And all Shall Be Revealed

Startlingly naked depictions of Jesus Christ stir uneasy emotions in the viewer. And that's exactly what artist Edward Knippers wants.


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.

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