The Surprising Theological Lessons of Six Centuries of Winter Landscape Painting (Huh?)

Recent winter weather has been something to behold. As of last Tuesday, “[a]t least 73 percent of the continental United States was covered in snow […] the greatest percentage in at least 16 years.” Snow and ice have wreaked havoc across the nation, causing mass power outages, water shortages, countless car accidents, service shutdowns, and at least 58 deaths. Such weather is no joke. Our hearts are with all those who have suffered, truly. Even for the rest of us, it’s just been an exhausting few weeks. I think we’ve all had enough winter weather for a while.  

That being said, it’s still so beautiful, right? There is a special kind of magic in snow and ice. In case you ever forget that, just watch the faces of little kids or puppies the first time they encounter snow. It’s a joy that cannot be beat.

For some unfathomable but perhaps related reason, as readers of this blog will know, I recently became obsessed with the history of winter landscape painting in Western art. Yes, I know that doesn’t sound like the most riveting subject matter, but it is. Since before Christmas, I’ve spent an average of several hours a day scanning through countless winter landscape paintings to compile an epic list of examples that represent the best of the subgenre and in some sense tell a unique story of the development of Western art. I finally ended up posting over 1000 of my favorites (and continue to add more), breaking them up it into four chronological batches going back six centuries. Feel free to check them out: (1) 1400-1870, (2) 1870-1900, (3) 1900-1930, and (4) 1930-2020.

In any event, after spending so much time staring at these paintings, I couldn’t help thinking about possible theological implications. I noticed trends or themes in style, composition, or subject in many of these paintings, and I realized that, as lessons in the art of winter landscape painting, these could also be translated into useful theological insights. So I’d like to share five of those “lessons” with you.

But there’s one thing I need to explain first. In translating these winter landscape themes into theological themes, I’ve relied on some familiar symbolism — essentially, this idea that the beautiful white snow falling from above is like God’s enriching / purifying / beautifying grace, and that we human beings are like the dreary, barren landscape below. If you don’t take that symbolism as given, none of the rest of this will make sense.

Of course, Western culture has had a long and obviously racially problematic history around the symbolism of the color white. Stretching back even to ancient Egypt and Rome, white has often functioned as a symbol of purity, chastity, beauty, moral perfection, cleanliness, godliness, sacrifice, neutrality, new beginnings, and the like. Given our horrendous racial history, some of this symbolism certainly makes me uncomfortable, but perhaps we can look beyond that for the purposes of this post.

There is some biblical basis for this symbolism around snow. Snow/ice only shows up occasionally in the Bible, usually to make a point about God’s power, benevolence, or cleansing impact on our lives. Here are some examples:

  • “From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven?” – Job 38:29
  • Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. – Psalm 51:7
  • [God] gives snow like wool; he scatters hoarfrost like ashes. He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before his cold? – Psalm 147:16-17
  • “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow […]” – Isaiah 1:18
  • “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth […]” – Isaiah 55:10-11
  • [Jesus’] appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. – Matthew 28:3

Thus, using as a jumping-off point this concept of snow/ice as a symbol for God’s grace, what follows are five “lessons” I’ve gleaned from my research in the art of winter landscape painting, with theological corollaries.

Lesson 1: Most winter landscape paintings don’t have that much white in them, actually.

There’s a line from Olaf in the first Frozen movie that’s relevant here: “[Winter] really is beautiful, isn’t it? But it’s so white. You know, how about a little color? I’m thinking like maybe some crimson, chartreuse…” The reality is, of course, that despite the public’s dreamy mental images of sparkling white Christmases, most winter landscapes — painted or otherwise — aren’t actually very white, including those replete with snow and ice. Almost all the 1000 winter landscape paintings on my list show scenes plentiful with snow and ice, and yet the dominant colors tend to be browns, yellows, pinks, blues, and grays. If you set out to paint a decent winter landscape, you’re probably going to be using more of those colors than you ever will the pure white of fresh snow. In fact, what I found was that the really interesting evocations of the season are generally not the most pristinely white ones — it’s the gray ones, the misty ones, the aqua colored ones, the yellowed, hazy ones, the ones thoroughly mixed up with hungry animals, gnarled trees, and ruddy-faced humans in various states of misery or glee.

In other words, the winter landscapes in these paintings have been blanketed by the grace of snow and ice, enriched by it, beautified by it, cleansed by it, and yet that grace still gets mixed in with the dirt and detritus of the landscape.

