Sunday, November 20, 2016

Of Swords and Plowshares

Has there been a time since the words were written that humanity hasn't longed for the actualization of Isaiah 2:3 (part of the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 1A)? Surely we do now. Imagine a world where nation did not lift up sword against nation. To this point in human history, though, it seems that beating swords into plowshares is an episodic happening rather than an eternally established reality.

American artist Winslow Homer understood the cost of war. He was in his mid-twenties when the Civil War broke out. Though he did not serve in the army, he was a "special artist" for Harper's Weekly magazine and, as such, moved in and among the armies and battle lines during the war. For almost two months in 1861 he traveled with George McClellan's Army of the Potomac through Virginia.

Homer created a large oil painting that illustrates rather than preaches Isaiah's vision of a time when the tools of war are traded for tools of agriculture. The artist worked on the painting for several months after the war was over. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated and the nation was working its way toward again being "united" states. Homer places an anonymous veteran in an actual field. A Union Army jacket is discarded in the lower right corner along with a canteen. The jacket has been abandoned presumably because the heat of the day and the exertion of the work makes a jacket unnecessary. But it is also the truth that this farmer has abandoned his military occupation and returned to his farm - he has traded the battlefield for the wheatfield. Hence the title of the painting.
Winslow Homer. The Veteran in a New Field. 1865. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/67.187.131/
Judging by the painting, the plows have done their work well. The 1865 wheat crop is documented to have been a bumper crop. Homer shows grain heads almost at the height of the farmer's head. One might see in this painting a positive outlook for the farmer and the nation. But there is a darker side.

The farmer is harvesting wheat with a single-bladed scythe, a tool that was already out of date by 1865. Farmers of that time would have used a grain cradle or cradle scythe to harvest. Homer chose the older implement because of its association with the Grim Reaper. While Homer's veteran has moved on, both he and the viewer would have, in this scene, been reminded of the cost of war. Many of the bloodiest battles of the war were fought in fields, so fields had become associated with soldiers who were cut down and had fallen in the same way that this farmer now cuts and fells the wheat. Timothy O'Sullivan's photograph "Harvest of Death" shows the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Isaiah's vision would have been as appealing to a 19th-century audience as it is to us today. Imagine. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war anymore.

Come, Lord Jesus.

1 comment:

  1. Lynn,

    Your commentary is insightfully inspiring. So many times I looked at this painting, as I do many others and the symbolism of the painter escapes me. Without this reading the painting stands on it's own as an image that projects something haunting with a paradox of both sadness and hope. Thank you for opening up this image in new ways for my own understanding, and for the paintings historical reference in time.

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