Ben Myers » Art & Incarnation (3): Engaging the Art & Theology of Edward Knippers

Edward Knippers and the resurrection of the body

Edward Knippers has always foregrounded the human body, and his work has long been preoccupied with the relation between God and bodies. Knippers has thus rightly been described as a painter of “incarnation.”

But in this new series of paintings – with its remarkable integration of baroque bodies and cubist forms – it becomes clear that the theological centre of Knippers’ work is not the incarnation of flesh as such, but the resurrection of the flesh. These paintings reflect an artist’s search for a language with which to articulate the theological truth that God’s identity – and likewise the identity of human selves – is inextricably connected to the reality of resurrection. God is the one who raised Jesus from the dead: this is not an incidental aspect of God’s character, but it is a description of God’s very “essence.” The resurrection of Jesus is what makes God God.

And similarly: the relation between God and humanity depends on the event of Jesus’ resurrection. Our own identities are mysteriously caught up in this event. If we want to discover who we really are, what it really means to be human, we have to look to the place where God and humanity overlap, the place where God intersects humanity. And the resurrection of Jesus is this place.

The overlap in Knippers’ paintings between human bodies and a profusion of refracted forms of light and colour is an attempt to locate this place, this startling moment in which the world of God intersects and interpenetrates our own material world.

Consider The Raising of Lazarus (right) . Here, a cubist concept – that an abstractly reassembled object can be viewed simultaneously from multiple perspectives – is employed as a language for articulating the intersection of the world of God and the world of human flesh. The forms and colours intersect and interpenetrate one another: bones, bandages and bodies are shot through with ribbons of light. As Gerard Manley Hopkins has put it, God’s grandeur “will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” Amidst the death of the tomb we witness a sudden explosion of life, an astonishing surge of colour and form. Above Lazarus stands the figure of Christ, with hands spread out in a gesture of creation, of forming. It is Christ who dissolves the formlessness of death, and brings forth the new form of sheer uncontainable life. The creative presence of Christ fractures and disrupts the world’s material order, bursting it open and reassembling it, wholly interpenetrating it with the flash and flame of God’s own life.

Or consider (my own favourite) Moses and the Burning Bush (left) . The material world is suddenly shattered into splinters; it is torn open by a piercing voice from another world, by an unnamable presence. But this fragmentation is not merely a traumatic wound: it is the world’s healing, its transfiguration. This is powerfully depicted by the interpenetrating forms within the burning bush. The bush is an exquisite abstraction of green leaves and orange flames – but one can scarcely distinguish the two. We cannot tell where the leaves stop and the flames begin; nor can we really distinguish the branches from the ribbons of light. The bush remains what it is, wholly material, but it is shot through by the presence of God.

In this moment of revelation, the whole created order is transfigured and renewed. In the presence of this burning bush, even the dirt becomes holy. Moses grips the earth beneath him, he tears the sandals from his feet. Bracing himself with that strong arm, he turns his face, his entire body, towards the bush. His body is so hairy and large, so irreducibly fleshy. His knee and elbow are ruddy with blood and soil; his feet are grimy, “guilty of dust and sin” (as George Herbert has put it). But as he faces that burning bush, Moses’ body now reflects the bush’s own brilliant glow: observe the white light on his thigh and shoulder. The moment of God’s incursion into the material world is at once the moment of our redemption and our healing. Like Lazarus from the grave, we are given new shape, new form. Our physicality itself is transfigured by the form of Christ. And to that extent, I think even this painting of Moses – together with Knippers’ other Old Testament paintings in the series – should be described as a representation of resurrection.

In Knippers’ work, resurrection is always a transformation – never an effacement –  of human embodiment. The figure of Christ in The Resurrection of Christ (below) is thus rather startling in his sheer aggressive physicality.

Not a hint of docetism here: Knippers’ Christ has unattractively large feet, ruddy knees, rough hairy legs, a dark mass of pubic hair, unhealed wounds all red and raw. The sheer size of this figure is confronting: Christ looms in the foreground, a full eight feet tall – and even then, the huge panels cannot quite contain him. With hairy black legs the size of tree trunks, this Christ strides through the jaws of death and hell, trampling down bones beneath his enormous (but unmistakably human) feet. And flooding out all around him is that burst of colour and form, that uncontainable life which smashes the world of death into fragments – only to reassemble these shards into a new form, a new life.

In the resurrection, the life of Jesus becomes infinitely available: his body is the site at which God intersects our world, opening it up and exposing it to his own creative presence. As Rowan Williams has written, the resurrection of Jesus opens up “a new and potentially infinite network of relations” for Jesus’ body. Through the resurrection, Jesus’ life “has broken its historical boundaries; it is not limited by the set of relationships within which it was lived in the first century. It is a life which can weave itself into the fabric of lives remote in time and space from its original context – not simply as a narrative memory, but as an active and transforming presence, never exhausted or assimilated” (Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, Pilgrim Press, 2002, pp. 53, 55).

This is God’s way among us. This is how God encounters us in our world of flesh and dust and blood. In the resurrection of Jesus, God has torn the world open, exposing every last corner of the world to his own transfiguring light. The risen body of Jesus is God’s presence among us – a presence that wounds in order to heal, shatters in order to make whole, tramples down death in order to form new life. Because Jesus has been raised from the dead, our world is shot through with the presence of God. Through the resurrection, the life of Jesus has now been woven into the very fabric of our world – or to be more precise, the whole created order is now woven into the fabric of this particular life, this body.

Theologians struggle to speak of these things. The risen Christ can never be finally assimilated, least of all in the jargon of our theological vocabularies. Edward Knippers’ work is thus a welcome resource, since it can teach us another rich language with which to speak – or at least to stammer – of the reality of the risen Christ, and of the life that takes form in him.

Ben Myers is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland (currently at The Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton). He is especially interested in the history of Christian theology, has published essays on Milton, Barth, Pannenberg, and Rowan Williams and has written a book on Rowan Williams to be released shortly (The Theology of Rowan Williams: A Critical Introduction (T&T Clark). His personal blog (Faith and Theology) is a forum for theological scholarship and contemporary theological reflection.

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One thought on “Ben Myers » Art & Incarnation (3): Engaging the Art & Theology of Edward Knippers

  1. Rock on! Stumbled onto this, and I think what you’ve articulated here is just beautiful. Never seen these paintings before… they’re wonderful, and your description of the Incarnation/resurrection and of these paintings is wonderful. Thanks.

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