Four Surprising Theological Lessons From Winter Landscape Painting (Huh?)

Even the Dreariest Winter Landscapes Declare the Glory of God.

Ben Self / 2.23.21

For some unfathomable reason, I recently became obsessed with the history of winter landscape painting in Western art. Since before Christmas, I have 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 tell a unique story of the development of Western art. I finally ended up posting over 1000 favorites on my blog, breaking them up it into four chronological batches going back more than 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, and I came to realize that the lessons I was learning in the art of winter landscape painting could also be translated into theological insights, as bizarre as that sounds. So I’d like to share four of those “lessons” with you.

But in translating these winter landscape themes into theological ones, you should know that I’ve relied on some familiar symbolism — essentially, this idea that the snow falling from above is like God’s enriching, purifying, beautifying grace, and that we human beings are like the dreary, barren landscape below. There is some biblical basis for this. Snow and ice show up only occasionally in the Bible, but usually to make a point about God’s power, benevolence, or cleansing impact. One of my favorite examples is from Isaiah: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Others can be found here. Of course, more broadly, Western culture has had a long and often highly problematic history around the symbolism of the color white. But perhaps, for our purposes, we can set that aside for now.

Using as a jumping-off point this concept of snow/ice as a symbol for God’s grace, what follows are four “lessons” in the art of winter landscape painting, with theological corollaries.

Lesson 1: Despite the public’s dreamy mental images of sparkling white Christmases, most winter landscape paintings don’t have that much white in them, actually.

Almost all of the 1000+ winter landscape paintings on my list show scenes replete with snow and ice, and yet, the dominant colors of those paintings tend to be browns, yellows, pinks, blues, and grays. In fact, the most interesting evocations of the season are generally not the most pristinely white ones — they’re the gray ones, the misty ones, the ones punctuated with gnarled trees, muddy roadways, and ruddy-faced humans in various states of misery or glee. In other words, while most winter landscapes have been blanketed by the grace of snow and ice, that grace still gets thoroughly mixed in with all the dirt and detritus of the land.

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 rather destructive and 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. When winter landscapes did start to become a popular subgenre of art during the Northern Renaissance, the scenes were still mainly a backdrop to human activities. By the late 1600s, however, the emphasis had started to flip. 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, there’s usually a sense of our intimate and inescapable involvement with the natural landscape. That’s one of the great things about winter landscapes — the emphasis is on what nature is doing, not us. We are at winter’s mercy.

Theological spin: Likewise, we are at God’s mercy. What matters most is what God is doing and what God wills. The universe revolves around God, not us. This is a difficult lesson. People of faith sometimes seem to take everything that happens to them personally, as if God were precisely orchestrating the entire universe to either make us happy or miserable. This is an extraordinarily self-centered view, but one we probably all gravitate towards. 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 scattered for all and cannot be bargained for.

As Samuel T. Lloyd III once put it, “the spiritual life is not about my trying to connect with God, but God trying to connect with me.” In most post-Renaissance winter landscapes, that theological message really hits home. We’re always on the receiving end in this equation, utterly dependent on grace. And even if it’s not quite how we’d like, God delivers. God blankets creation with grace.

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

Certainly not all winter landscape paintings are somber or forbidding, but many have a stark, desolate beauty. They often project a kind of enforced serenity, quite in contrast to the warm colors and bustle of activity you’re likely to see in summer vistas. To state the obvious, nature is quieter during winter months. Creatures hibernate. Plants die. Trees lose their leaves. There are no “amber waves of grain” or “fruited plains” here. Winter strips the landscape bare of its fruitfulness, its finery. The winter landscape is one that can no longer boast of great deeds — its record of bounteous harvests. It is ransacked and crippled and left utterly vulnerable to the elements. It is humbled by winter.

Yet, precisely during this season of barrenness and scarcity, God anoints the land with the enriching, cleansing, beautifying grace of snow and ice. And in so doing, also prepares it for the explosion of new life to come in the spring. Winter landscapes, like the season itself, thus offer a kind of natural parable. As that great painter Andrew Wyeth once put it, “Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

Theological spin: There are times when we too must be stripped of our finery, of 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 souls exposed to God with no record of fruitfulness to hide behind. But the extraordinary thing about this God of grace is that when we are driven to repentance, God blesses us. In the Christian estimation, humility, vulnerability, and confession are the keys that unlock the way of love, joy, and freedom — which, it must be said, are also ingredients for a fruitful life. It is the humbled soul, like the barren landscape, that is most able to be touched and transformed by God’s love.

Lesson 4: Many winter landscape paintings are incredibly beautiful both despite and because of their (usual) dreariness, barrenness, and jaggedness.

There’s an Edgar Allen Poe line that captures this principle: “There is no exquisite beauty […] without some strangeness in the proportion.” In winter landscape painting, as I’ve said, it is often the imperfections, dreary colors, and jarring contrasts that best connect with viewers. It doesn’t have to be a “winter wonderland” to be beautiful. In fact, in art, it’s often better if it isn’t. Beauty shines brightly through the imperfect. In this way, winter landscapes also teach us to see beauty in the flawed and mundane, 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. 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 that implies that perhaps God values the process itself. Perhaps something uniquely exquisite emerges from all this wreckage, something not possible without it. Perhaps it’s the beauty of healing, of forgiveness, of true vulnerable love that God most values. Jesus seemed to think so. As he says in Luke, 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 is not in fact the closest thing to a “sin-free” life. There’s a certain puritan concept of virtue that holds that the ideal of the Christian life is essentially to reach net zero on the morality scale — to live without sin. By this conception, the most “virtuous” among us are newborns and asexual hermits and the chief goal of life is to purify it. But God was in Christ forgiving us and reconciling us, not obliterating the human personality, not sucking all meaning out of the drama of human life, or creation itself. God desires the transfiguration of the human will and personality, not the absence of them. In this sense, at last and once again, 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. Praise God for that.

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