I have determined to spend the last week of Advent and the first week of Christmas meditating and reflecting on Edward Hicks’ "The Peaceable Kingdom." Hicks, a Pennsylvania Quaker (1780-1849), was an autodidact as a painter, although later in life he trained apprentices, including the important 19th century nature-painter, Martin Johnson Heade. He began his career as a wagon builder and painter and, later, turned to painting signs, often for taverns, which drew the remonstrance of his fellow Quakers. Many found his painting career, itself, as too worldly.
Hicks drew over 61 different versions of "The Peaceable Kingdom," all with a similar pattern but many subtly different. If you look carefully, it is simply not true, as it may at first seem, that if you have seen one variant, you have seen them all. The text that drove the painting is Isaiah 11: 6-9 which gets read in the first week of Advent and presages the Christ child: “Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox, the baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain.”
As a Quaker, Hicks would have been drawn strongly to a pacifist and harmonious view of nature, the human and the animal kingdom. He also painted famous portraits of Noah’s ark. His second cousin, Flias Hicks, led an important Quaker reform movement, named the Hicksites, with a stringent call for a return to simplicity, the eschewing of wealth and worldly luxuries, an indomitable sense of the Quaker “inner light” of the Holy Spirit guiding humans. In time, a brittle schism (anything but a peaceable kingdom) broke out between two factions of the Quakers.
I had occasion in 2000 to see a major exhibition of Hicks’ works at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. I quickly learned that the many versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” while all analogously similar, showed subtle and, often, profound differences. Hicks painted and re-painted the scene from 1833 until his death. He was working on a version of the painting for his daughter, Elizabeth, when he died.
Off on the left hand corner of many of the canvases, Hicks linked the passage from Isaiah to real breakthroughs of peace in his own world. We see William Penn and his companions signing a treaty of respect and peace with the Len-Lenapen Indian tribe. One version of the oeuvre has a notable leopard and is, often, called “The Peaceable Kingdom with the Serenity Leopard.” All feature a child (or children), usually Hicks’ own. All juxtapose wild and tame animals.
For Hicks, there was a deeper, inner and personal meaning of the animals lying down together. In his view, every person contained fierce animal propensities and passions. He linked the wild animals to various dispositions. The wolf represented melancholy; the leopard embodied the sanguine temperament. The bear was phlegmatic and the lion choleric. In the bathing radiance of the inner light of the spirit, however, these fierce animals, with their lusts and aggressions, got transformed: the wolf to a lamb, the leopard to the kid; the bear to the cow; the lion to the ox. At heart, Hicks knew that any outer peaceable kingdom depended, first, on our own inner transformation into people of interior harmony and peace, yet not denying our real complicated natures.
Toward the end of his life, as the strife between the mainline Quakers and the Hicksites grew more bitter, Hicks also changed his scene of the children and the animals. The animals began to snarl, raise their claws, threaten to break out of the harmony of the peaceable kingdom. For Hicks, this represented his extreme fears that the Quakers might not find a true peaceable solution to their divisions.
It strikes me that there are two powerful ways to meditate on the Hicks’ paintings. Like him, we can evoke the hope and dream of Isaiah. Yet where, in our real world, do we see that peaceable kingdom breaking through? Secondly, we can use the archetypes of these paintings to imagine the places where we most fear the outbreak of divisions and try to address and tame them before the snarls and lifting of the claws break the serenity and harmony of the world. I suppose, as we see peace less or fear more its evanescence, we need all the more to envision it keenly and continuously. Lingering on “The Peaceable Kingdom,” at this time of year, can remind us that the ideal of peace, while so elusive (perhaps, utopian), is, yet, never more needed and essential. It can help us to focus our imaginations on where the little child of Isaiah is meant to guide us. In the end, the in-break of a more peaceable kingdom in our real world will depend, like Hicks, on a constant imagining of its possible contours.
John Coleman, S.J.