Peaceable Kingdom


February 13, 1991|By BARBARA MALLONEE

Between the American Revolution and our Civil War, a Pennsylvania sign painter named Edward Hicks cast and recast a Biblical text into paintings called the ''Peaceable Kingdoms.'' Sixty renditions of Isaiah 11:6-9 are known to exist in private collections, in museums, libraries and galleries, and in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg.

The Bible is a record of divine determination to perfect. The ups and downs of Genesis are followed by books prophesying that the Lord repeatedly ''ariseth to shake terribly the world'' in order that a new order ensue. In the Book of Isaiah are foretold such glories, on the heels of horror, as the birth of Christ, the beating of swords into plowshares, and the peaceable gathering together of beasts and babes.

A Quaker minister who preached the plain and simple, Hicks never called his 60 paintings more than ''my trade or business,'' done day by day in a ''shop'' by ''a poor, illiterate mechanic.'' There is, however, nothing mechanical about them.

On fireboards and on canvas, he endlessly works and reworks the wild and the woolly -- wolf, lamb, leopard, calf, lion, ox, kids and cubs. Though the children in their midst look rather English, his is deliberately American art. Groves of oak and elm are set against such sylvan splendors as the Delaware Water Gap, the Natural Bridge of Virginia and Niagara Falls.

In the distance are depicted moments of historic interest when religious and political upheaval seemed to subside: In 34 of the pictures, Penn's Treaty with the Indians is being signed; in 12 others, prominent Quakers, caught in Hicks' lifetime in a shocking dispute that split the Society of Friends, meet amicably together bearing banners that read ''Good Will to Men'' and ''Peace on Earth.''

A ''Peaceable Kingdom'' print hangs in an office at the Friends school my son attended for 13 years. Now a history major, he has studied the many wars that have marked man's march through time. Large or small, prolonged or quick, warfare significantly ravages the old to make way for the new.

Declared once again in the final decade of this century, war enacts an ancient rhetoric that is angry, destructive, abrupt. It is a rhetoric to which members of the Society of Friends give the young leave to conscientiously object.

Friends hold that there is that of God in every person. To go to war is to take the lives of others, and Friends revere the life of any man or woman, even when deeply divisive differences exist as, indeed, they must. In Hicks' pictures, the gathering of animals and children is not ''peaceful,'' but ''peaceable.'' Some mechanism of mediation has produced a fragile stasis: not settlement, not stalemate, and also not strife.

It is not to the human history that lies behind them that the animals, in the foreground, look to be kept in check, nor is nature their model, beauteous though she be. They do not look at the children as though solemn trust and dimpled cheeks inspire them to be nice. In shadow laced with sunlight, the more pacific animals scan the scene itself, but the lion, the leopard, the wolf frequently look far out beyond the frame. The effect of what they see must be enormous, for the expressions on their faces make clear that they are just barely constrained.

They look to a future when they will be the imperative of a new rhetoric, a compelling affirmation that in lieu of contention can come the composure of artful accommodation. There is never not tension among the creatures and the children, but the greater gulf is between them and the old men whose deliberations, drawn from cruel discord, fade already into the far distance of the past. Claiming our attention in the paintings are those who cannot yet give voice to what they think, who look for expression to an outsider, a naive Quaker artist, neither mainline nor mainstream, whose paintings parallel a deepening spiritual belief.

Edward Hicks, though not a birthright Friend, came to see that each and every person has a measure of light and that it is our gift (often, quaking, our imperative) to translate that suffusion of light into the flow of sound and silence that makes up human speech. He thought to leave to posterity not his paintings, which paid his bills, but a journal in which he recorded his emerging ministry in Quaker meetings where language had early become the medium for forging from profound difference a further, closer approximation of the truth.

I have stared this past week at faces, framed by a television screen, that frown at a teleprompter that feeds them old rhetoric in words they did not write. I have stared as well at a picture of my son, taken on the eve of his graduation from Friends School.

Light of step, light of heart, he looked, from a grove of green trees, out to a world he thought sought a new global order. He thought that his country, like his Quaker community, had turned its back on war. He thought that the potential for peaceable arrangements, implicit in the teaching and technology of our time, had painted us into a corner from the edge of which we might glimpse a presence wiser than we thought: a presence who had, from the earliest moment in the universe, vision enough lTC look from the vantage point of the future back tthrough time to see that from violence nothing good has come -- for with any death, light dies, our differences then leading us not to illuminating insight, but back to an unresolvable chaos that, in the beginning, lay dark on the face of the deep.

Barbara Mallonee teaches writing at Loyola College.

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