The (Not So) Peacable Kingdom

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken November 21, 1999

Currently the Philadelphia Museum of Art is presenting an exhibition called “The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks.” Edward Hicks (b. 1780) was a nineteenth century artist who lived in Pennsylvania. Although he began his career as a sign painter, he later became a minister in the Society of Friends, more commonly known as the Quakers. Yet Hicks never lost his love for painting, and he continued to produce works of art until the end of his life.

The most unusual feature of Hicks’ work is that nearly all his formal paintings were variations on a single theme: the “Peaceable Kingdom.” Perhaps you have seen one of these paintings. On the right side there is a small child, standing with a group of animals. Often the child has his arm wrapped around a lion's neck. Nearby stands an ox, and perhaps a bear or a wolf. In the foreground a leopard lies down with a lamb. In many cases there is a group of Quakers on the left side of the painting, standing in the background, usually under a large oak tree.

These paintings are based on the Bible, partly because Edward Hicks needed to persuade nineteenth-century Quakers that it was permissible for Christians to be practicing artists. But Hicks also wanted to express his hope in the biblical promise of peace on earth. Thus the paintings are based on this text from the prophet Isaiah:

The wolf will live with the lamb,

the leopard will lie down with the goat,

the calf and the lion and the yearling together;

and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,

their young will lie down together,

and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,

and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest (Isa. 11:6-8).

This is the first time that so many of Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdoms” have been displayed in one show. What the exhibit powerfully demonstrates is the artist's struggle to find peace on earth.

The earliest paintings (1816-1828) are the most peaceful. Most of them are surrounded by a printed border, which is why they are usually referred to as the “Border Peaceable Kingdoms.” Hicks drew on his experience as a sign painter to produce the lettering around these paintings, which reads:

The wolf shall with the lambkin dwell in peace,

His grim carnivorous nature then shall cease;

The leopard with the harmless kid lay down,

and not one savage beast be seen to frown;

The lion and the calf shall forward move,

A little child shall lead them in love.

When MAN is moved and led by sov'reign grace,

To seek that state of everlasting PEACE.

The animals in the “Border Peaceable Kingdoms” are sweet and mild, without any trace of tension or anxiety. The child has his arm gently and lovingly draped around the lion's neck. The Quaker William Penn is in the background, standing on the banks of the Delaware, signing a peace treaty with the Lenape Indians.

The next set of paintings is more disturbing. These are the “Banner Peaceable Kingdoms” (1829-1832), so called because there is a banner of text wrapped around the human figures. There are many signs of disquiet. The leopard looks tense, uneasy. The child still has his hand around the lion's neck, but he is grasping a handful of mane, struggling to keep the beast in place. The human figures are starting to disperse, and there is an ominous cleft in the oak tree. This was to represent a division which had taken place within the Society of Friends between the Hicksites and the Orthodox. The Hicksites, under the influence of Edward's cousin Elias, advocated a simple rural lifestyle and opposed the prosperity of Quakers who lived in the city. They also resisted the authority of Scripture and opposed having elders in the church. As a result of these differences, there was a sharp division in the Quaker fellowship.

By 1832, when he began to paint his “Middle Peaceable Kingdoms” (1832-1840), Hicks doubted whether reconciliation was possible. As a result, many of the animals look fierce, even sinister. The lion bares his teeth. In a sermon preached at Goose Creek, Virginia, Hicks explained his symbolism: each animal represented a different aspect of human nature. His point was that there is something beastly about us. “The animal, man,” he said, “possesses the nature and propensities of all other animals.”

By the time he painted his final series of paintings, called the “Late Peaceable Kingdoms” (1840's), Hicks seems to have completely abandoned his hopes for peace on earth. Some of the animals—especially the leopards—are in outright conflict, fighting one another. They are no longer grouped tightly together, but are dispersed across the canvas, representing the disunity of humanity. It was during this time that Hicks wrote of his former hope that “I should live to see the society of Friends come together but… the ranting un[settled] spirit among friends together with the feebleness of my hold on life has disapated (sic) that hope.” Hicks’ growing sense of fatigue is expressed most clearly in his last “Peaceable Kingdom,” in which the lion is hunched over in sheer exhaustion.

What do these paintings tell us about the meaning of life? This is always a good question to ask because art always expresses a point of view about ultimate truth. What Edward Hicks seems to be saying is that God's peaceable kingdom cannot be established on this earth. Not yet, at any rate. His experience in a sinful church gradually replaced the idealism of his youth with a more realistic view of human nature.

Sadly, it is doubtful whether Hicks ever discovered that true and lasting peace only comes through Jesus Christ. Early on, there were some signs that he did understand this. In one of his last “Peaceable Kingdoms” the child holds a branch with a cluster of grapes. The branch is a reference to Christ, based on the first verse of Isaiah 11: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” The grapes on the branch represent the blood Christ shed on the cross. There is also a painting in which the banner of peace flows from Christ himself, who stands on a high mountain. But these are only fleeting images, and they disappear in Hicks’ later work. He seems to have lost sight of the true basis for peace, that through Jesus God has reconciled “to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20). If Hicks had understood this, he would have known that one day soon God will make good on his promise, for when Christ returns, the leopard will lie down with the lamb.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org