MLK, Pippin, and the Holy Mountain

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

(This post was originally published on theJesusQuestion.org in 2014.)

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

The painting Holy Mountain III 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 shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (vv. 6–9)

In spring 2013, this painting was featured in the exhibition “Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery,” curated by the now-defunct Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. A MOBIA commentator pointed 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 understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the 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.

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