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God’s Presence in Human Suffering

The French revolutionary leader Napoleon Bonaparte once stated that in order to understand a person, it is important to know what was happening in the world when they were twenty years of age. When Winifred Knights entered and won the 1920 Rome Prize at the age of just twenty-one with her painting The Deluge (Tate T05532; fig.1), her depiction of the biblical story of Noah’s ark and the flood, there was a great deal going on in her world that – consciously or unconsciously – would have served to influence her interpretation. Europe had just emerged from the First World War, the events of which had resulted in considerable personal trauma for Knights, as well as national grief and upheaval. But in addition, and partly in response to the war, there were significant shifts taking place in theological thought at that time that would continue to play out throughout the twentieth century. While nineteenth-century theology had been tinged with a prevailing optimism about the progress of humanity, the First World War and the interwar years led to more sobering reflections on human virtue and various theological assumptions were re-examined, such as the conflation of national identity with the Kingdom of God, and – perhaps more significantly – where and how God is present in human suffering. Looking at Knights’s The Deluge through the lens of the social and theological mood of the 1920s, this essay will show that, in subtle ways, her painting brings into focus some of these changing ideas.