t pin down a year or even a century for the scenes. “Christ came in a body. He entered our world in a body.”
“When he came, he came like us,” Knippers adds. “It’s not an aberration—it’s a true incarnation.” He points out that nudity is also “Edenic”—Adam and Eve were unclothed before shame entered the equation. Still, the nudity in Knippers’s religious paintings has generated controversy. In one show, an offended viewer tore up three paintings of Christ. On other occasions, certain paintings have been removed from shows.
Knippers’ view of these biblical figures is not for the faint of heart. Yet there is no denying the paintings’ great power. In the 29-by-21-inch oil painting “Gethsemane,” Knippers’ mastery of the human form comes across. He says he does not use a model for his paintings, but he has done a great deal of figure work. At one point when he was studying in Paris, he did nothing but draw for six to seven hours a day.
As influences, Knippers lists Renaissance painters, Caravaggio and Matisse.
After Knippers’ wife Diane died in 2005, Knippers thought of her as going “through the veil,” a metaphor for death. Cubism, as he conceives it in his paintings, represents “the veil.” In the 2006 and 2007 oil paintings “Mount of Transfiguration,” “Annunciation,” and “Christ in the Wilderness,” the influence of Matisse and Cubism is clear. The cubist portions of the paintings are created in a lighter palette than the more tortured portions. In “Moses and the Burning Bush,” the light-filled cubist area of the painting, Moses’s vision, draws the eye upward away from the nude Moses half-reclining on the ground.
The largest painting, at eight-by-12 feet, is the stunning three-panel “The Baptism of Jesus” which covers the wall on the left side of the gallery. Again the cubist elements are apparent.
Bowden placed one painting, the 2006 oil on panel “Christ and Peter on the Water,” to the left of the entrance as a nod to Chatham. The painting offers plenty of shades of blue water, but it is hardly an anodyne version of the story of Peter and Christ. Peter is fighting the water, and has his arms up in the pose of a drowning man. Christ, who has his back to us, is naked, as is Peter.
“Violent Grace” will run through Aug. 31 in the Gallery at St. Christopher’s at 625 Main St. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. For more information visit stchristopherschatham.org/gallery.
Paintings by Edward Knippers
At the Gallery at St. Christopher’s Church, 625 Main St., Chatham
Through Aug. 31
Gallery hours Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Information: stchristopherschatham.org/gallery