Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.

Josh Tiessen: Vanitas + Viriditas

Josh Tiessen: Vanitas + Viriditas

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” ––T.S. Eliot

This Spring, New York gallery Rehs Contemporary will present the newest body of work from Josh Tiessen – Vanitas and Viriditas. On view from April 28th through May 26th, the exhibition will be comprised of 23 meticulously crafted paintings and drawings, which required more than 5,000 hours of studio work over the course of three years!

Tiessen is an international award-winning artist based in Canada, best known for his hyper-surreal and uniquely shaped oil paintings. His pieces often delve into the interaction between the natural world and humanity, drawing on his studies in philosophy and theology. Continuing on that, Vanitas and Viriditas is an exploration of two divergent perspectives on wisdom and how we might flourish in a modern society filled with facts but mired in confusion.

Tiessen’s Vanitas paintings include a figure named Qohelet (Hebrew for “Teacher”). Inspired by the Jewish wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, these works represent the vanity of humans striving for power, wealth, and knowledge, often at the expense of the earth. The art historical vanitas genre, popularized by 17th-century Dutch still life painters, is based on the refrain in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” These images often included motifs such as skulls, moths, and ephemera to remind viewers of the temporality of life and the inevitability of death. Similarly in Tiessen’s works, Qohelet seeks to deconstruct all the ways in which we find meaning and purpose in life that inescapably let us down. He chases after modern idols of science, technology, material consumption, and pleasure, ultimately finding them wanting. Is it all just smoke and mirrors? Is there wisdom in being at peace with the endless paradoxes, or is it cause for despair? The philosophy behind the Vanitas paintings is visually symbolized through an achromatic color palette, Japanese Zen rock gardens, and barren nihilistic landscapes.

The Viriditas paintings are built around a figure named Sophia (Greek for “wisdom”), inspired by the female personification of wisdom from the book of Proverbs. These works espouse virtues such as simplicity, humility, wonder, and awe, which are vital for cultivating ecological wisdom. The 12th-century nature mystic Hildegard of Bingen informed the character development of Sophia, from whom the Latin expression viriditas (translated as “holy greening”) originates. Sophia lives in a harmonious relationship with the natural world, attuning herself to the seasonal rhythms of nature. The vernal color palette in these paintings is bright and cheery—emerald, sienna, yellow, and amethyst, accompanied by Celtic and Gothic Revival aesthetics.

Both Qohelet and Sophia are complemented by animal companions. Qohelet is disenchanted with the natural world and ambivalent toward his fellow creatures since ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. Sophia seeks to learn from the symphony of creation, heeding the advice of the ancient sage named Job:

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,

 the birds of the air, and they will tell you;

ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you,

 and the fish of the sea will declare to you.

Who among all these does not know

 that the hand of the Lord has done this?

In his hand is the life of every living thing

 and the breath of every human being.”

For Qohelet, wisdom is pursued with “fear and trembling,” accepting the sobering truth that everything in this world is fleeting. For Sophia, the path to wisdom is re-enchantment with the earth and its Creator, manifested in embodied skillful living. The original meaning of the word philosophy –– “love of wisdom” is thereby restored. Flourishing can occur when we align ourselves with the wise grain of the universe.

Sophia Oil on Braced Baltic Birch, 24” x 24” x 2”


In the biblical book of Proverbs, we find four poems dedicated to Lady Wisdom. My interest was piqued when I read in chapter eight that this mysterious figure was the artisan at the Creator’s side, personifying the wise blueprint by which the cosmos was created. We often think of wisdom as head knowledge, but in Jewish wisdom literature it is better understood as practical knowledge, extending even to botany and music. [i]

The 12th century Benedictine abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen lived out this embodied wisdom. With a deep respect for the Creator and creation, she was the first to study scientific natural history in Germany. [ii] Like the female artisan of Proverbs delighting in creation, Hildegard loved music and pioneered the first musical, allowing nuns under her care to perform moral plays, even letting down their hair and wearing colourful dresses.

I drew these strands of inspiration into my new muse, Sophíā (Greek for wisdom). Here she is accompanied by a Marvelous Spatuletail. This endangered hummingbird, which only lives in the Andean forest of northern Peru, dons costume-like iridescent plumage and extravagant long tail feathers tipped with purple discs. The American Bird Conservancy has partnered with local Peruvians to create the Huembo Reserve to protect this unique species.

