Ecclesiastes 3:18 “I also thought, where human beings are concerned, God tests them to show them that they are but animals 19 because human beings and animals share the same fate. One dies just like the other—both have the same life-breath. Humans are no better off than animals because everything is pointless. 20 All go to the same place: all are from the dust; all return to the dust.”
Five door-sized panels reveal a prairie landscape of cattle. Each panel contains one life-sized animal. I stand back a few feet and stare at the cattle. The longer I look the more I realize that those same dark-eyed cattle are observing me. Only the young calf looks to the side, avoiding direct eye contact. The white-faced Herefords and black Angus cattle watch me watch them. I’m not gazing at them as much as I feel they are letting me look into their world.
The ubiquitous South Dakota cattle huddle together on East River farms and spread out over treeless prairies of West River. This summer my friend Sheila and I were in a South Dakota traffic jam. Several cows stood on the two-track road. We stopped and waited. The cattle took a good long look at us, continuing across the road.
The stylized paintings in Sheila’s studio remind me of when I stood in front of sacred icons of saints and Biblical characters at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. I looked into the eyes of the icon of the Virgin Mary. She stared ahead, her eyes gazing into mine. As far as I can tell, I do not know of any Christian Icons of Cows (or Icons of Christian cows). The great Christian icon artists painted the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus, the adult Jesus, and other divine figures. Throughout the first thousand years of Christian history, these divine images were both venerated and destroyed. The Western Church of Rome condemned the use of icons in the Eastern Church as idolatrous while the Eastern Church defended the beauty and power of the sacred images. Finally, in 1054 CE, the Christian church split into two over the icons, creating a lasting schism.
Icons are windows through which the Divine and human behold each other. When I am at an art exhibit, I often gaze at a painting, admire it, and move on to the next piece of art. However, these cattle compel me to stop as they stare at me from their big, dark eyes. For a brief moment, I feel pulled into their world, into their kind. I see the world from their perspective. They remind me that we are all God’s creatures, created in the Divine image.
Listen to Cows, by Gary Pederson, a humorous musical response to the striking and impressive paintings of cattle by Sheila.