Theological spin: The same is true of our lives: God’s grace mixes in with our messy, grimy humanness. God cleanses and inspires and loves us unremittingly — but also gently. God doesn’t use bleach. This can be frustrating. As Richard Rodriguez puts it, “flesh is a complicated medium for grace.” When I was younger, I hoped and prayed desperately that God would completely remove all my sinfulness, that I might be truly “righteous.” But while God justifies us through Christ, he never quite fixes us. Like Jazz, as Donald Miller put it, God doesn’t “resolve.” We’re still sinners this side of the grave — simul justus et peccator. So it’s crazy for us to expect that the landscape of our lives would ever be a spotless white, and destructive and rather unhealthy for us to try to bleach it on our own. It also wouldn’t be a terribly interesting or beautiful landscape either. (More on that later.)

Lesson 2: In most winter landscape paintings, humans and human civilization are dwarfed and often obscured by the awesome power and scale of nature during the winter season.

For most of the history of Western art, landscape painting wasn’t a thing. Prior to the 1400s, landscapes barely show up. Even during the Renaissance, most paintings were highly idealized depictions of religious, regal, or mythological subjects; if there was a landscape, it was just a backdrop for the human or divine subject matter.

When winter landscapes did start to become a popular subgenre during the Northern Renaissance, they were still mainly painted as the backdrop to human activities. By the late 1600s, however, the emphasis starts to flip — with humans taking more of a backseat to nature. Thus, in the overwhelming majority of winter landscapes painted since 1800, humans are either absent entirely or dwarfed/obscured by nature itself.  Even when they’re not dwarfed or obscured, there’s a sense of the intimate connection and involvement of human beings with the natural landscape, and very rarely any hint of our transcending or escaping it. That’s one of the great things about winter landscapes — the emphasis in these scenes is on what nature is doing, not us. We are at winter’s mercy.

Theological spin: In the same way, we are at God’s mercy. What matters most is what God is doing and what God wills, not what we are doing or what we desire or plan for our lives. The universe revolves around God, not us. This is a difficult lesson. We people of faith sometimes take every single thing that happens to us personally, as if God is precisely orchestrating everything in the universe to either make us happy or make us miserable. This is an extraordinarily self-centered view of the creation, but one we probably all gravitate towards. Yet Jesus mostly suggests that it doesn’t work that way. As he says in Matthew, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” God’s grace is for all of creation and can’t be bought.

There’s a beautiful passage that drives this point home from a lecture I once heard by the former dean of the National Cathedral, Samuel T. Lloyd III. Lloyd described how, as a young seminarian, he experienced a kind of “Copernican Revolution” in his understanding of “what prayer is, and who God is in fact.” He explained:

Copernicus […] was one of those revolutionary thinkers like Galileo who lived in a time when people assumed that the earth was the center of the universe, and that everything — including the sun — revolved around it. I had [had] a sense that I was the center of my universe trying to connect with a God who was up and out and beyond. And what I began to discover was that I had the universe constructed in my head exactly wrong. I’m not the center of the universe […] just as the earth is not the center of the universe. The Copernican Revolution said: No, the sun, the source of life and light, is the center, and everything else gets its life and light from that source […]

[F]or me the breakthrough was coming to understand that the spiritual life is not about my trying to connect with God but God trying to connect with me. That the source of energy in the spiritual life is not about what I can find my way toward and what I can climb my way toward and what I can make for myself and others. The source is in fact this immense energy and vitality and life that’s coming at me, and my need [is] to begin to discover that.

In most post-Renaissance winter landscapes, that theological message really hits home. We’re always on the receiving end in this equation, utterly at the mercy of God, utterly dependent on grace. And even if it’s not quite how we’d like, God delivers. God blankets creation with grace, perhaps more of it than we know what to do with.

Lesson 3: In many of the most beautiful winter scenes, the landscape itself is stripped and barren, full of jagged edges, gnarled features, and tufts of frozen stubble.

Many winter landscape paintings have a stark, desolate sort of beauty. These landscapes are often grim and forbidding and project a kind of enforced serenity, quite in contrast to the loud colors and bustle of activity you’re likely to see in summer paintings. In fact, to state the obvious, nature is quieter during winter months. Most creatures migrate or hibernate. Plants lose their color and die. Most trees lose their leaves. There are no “amber waves of grain” or “fruited plains” in these scenes. Winter strips the landscape bare of its fruitfulness, its finery, its pride. The winter landscape is one that can no longer boast of great deeds — its record of productivity, its bounteous harvests. It is ransacked and crippled and left utterly vulnerable to the elements. The land is humbled by winter.

