MLK, Pippin, and the Holy Mountain

Horace Pippin, Holy Mountain III, 1945. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.

Horace Pippin (1888-1946), Holy Mountain III, 1945. Oil on canvas, 25.3 x 30.3 cm. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.

In honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on Monday, I’d like to highlight the work of one who shared Dr. King’s vision, but whose microphone was a canvas.

This painting by self-taught African American artist Horace Pippin depicts the peaceable kingdom that’s prophesied about in the biblical book of Isaiah, chapter 11. When the Messiah establishes his rule on earth, writes the prophet,

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 cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

—Isaiah 11:6-9

Last spring this painting was featured in the exhibition “Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery,” curated by the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. MOBIA published an astute commentary on it on their blog. The commentator points out the shadows of violence in the forest: a lynched black man (left), planes dropping bombs above a graveyard of crosses (center), and two armed soldiers and a tank (right). Yet, the commentator writes, Pippin chose to foreground the Holy Mountain, demonstrating his hope that such a scene would one day be actualized: “Rather than turning a blind eye to the painful realities of a sad and violent world, Pippin presents a vision of mankind moving out of the shadows and into the brilliant light of a peaceful clearing.” 

Such peace can come only as people submit themselves to the leadership of the One on whom rests “the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2): Jesus Christ, shown here as a black shepherd. This same Spirit who bore witness to the Christ condescends again and again to indwell those who seek God and his kingdom vision.

Like Dr. King.

In his final speech, delivered in a Memphis church the night before he was assassinated, Dr. King said that he had been to the holy mountaintop. God had given him some kind of revelation of future glory, and it is what stirred in his heart such a desire to see it come down in the here and now. So clear was his view of the promised end, the end to which all scripture moves, that he was unfazed by any obstacles that stood in the way of him getting there and bringing the world with him.

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will, and He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Dr. King’s political vision was rooted in the biblical vision of a restored Eden, a Promised Land where justice and righteousness abound (Isaiah 11:4-5). In this speech he tells his audience—victims of racial discrimination and violence—that they may never get to see the predator lie down with the prey in this life, but they will see it someday, when the Lord returns to set all things right.

To see more of Pippin’s work, click here.

This entry was posted in Politics, Western Art and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to MLK, Pippin, and the Holy Mountain

  1. babylonbaroque says:

    Pippin is a great artist , frankly I had forgotten about him recently. But you have reminded me of why I love him and his work. A wonderful post to honor Dr.King, thanks.

  2. I have a framed “thickly painted” oil painting exactly like this. It has a paper tag attached to it on the back that shows it has been to New York Graphic Society,ltd, Greenwich,Conn.06830, print # 7302, artist-Pippin, code #102-16-20.

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