Jan 02

Art, Law and a New Year

Christmas came and went at our house like a blue northern blowing across the Texas plains. The days seem to accelerate and gain speed with each passing year. But the meaning of Christmas remains constant and immovable.

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

I want to backup about a week before Christmas of this year. We made a “mad-dash” to Memphis for three days. My wife and I, and my parents jumped in my uncle’s car (a very nice ride) and headed east to the Mississippi River. The reason was two-fold. It is always good to see my daughter and her husband, and of course the grandkids during the Christmas season. But, the main reason was to be present at the adoption of one of my granddaughters by my son-in-law. In a culture of “fatherlessness”, I really appreciate him “stepping up” to this challenge. I know our granddaughter is blessed by his courage as well.

The adoption was to take place at the Shelby County Courthouse in Memphis. So, to support all involved, several of us went to the courthouse on a bitterly cold Monday morning to see the adoption proceedings, something I have never witnessed. The morning proved to very enlightening and educational, both inside and outside the courthouse.

Shelby County Courthouse in downtown Memphis, Tennessee

Shelby County Courthouse in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, with sculptures by James Massey Rhind.

Being an artist who loves architecture, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the size and beauty of the courthouse. It sits in downtown Memphis and is simply a magnificent building. Built by architect James Gamble Rogers (he was the primary architect), the Shelby County Courthouse opened in 1910 and is the largest and most ornate courthouse in Tennessee. To say this Greco Roman structure made from blue limestone with its massive columns and pediments is impressive is an understatement. As I said, I love architecture and I stood in the freezing wind shooting photos of this elegant building as our group entered the building.

Sketch of sculpture at Memphis Courthouse titled "Authority"

Sketch of sculpture at Memphis Courthouse titled “Authority” (S. Miller)

But wait, there’s more…. The most impressive visual elements of this courthouse, in my opinion, are the six figures that sit to the right and left of the three main entrances to the courthouse. Each is carved out of a solid block of limestone by a very well-known sculptor at the turn of the last century, an artist born in Scotland in 1860 named James Massey Rhind.

James Massey Rhind, Scottish born sculptor.

James Massey Rhind, Scottish born sculptor.

He came to this country late in the 1800’s and was one of America’s most gifted sculptors, carving monuments and memorials for public buildings, cemeteries and parks across the U.S. Perhaps his most famous project was the “Victory” and “Peace” figures he carved at the entrance of Grant’s Tomb in New York City.

As I stood in the cold admiring these sculpted figures, I noticed a name under each of them. The names were Wisdom, Justice, Liberty, Authority, Peace and Prosperity. Interesting, I thought as my nose and ears screamed for a warmer climate. The stone characters meant something, they seemed to be telling a story –  A story that needs to be heard today.

The first of these six stone figures represented “Wisdom”. Wisdom must be the foundation of any society and culture. Governments must be built on wisdom, and God is the only one who gives wisdom. I think they understood that a little better in 1910 than we do now.

Proverbs 1:7 says “Fear of the LORD is the foundation of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” The same book goes on the say in chapter two, verse 6 “For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.”

The figure that sat opposite Wisdom at the entrance at the far end of the building was “Justice”.  We’ll come back to Justice later. The two carvings that guarded the stairs we climbed to enter the building were “Liberty” and “Authority”. If you saw the 1997 movie “Rainmaker”, you probably noticed these two figures as Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) and Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito) entered and exited the Shelby County Courthouse. (This movie was based on a John Grisham novel about ethics in law and business, which is exactly the story these six carvings that line the courthouse are quietly whispering today)

Limestone figures at the entrance to the Memphis Courthouse - Authority and Liberty

Limestone figures at the entrance to the Memphis Courthouse – Authority and Liberty

These first four works of art – Wisdom, Justice, Liberty and Authority – all work together, and Wisdom is the foundation. A people who govern themselves by a higher law, i.e. God’s law will have Liberty. But not all govern themselves, so the need for Justice, backed up by Authority is necessary. Justice governed by Wisdom is both Just and Merciful. And to keep order in this society, Authority must be set up and respected. This provides the setting for Liberty.

Just around the corner of the building where we entered, the final two of the six statues I mentioned were sitting, and like their four companions, they sat silent and unnoticed. They were titled “Peace” and “Prosperity”. Peace results from the healthy function of the first four. When godly Wisdom is the foundation, the outflow is Justice, Authority and Liberty, which in turn produces Peace.  It doesn’t matter where you are in this world, what country or culture, peace is desired and pursued. When the first four principles break down, there is no peace. But, when peace is present, what follows is “Prosperity”, the name of the last sculpture by James Massey Rhind.

Rough sketches of sculptures at Memphis Courthouse

Rough sketches of sculptures at Memphis Courthouse (skeches by S. Miller)

Here is the long and the short of it. Standing out in the freezing wind one December morning in Memphis being amazed by the work of an artist long since gone, I saw beautiful representations of principles that build up a society. The artist’s work was almost like an outline in stone. I was a bit perplexed by the observation that nobody seemed to notice this outline. It seems to be background noise or relics from another time and what now seems like another universe. Does it matter? Memphis is the 4th most dangerous city in the U.S. as of October, 2016. I guess it does matter some.

I’m not picking on Memphis, it’s much the same across the nation to one degree or another. How far we have fallen from those simple principles and guidelines.  Proverbs 14:34 reminds us that “Righteousness exalts a nation, But sin is a disgrace to any people.”

In other words, when a society fears the God of scriptures, there is Liberty, Peace and Prosperity. I think it is a general revelation of God’s great love for us,  His creation.

We just came through a year full of turmoil, both in the U.S and worldwide. The new year lays out before us, it’s pages yet unwritten. Who can argue with a set of simple guidelines that if followed, will produce peace?

I want to wish you a Blessed New Year of Peace from the true source of Peace!

For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6