St. Stephen’s own Stuart Hobbs recently published an article in Ohio History Journal entitled “Painting the Past: History, Memory, and Community in Modern Ohio.” Stuart’s article focuses on three artists whose murals decorate the Ohio Departments Building here in Columbus. Reading about these muralists, and about the shift from Beaux Arts symbolism to history painting at the beginning of the 20th century, has made me think about my own work, my use of symbolism, and whether I’m entirely happy with it. These thoughts loom especially large in my mind, given that Monday’s painting session yielded one of my more symbolic paintings.
The readings for this Sunday are complex. The reading from Exodus gives us the story of the Israelites making the Golden Calf while Moses is up on the mountain receiving the first version of God’s commandments. The Gospel reading from Matthew is Jesus’ violent and upsetting Parable of the Wedding Banquet, alternately called the Parable of the Great Supper. In both Matthew’s and Luke’s telling of this parable, people in the streets are invited to a banquet after the rich and the powerful have refused the invitation. Matthew’s version continues past the end of Luke’s. One of the guests from the streets is found to be wearing the wrong clothing, and he is bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness. Why? What is this wedding guest getting wrong?
Well, if the wedding banquet is life with God, and the people who are initially invited to that life reject it, perhaps they do so because they truly worship the golden calf, and can’t imagine surrendering any of their life of privilege. In my painting, I depict their existence as drab and lonely, people eating the very atmosphere of the calf, each isolated at their own sad table. In contrast, the shared meal of the children at the bottom of the painting is meant to symbolize the plentitude of food and the joy of community that we can experience when we turn away from idols of wealth and power. For me, that is what the Beloved Community is – willingly turning aside from privilege so that we can experience life with God in each other’s company.
Yet I leave that final wedding guest out of my painting, probably because I’m much more comfortable with Luke’s version of this parable. Now, as I consider it, I wonder whether I’m not that final wedding guest. Matthew seems to be saying that our decision to turn away from the Golden Calf can’t be faked. If we show up at the wedding banquet with the desire to secretly maintain our privileges over the other guests, we will be found out, and will never get to truly participate in the feast. Am I, the artist, truly willing to surrender my privileges so that I can experience Beloved Community? Are you, the viewer of the painting, willing to surrender your privileges? Are we, all of us, the final wedding guest?
It is, without a doubt, an allegorical painting, and in general I like allegory. Stuart’s article has made me wonder about its efficacy, however. Will the viewer understand this painting without me explaining it? Does it have enough visceral effect, and are the symbols clear, or are they vague, as Beaux Arts symbolism came to be, and therefore lacking?
I am most influenced, as an artist, by medieval manuscript illumination. The medieval world was a symbolic world, where every flower, every animal, every gesture of a hand, was redolent with hidden meanings. The carrots, apples, beets, tomatoes, mushrooms, and peppers in my painting are meant to symbolize plenty, but I don’t know what they symbolized in the pictorial language of the Middle Ages. Perhaps truly good allegorical painting requires more symbolic intent, rather than less.