Larger than life, the prostitute’s body crowds the edges of the eight-foot-high painting, the spike of her high-heeled shoe and her muscular leg creating a strong diagonal, leading ineluctably to her evasive eye.

Arlington, Virginia, painter Ed Knippers created this woman of the night as one panel of his 20-foot-long depiction of The Departure (The Prodigal in a Far Country). But she was too strong. Thus, she stood by herself as The Invitation, the first painting to confront viewers entering “Spiritual Impact: The Paintings of Edward Knippers,” an overpowering exhibition of flesh and spirit mounted last fall at Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The figures in Knippers’s paintings are massively physical, and their mounting by the museum’s curator of twentieth-century art, Frederick Brandt, multiplied their impact. The gigantic paintings nearly covered the walls of the first gallery, their vibrant colors giving the room the glow of a chapel constructed wholly of stained glass. There was no escape—one simply had to stare up the nostrils of the resuscitated Lazarus, feel wrapped in the father’s embrace of the returning prodigal, and uncomfortably avert one’s gaze from the viewer’s-eye-level nakedness of the resurrected Christ.

Gender-Specific

Why is the resurrected Christ nude? “The nudity of Christ is done for theological reasons,” says the painter, who, in addition to studying art, spent a year at Asbury Theological Seminary. “If Christ did not come gender-specific, he didn’t come at all.”

Knippers makes much of Jesus’ maleness and other specific realities of physical creation. “The fact that the world is as it is tells ...

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