The Word is not quite made flesh in Edward Knippers' powerful religious paintings. But the biblical figures in them are very fleshy, very big and very nude.
In Knippers' painted Scriptural narratives, the protagonists are muscular, writhing, struggling nude figures, many emphatically male, some Rubensesquely female. They wrestle with each other, with evil, with demons, doubters, angels and, perhaps, the Lord.
Even in the spacious Mill River Gallery, on Oella Avenue in Ellicott City, the paintings seem to demand more room. They push and pull against each other and even jostle the viewer. They command your attention.
All 25 of Knippers' paintings in the handsomely converted factory loft derive from biblical themes, from "Joseph and Potiphar's Wife," to "Moses and the Burning Bush," to "The Resurrection of Christ."
Knippers calls the collection "The Naked Truth." All but one or two figures are indeed naked, including Christ, who is "gender specific," as one commentator delicately put it. That means "frontal nudity" with male genitalia visible. In fact, 14 of the paintings deal with Christ, his parables and his Passion and in all of them Christ is nude. This makes some people uneasy.
"There's a piece of my work right now that's causing a little bit of a controversy over at Union Station" in Washington, Knippers says. "They're showing my 16-foot crucifix, and it's been very well received, for the most part.
"There are a few people causing a little bit of a problem because of the nude Christ on the cross. It's very large and imposing, too. I think people are emotionally moved.
"And that's what I want," he says. "But if that emotion is a negative emotional movement, they don't know quite how to handle it. So they get upset about it."
The painting in the shape of a crucifix at Union Station is 16 feet high with 11-foot-wide arms, leaning out toward the people. So it is quite present.
Knippers has painted a dying Christ, slumped forward from the cross, his face hidden, his arms and shoulders straining, calves and thighs bulging, sex exposed, his head crowned with thorns. The picture grows darker from a slash of gray-blue on the low horizon to a Golgotha black at the top of the painting.
A medieval crucifix at Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery inspired this looming, forward-leaning painting.
"They have a wonderful cross there that bends out," Knippers says. "And the reason they used to bend out was to catch the light of the candles from the altar. I picked up on that."
At 52, Knippers is a mature, serious but not solemn artist and a religious, prayerful and believing church-goer. At the Mill River Gallery, in his gray suit, gray sweater and open-neck shirt, he could be an off-duty clergyman. He's mild-mannered, soft-spoken and easy-going. He grew up in the strict regime of the Nazarene Church. He now attends Truro Episcopal Church, in Fairfax, Va., near where he lives. But he says his fundamental beliefs haven't changed much.
The adult Jesus
The crucifix now at Union Station hung for a while at his church.
"And it caused discussion," he says.
He often seems to pause before describing certain reactions to his works.
"One of our parishioners wrote our priest saying, 'I'm very disturbed by this,' " he says. "Our minister saw her at church the next Sunday and he said, 'We must talk about this.'
"And she said, 'Oh no, no, no, I've been very disturbed by this. But I realize now what was disturbed was my view of the infant Jesus. I never have allowed him to grow up.'
"She got it, you see," Knippers says. "So these altar pieces with a child with exposed genitals are one thing. You get a grown man and it's another whole problem!"
Were there nude altar pieces during the Middle Ages or the Renaissance? one wonders. "Some of the earlier paintings were," he says. "But they were usually the babies. They would make a point of showing the child's genitals because that shows the Incarnation. And that's what I'm trying to do."
That is, showing the humanity of Christ, he explains. The word "incarnation" derives from the Latin "caro," flesh, and means the taking on of flesh. Roughly speaking, Christ took on his humanity to mediate between man and God. You don't have to know Christian theology to enjoy Knippers' paintings, but it sure helps.
Knippers has done a whole series of paintings based on the life and preaching of the Apostle Stephen as described in the Book of Acts. Knippers' graphic picture "Gift of Circumcision" derives from a sermon preached by Stephen.
"He, of course, was the first Christian martyr and that sermon is what got him killed. He was stoned.
"This is a very quiet subject and a very strange subject. My goodness, when you think of the whole idea of circumcision, it sort of boggles the mind. But all of a sudden I realized when I was painting it this was a group of men putting themselves under the Lordship of God.
"It's a great painting for our times," he says, with a kind of earnest hyperbole.
The centerpiece of the series is the Stoning of Stephen. His wounded and bleeding body has fallen from a cliff and he's being pushed from a tree where he's caught. Which is not how his martyrdom is described in the Scriptures.
"No," Knippers says. "I look at painting as a poetic parallel to reality. Therefore I take poetic license as long as the emotional impact is right.
"I hope the paintings would be true," he says, "but not necessarily realistic."
He's often asked if his paintings are meant for churches.
"I tell people they're generally too large for homes, too nude for churches and too religious for public spaces. Pretty impractical stuff when you think about it.
"And it's true, in a sense," he says. "Though some of them have found their way into homes. There are none in churches. But they show them periodically."
He doesn't mean for his works to be hung in sacred places in the churches. But he'd like them within the religious complex.
"I want them out there in society, bumping heads with what's going on," he says. "That's kind of the bent of the work. And making people ask questions they wouldn't otherwise ask."
Like: "Why all these naked people?" he says. "Then you all of a sudden start looking at it and you realize that, well, we all are potential nudes."
He laughs, amused at his own image.
"And you have to deal with your own body. Without the body there's nobody there and all of a sudden you have to think about your physical life and how it intersects with your spiritual life and the emotional life in a different way. And people do fight about it."
His paintings have occasionally been banned and at least once battered.
"I had some smaller works down at a school in Tennessee -- Covenant College -- and some guy from outside the campus tore up three works. Tore 'em off the wall and tore 'em up."
Another school shut down a show of his paintings: "They could not stand the physicality of it," he says. "And they were my people."
What he means is people from a conservative, Middle America background. Knippers was born in Oklahoma City, grew up in Florida. He studied art in Asbury College in Kentucky and at the University of Tennessee. He honed his skills during two trips to Paris, including an intensive concentration on drawing from live models when he became inspired to become a kind of neo-baroque figure painter.
But he's downright benignly philosophical when his works are attacked or rejected. He doesn't even accuse anyone of censorship. He says the Nazis and the Soviets censored artists.
"I was not censored," he explains. "I can do this stuff and continue to do it. There's nobody in the government telling me I can't paint what I want to paint."
His work is accepted and widely acclaimed and collected in such diverse places as the Armand Hammer Museum, the Billy Graham Center and the Vatican. Life magazine reproduced his "Jesus Whipped" in a special report "Who was Jesus?" The fierce, dark and bloody tableau is included in the Mill River Gallery exhibition.
He was inspired to his great, sculptural figurative painting by shows of baroque art that were mounted at the National Gallery. But a strong religious motivation brought him to his neo-baroque figures.
"Oh, yes. That's the reason I do what I do. I feel called to do this, and the Lord has made it possible for me to do this. It's a luxury to be able to paint full time and I realize that. I don't take it for granted."
And he even approaches his canvases in a prayerful manner.
"It's hard work, and I pray about it. You always hit snags in the studio and at those moments I get very frustrated and then all of a sudden I remember to pray.
"And I pray and time and time again the solution I need is there. Almost immediately, as if God is somehow in the studio on tiptoe waiting for me to ask.
"Then you kick yourself -- 'Why didn't I ask before?!' "
'The Naked Truth
What: Biblical paintings by Edward Knippers
Where: Mill River Gallery, 840 Oella Ave., Ellicott City
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today
Call: 410-418-9100 Pub Date: 2/27/99