Knippers, Edward - VM - Rondall Reynosos
Edward Knippers: The Sacrifice
He Really Died
by Rondall Reynoso
For several decades Edward Knippers has been among the most prominent evangelical artists in the United States. But during his career he has also been a controversial figure. In 1983 Knippers began working exclusively with images of biblical scenes. These scenes have been painted with all participating figures in the nude. The nudity in Knippers’ work has been cause for attacks against his work on several occasions. When Knippers exhibited his work at Huntington College (Huntington, IN), the College administration in the face of protests reluctantly closed the exhibition. When his work was exhibited at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, GA) in 1995 it was actually slashed by a vandal who claimed that Knippers’ work “made the Old and New Testaments into a nudist colony.” Within the secular art world, his work has also been castigated for being too biblical.
It is important to note that Knippers’ work, unlike much contemporary art, is not seeking a shock value or trying to be controversial for the sake of controversy. Knippers sees the nudity as an integral part of his artistic and spiritual statement. At the heart of Edward Knippers’ theology and art is the Incarnation. He views the Incarnation as proof that the body is the meeting of heaven and earth. The body of Christ, in all its brokenness, is essential because without it Knippers contends Christ’s sacrifice would not be complete. Without the broken body of Jesus, there can be no redemptive resurrection.
Further Knippers paints his biblical figures in the nude because he is striving to avoid cultural trappings such as clothes that tie the images to a particular time and place. He is reaching for a spiritual timelessness. Theologian David Buschart argues that “By omitting dress, Knippers deftly brokers the challenge of both universality and particularity, for the absence of dress in his human figures removes an excuse for someone to hold the images at a distance, and yet these are particular people.” For Knippers, the human body is the common element that binds us together throughout time.
Knippers’ work has been generally accepted by evangelical intelligentsia. Knippers’ work powerfully speaks to doctrines which are the very core of Christianity. However, evangelicalism has strong pietistic roots and the nudity, physicality, and violence in his work push uncomfortably against those cultural evangelical mores. Knippers argues that evangelicals fail to have a proper understanding of the body in two ways:
- They have an extreme emphasis on sexuality and the worship of the body as demonstrated in “contemporary sexual idolatry, including pornography.” For many evangelicals, nudity equates with pornography but Knippers points out that “nudity is not necessarily dirty any more than clothed is necessarily clean.”
- Many evangelicals fail in their understanding of the body through a sort of Gnosticism that rejects the importance of physical creation, calling evil what God called good. For many conservative evangelicals there exists a profound discomfort with the body. The body is to be tamed as its fleshly appetites war with the spirit.
The Sacrifice painted by Knippers in 1986 was at one point displayed in his church on Good Friday. Some members of the congregation found the work incredibly moving but others were so disturbed by the work that they refused to even enter the sanctuary. One woman wrote the pastor to complain about the work but in the very same letter conceded that the painting forced her to reexamine her image of Christ as an infant. It forced her to allow Jesus to grow up. Knippers also tells a powerful and personal story about this painting:
The work was also influential for my godchildren’s father in explaining the meaning of Easter to them. He was trying to use Sunday School literature, most of which is sentimental almost to [the] point of heresy, but the children just could not understand. He then remembered that he has a catalogue of my work, with this crucifixion. When the children saw this image, one of them blurted out. “Oh, He really died.”
Knippers’ work finds its place at the tension between evangelical theology and evangelical culture. Those who support his work often point to the value of incarnational theology, the truth of the violence of his work, and the necessity of understanding the joint universality and particularity of the Christian message. On the other side, those who find problems with Knippers’ work tend to find the nudity problematic and the violence distasteful.
As I was writing this essay, my eight year-old daughter came up to my computer and saw The Sacrifice. I think our conversation was telling.
“Ewww… Who is that?”
“Jesus” I responded
“Gross!” she said with her face all gnarled up.
“It is supposed to be gross, He is on the cross dying.”
Taken over with permission from Faith on View, April 28, 2021, Five Evangelical Christs.
Edward Knippers, The Sacrifice, 1986, oil on panel, 40 x 28 cm.
Edward Knippers (b. 1946) is an American painter and printmaker living in Arlington, VA. His work has been included in over 150 exhibitions, half of which have been one-man shows and invitationals. These include exhibitions at the Virginia Museum, Richmond, VA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Cheekwood, a botanical garden and art museum in Nashville, TN. His work has also been exhibited at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, NC. Knippers' art is included in numerous public and private collections including the Billy Graham Museum, Wheaton, IL; the University of Oklahoma Museum, Norman, OK; the Vatican Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, Rome; and the Grunwald Print Collection at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, CA . Violent Grace, A Retrospective, a monograph on his paintings has been published by Fresco Fine Art Books, Albuquerque, NM. www.edwardknippers.com
Rondall Reynoso is an American artist, scholar, and speaker. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Lee University in Cleveland, TN. He holds an MFA in Painting and an MS in Art History from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and is completing a Ph.D. in Art History and Aesthetics from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.
ArtWay Visual Meditation October 24, 2021