Yet, precisely during this season of barrenness and scarcity, God anoints the land with beauty, with the enriching, cleansing, adorning grace of snow and ice. And in so doing, also prepares the land for the explosion of new life to come in the spring. These landscapes thus offer a kind of natural parable. As that great painter Andrew Wyeth once put it, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

Theological spin: In the same way, there are times when we humans must be stripped of our finery — our exalted self-image — and made to face our sins and limitations. Times when, like Adam and Eve, we find ourselves beset with shame, our naked selves exposed to God with nowhere to hide nor any record of fruitfulness to hide behind. But the extraordinary thing about this God of grace is that when we are humbled and driven to repentance, God blesses us. God makes beauty out of our vulnerability. By the Christian reckoning, humility, vulnerability, and confession are the keys that unlock the way of life, love, and freedom — which, it must be said, are also the ingredients for a fruitful life. It is the humbled soul that, like the barren landscape, is most able to be touched and transformed by God’s love.

Lesson 4: Not all winter landscape paintings are grim or somber. A significant minority depict scenes that are full of bright colors and joyous, exuberant characters.

As a caveat to lesson 3, it’s worth noting that not all winter landscape paintings depict desolate, forbidding scenes. Many of the earliest ones actually depict snowball fights. Apparently, our medieval ancestors loved nothing more than to hurl snowballs at their neighbors. Once winter landscape painting started to become a popular subgenre in the 16th and 17th centuries, painters continued to be eschew the bleak in favor of more joyful and playful depictions of human life, mostly people skating or congregating on frozen lakes and rivers. As I noted in my original posts, the period in European history from 1300-1700 was actually known as the “Little Ice Age,” a time of unusually cold weather that caused untold suffering for Europe’s peasants, but which also apparently spawned some fun traditions. Ice skating and frost fairs became fun winter traditions, ways to find joy and community despite the bitter cold. Paintings of such scenes suggest that the genre needn’t always be desolate wastelands.

Theological spin: Religious people often take themselves and their moral responsibilities very seriously, probably to their detriment. It was not entirely unjustly that H. L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” And yet, the gospel of grace really ought to inspire the opposite response. There’s something about grace that creates freedom and inspires play. If grace is really grace — that is, unearned, gratuitous, given — then it removes the expectations that tend to make people so strict and serious, and instead frees them up for play and the undiscipline of love. The grace of this world is to be enjoyed and shared, relished and savored, not hoarded or feared or shunned. So go pelt your neighbor with a snowball! Just don’t use rocks.

Lesson 5: Both despite and because of all their dreariness, barrenness, and jaggedness, many winter landscape paintings are incredibly beautiful.

In my mind, as I said before, the most pristine winter landscapes — the sort I think we all envision when we hear songs like Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” — don’t often make for the most beautiful art, and certainly aren’t the most interesting or true-to-life. There’s an Edgar Allen Poe line that captures this principle: “There is no exquisite beauty […] without some strangeness in the proportion.” In the history of winter landscape painting, I’ve found that it is often the imperfections and jarring contrasts that really captivate, that connect with and convey the greatest meaning to the viewer. It doesn’t have to be a “winter wonderland” to be beautiful. In fact, in art at least, it’s often better if it isn’t. Beauty shines most brightly through the imperfections. In this way, winter landscape painting also teaches us to see beauty in the flawed and mundane, in the grime and struggle of life, which, in a sense, is to see the world from God’s point of view. As Marilynne Robinson once put it, “Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.”

Theological spin: God’s beauty shines through us too, both despite and because of our imperfections. It’s the crack that lets the light in, right? In the process of reconciling the world to Himself through Jesus Christ, God is essentially making beautiful things out of us common grubby sinners. But to me that implies that God values the process itself, that maybe God finds beauty in the long tragic drama of creation. Perhaps it is that something uniquely exquisite emerges from all this wreckage, something not possible without it. Perhaps it’s the beauty of healing, of mercy and forgiveness, of true vulnerable love that God most values. Jesus seemed to think so. As he says, there is “more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine [supposedly] righteous persons who need no repentance.”

This also suggests that a beautiful life, a full, abundant life, is not in fact the closest thing to a “sin-free” life. There’s a certain puritan conception of Christian virtue, predominant in American Christian history, that essentially holds that the ideal of the Christian life is to reach net zero on the morality scale — to live without sin. By this conception, the most “virtuous” among us are the newborns and asexual hermits and the goal of life is to purify it, to remove all taint. Hence our culture’s long-running fixation with this metaphor of pure white, the unsullied life. But God was in Christ forgiving us and reconciling us, not obliterating the human personality, not sucking all the meaning and purpose out of the drama of human life, or creation itself. God’s desire is for the transfiguration of the human will and personality, not the absence of them. In this sense, at last, what makes both winter landscapes and human landscapes beautiful is not the abundance of pure white, but how it touches and illumines the messy contours of life.

[Note: I’m probably taking some time off the blog for a while to focus on reading and job-hunting. Love y’all!]

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