Diego Rivera arrived in New York as the Great Depression lengthened and deepened, and what he encountered there informed and inflamed the leftist political leanings he had already developed in his native Mexico. In this mural, painted during his time in the city, Rivera captures and comments upon the instrumentalization of humanity, as the grandeur and built environment of the city is undergirded by the suffering of its inhabitants—suffering which itself rests on a bank vault, guarded and minded by the beneficiaries of capitalism.
As is common in the later writings of the New Testament, this part of 1 Timothy is keen to offer advice for the living of life. Especially prominent here is a warning against wealth and the desire for it, both as a personal principle (it plunges people into ruin and destruction) and as a force that works on an almost-cosmic scale (it is the root of all kinds of evil). Framed as advice to a young believer, from a beloved pastor–mentor to a protégé in the faith, the warning is clear: wealth has sundered many from their faith.
While Rivera’s painting is oriented vertically, with one scene atop another, it editorializes the horizontal—the relationships between persons, which are conditioned and severed by the vertical disparities of wealth. At the top, the city rises with its skyscrapers, and cranes imply that more are on the way. But in that urban landscape there are no persons; only in the bottom two-thirds of the image do we find any human beings, and they are diminutive ones.
In the middle register, in a scene that almost evokes a morgue, the anonymous sleeping bodies of the homeless are packed into a shelter as a policeman looks on. And at the bottom, the bankers and their customers are the only people with faces. Their features are indistinct, but they exude calm and self-satisfaction.
1 Timothy’s warning is more intelligible to the masses in the middle frame than it is to the wealthy at the bottom, but Rivera puts the root beneath the ground just as the epistle does—the root of evil sending up both the triumph of the city and the misery of its labourers.
Dickerman, Leah, Diego Rivera, and Anna Indych-López. 2011. Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art)
6 Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. 2Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.
Teach and urge these duties. 3If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, 4he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, 5and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. 6There is great gain in godliness with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; 8but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. 9But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.
11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; 15and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
17 As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, 19thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.
20 O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, 21for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith.
Grace be with you.