Edward Knippers has been making Jesus naked for at least 30 years.
A pillar of contemporary Christian art, Knippers consistently paints raw and often disturbing images of Jesus, Mary and the rest of the Bible crew.
The fact that almost all of them are sans fig leaf leaves a percentage of viewers wringing their hands in distress or shame. What to make of an avalanche of deeply stained flesh tumbling across a canvas, often in indelicate encounters? But Knippers' motivation is far from the modern shock artists who seek the next great moral transgression and work so hard for a little notoriety.
He takes it seriously enough to develop a personal theology regarding nudity in art and the importance of the body.
"Disembodiment is not an option for the Christian," Knippers explains in a statement that is deeply and theologically informed. "The Incarnation was accomplished in a real body with real blood, in actual time and space."
Bodies will be eternally ours in some shape or matter, he reminds us. It is an essential element in the Christian doctrines of creation, incarnation and resurrection.
In "The Christ Crowed with Thorns " (1998) and most of his work, Knippers uses the human form as a variable, standing on its own for many things. Three bodies are the only objects in this painting with little background. It falls on the interaction, color, mood, pose, tension and emotion of the men to imply the entire story, one of brutality, cruelty and injustice. Two tormentors are cropped and faceless, possibly to represent all mankind crucifying him.
Jesus is already bloody and mottled with the colors of death, but still corporeal, as if Adam had fallen from the Sistine Chapel and smitten within an inch of his life. Agonized and grotesque, Christ's features and expression are exaggerated and painful to see. In fact Knippers tends to portray few attractive men or women regardless of their identity. This may be to offset any prurient perception in a swoon of entangled nude men and women.
His paintings are not for the squeamish or faint of heart. They include mutilation, cadavers, sexual organs, illness and death. When I asked Knippers why he had limited himself with only biblical subjects for almost four decades, he responded that all other themes are contained in the Bible. Social, ethical and political subjects like justice are implied or explicitly dealt with in the Bible. Knippers uses his art to pose a different slant on "fairness," which he says is not in the vocabulary of Christians. It is replaced by grace, or getting good things from God, even undeserved. Because of grace the gospel is a meta-picture where fairness is just a subset of grace but not the same.
The artist is aware of the tension and conflicts his work elicits, particularly among the faithful. Knippers deliberately employs the shock of violence, injury, lust, death and ugliness to shift perspective to the tangible things on earth Jesus is beefy and sweaty, looking more like a pro-wrestler rather than the emaciated ascetic we know.
Knippers' characters break all taboos over body space and boundaries, making the viewer even more uneasy as in his close-up kiss from a nude Judas. One reviewer described his hot, grappling forms as a "premeditated assault: a kind of esthetic and emotional rape."
Physicality is "messy, demanding and always a challenge to control," so even believers are replacing it with a virtual reality, Knippers explains. People typically either worship their bodies through pornography and nature cults or "prudishly reject" what God has called "good."
"Neither is a Christian response," he flatly states.
His art is an attempt to come up with a better contemporary vision of life in the body and the church.
Knippers tried different styles of painting early on, notably abstraction. Yet they didn't work to relate Christian narrative and faith in a vivid, relevant way – at least for him. While abstraction could be evocative or suggest qualities of God, it couldn't express who God is, his qualities and personality, especially while he existed here in human form. As Christ speaks to humanity in "concrete and provocative terms," Knippers was looking for an art that could do the same thing.
He found it in the writings of Flannery O'Connor and in Baroque art. O'Connor was serious about her faith and work, describing her stories as "hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism." Her work portrayed daily life so ugly at times she was described as a "horror writer" (to her amusement.) Reviewers "have hold of the wrong horror" she wrote, and Knippers understands. Christians believe there truly is a "fate worse than death."
That reality still hasn't changed taste in art for many Christians who don't enjoy seeing the cosmic battles of good and evil played out in lurid color, but prefer only beautiful aesthetics. Does this have a spiritual component of denial or distortion of reality as Ms. O'Connor marked it? She was describing the frustrations and challenges facing Christians in the contemporary art world – and that was in 1948.
Knippers was charged; he just needed to find a similar vehicle that worked for painters. In the early 1980s he had an encounter with Baroque art at a National Gallery show on the influence of Caravaggio. He soaked in the great altarpiece depicting "The Seven Works of Mercy" with dramatic lighting, movement and layers of people compressed tightly in space. Christian themes on the walls that day seemed to be imbued with a spiritual force moving through mortal bodies and were openly emotional and expressive. The hand of Baroque giant Peter Paul Rubens is revealed in some Knippers' paintings via unfashionable womanly heft and sensual, lavish painting. The influence of the show continues with him to this day.
In his "Conversion of Paul," a vast piece almost 10 feet across, bodies are still central but Knippers gives them a little breathing room. His subjects no longer collapse across each other in a claustrophobic sprawl, but there's still room for rearing horses and fleeing men. The boggling scale of this work is common for Knippers and allows full size figures, which adds drama and sense of grandeur. Knippers muted the hues a bit here, using a more refined touch with a lighter palette. If his meaty, massive bodies are tributes to Rubens, the epic composition, rearing horses and coloring are closer to Tiepolo.
Knippers has had to beat his own path through the contemporary art scene, which is decidedly not thrilled with anything looking remotely Baroque, even the modern, inspired remodel that he developed. A tendency to academic analysis almost quenches faith-based art and narrative unless it comes with explanations, analysis and reams of statements.
Knippers has thoughtful statements and can defend his work, but some secular galleries aren't interested in thinking about Christianity that hard. Theodore Prescott relates a well-known D.C. gallery privately telling Knippers they loved his work but couldn't handle it because it would "mark" them. The stigma of Christian themes through what appears to be a Western, European tradition is one of the few unpardonable "sins" in much of the contemporary art world.
But Knippers has had a much tougher time with evangelicals and conservative Christians who take the depiction of Christ in art quite seriously. An exhibition in Huntington College in the 1990s was abruptly closed by the administration after student protests. Covenant College also closed his show down after an enraged neighbor actually slashed some of his paintings, claiming they "made the Old and New Testaments into a nudist colony."
But many others appreciate his work. Knippers relates the time he staged mounting of massive paintings in a large church and stayed to watch the reaction of viewers. Some exclaimed or just stopped in their tracks and stared or meditated. More than one viewer said their "breath was taken away" or they were "awestruck." That kind of experience energizes an artist and lets him know God uses his work, even if a lot of people hate it.
Over the last decade Knipper's work has slid in a decidedly cubist direction, although he hasn't left his vision of Christianity expressed through the human body. In "Moses and the Burning Bush" (2008) roughly half the painting is covered with fractured arcs and slivers of light while a stunned man in the foreground removes his shoes. Moses remains distinctly human, while the scattered, formless rays can only be God. This style is quite his own, a type of hybrid neo-Baroque and neo-Cubist, if you had to classify it. Earlier in his work Knippers was concerned over the rejection of full Christian life in the flesh; now his figures also strive to reach and perceive the transcendent.
Seeing what Knippers has suffered at the hands of his friends as well as the expected resistance from the secular art world, young Christian artists could be discouraged. I asked him if he had any advice to believers who work in the arts.
Knippers ignored the issue of content and advises, "Ask yourself first, is this what God truly wants for me, not just what I desire?
"Being an artist or anything else must not replace your identity in Christ first," he added. "If you are certain, then it is a true vocation, and you will have the resources of the universe at your behalf."
Thanks to Theodore Prescott, "Edward Knippers: A Profile," and Timothy Verdon, "Violence and Grace in the Art of Edward Knippers."