In 1 Peter’s first chapter, his recipients are in motion. They are being protected; they are receiving (1 Peter 1:5, 9).
American painter Pat Steir’s Waterfall of the Misty Dawn is not a painting of 1 Peter. It’s not about the epistle or the apostle. But when set alongside the biblical text, it illuminates Peter’s words, inviting us to consider them in a new way.
Steir (b.1940) uses techniques whose names evoke the fluidity of a waterfall: ink-splashing or flung ink (common in Chinese landscape painting), and drip painting, which creates the long, thin vertical lines of paint streaming down the canvas. The suggestion of incessant motion in Steir’s Waterfall can highlight the motion of Peter’s recipients, too. They’re journeying towards their inheritance—imperishable, unfading—which is being kept in the heavenly realm for them. It’s an inheritance that they have to die (and rise) in order to receive.
The very elusiveness of the connections between Peter’s missive and Steir’s waterfall tugs at another important thread of 1 Peter’s first chapter: the theme of seeing and not seeing, of believing while straining forward to see something that has not yet appeared (1 Peter 1:8). The joyful news of their salvation is a mystery long hidden and now revealed. The word ‘revealed’ (Greek apokaluptō and apokalupsis) is repeated three times in these twelve verses. Angels long to see into such things! But even they couldn’t see past the veil.
When one gazes at Steir’s waterfall, one’s eyes are drawn not only to the streams of water but also to what lies behind the shimmering veil. The ‘misty dawn’ in the painting’s title evokes the unfading inheritance that Peter’s recipients are waiting to receive (1 Peter 1:4). The dawn has long been used by Christians to symbolize the arrival of God’s new age—as when Luke’s Gospel describes Jesus’s birth as ‘the dawn from on high’ breaking upon Israel (Luke 1:78), and when Christ is given the title the ‘Dayspring’ (an older word for the dawn). Jesus’s dawning is their living hope, the glory they rejoice in even before they can see it (1 Peter 1:3, 8).
Denson, G. Roger. 1999. ‘Watercourse Way’, Art in America, 87.11: 114–21
McEvilley, Thomas. 1995. Pat Steir (New York: Harry N. Abrams)
1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. 9As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.
10 The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; 11they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory. 12It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.