In our modern technocratic society, both religious and secular people are prone to an “excarnate” existence, living life solely in our heads and not in our bodies, leading to an alienation from the physical world all around us. Sadly, children are largely growing up indoors on screens, and are not outside experiencing nature with their five senses––developing Nature-Deficit Disorder, as chronicled in Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods.

Throughout my painting series Vanitas and Viriditas, Sophia’s adventures illustrate that now more than ever we must embody divine wisdom in our relations with one another and the earth.

[i] 1 Kings 4:31-34

[ii] Hildegard of Bingen, Physica and Causae et Curae.


All Creatures Lament Oil on Braced Baltic Birch, 26” x 26” x 2”


“We shall awaken from our dullness and rise vigorously toward justice. If we fall in love with

creation deeper and deeper, we will respond to its endangerment with passion.”

–Hildegard of Bingen [i]

Physiologus, a 2nd-century monastic text, was a predecessor to medieval bestiaries extolling the moral symbolism of real and imagined creatures, accompanied by lavish illustrations. One of the legendary stories is of a mother pelican who pierces her breast to feed her young, a phenomena believed to take place during seasons of extreme drought. This visceral image was applied to Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross—shedding his blood to make atonement for the sins of humanity. In the Gospel books of the Bible, Christ likens himself to a mother hen: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” [ii] Over the centuries many cathedrals adopted the symbol of the mother pelican and her chicks in the form of colourful stained-glass windows.

Drawing on this theological symbol, my painting depicts a mother pelican’s strident attempt to rise from the oily muck to save her chicks. I had in mind the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. This explosion of a rig managed by oil company BP was the largest marine oil spill in history, affecting Brown Pelicans in Louisiana, as well as White Pelicans many kilometers inland. In addition to oil spills, the ecological disaster of ocean plastics proliferates. Fishing nets are the worst perpetrators, and hooks that get lodged into wildlife. By 2050, 90% of seabirds will have plastic in their stomachs. [iii] Recently a train derailment in Ohio unleashed toxic chemicals like vinyl chloride into the air and waterways, resulting in nearly 45,000 animal deaths (primarily fish) and affecting the health of local communities, one of the worst catastrophes in American history. These environmental disasters manifest the proverb, “Whoever sows injustice reaps calamity, and the rod they wield in fury will be broken.” [iv]

When I read the words of Hildegard of Bingen (above) I am reminded that my love for the natural world must also involve a response to its endangerment. “All Creatures Lament” is meant to be an unpleasant and sobering work that spurs us on to action. Looking into the face of an innocent suffering creature, we also look into the face of Christ, remembering that we are called like he was to stand with the oppressed and marginalized, no matter the species.

[i] Hildegard of Bingen, De Operatione Dei, 66.

[ii] Matthew 23:37

[iii] All Creatures Podcast, Episode 291.

[iv] Proverbs 22:8


Swallowed by Knowledge Oil on Braced Baltic Birch, 30” x 40” x 2”


After a life pursuing knowledge, Qohelet concludes: "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body." [i]

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard criticized the work of the German metaphysician Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who believed humans could arrive at objective truth through a rational systematic approach to knowledge. [ii] Instead, Kierkegaard emphasized that we are temporal and finite beings, and the best we can do is with “fear and trembling” take a leap of faith.

The barren Icelandic black sand landscape in my painting is metaphorical for the epistemic nihilism Qohelet experiences in his quest for understanding. Certainly there is merit in studying broadly, and logically evaluating a plethora of truth claims. Being well-read is part of a rich and full life. Fine novels ignite our imaginations, and books about history, science, religion, and politics, expand our horizons.

However, no one can possibly read every book written and assert omniscience (all-knowing). Contrary to what our 'smart' phones would have us believe, we are sadly no more the wiser! We are experiencing what Charles Taylor termed the “Nova Effect,” a rapidly increasing array of life philosophies that are now on offer. [ii] Qohelet discovers that what we really need is not additional information, but true wisdom. Some of the most diabolical eugenicists and dictators were (and are) well-educated individuals. When we seek to find our entire purpose and meaning through the acquisition of knowledge we self-delude, rejecting a relationship with our omniscient Creator––the Light that can help us discern true wisdom from the wisdom of this age.

Viewers of this painting may notice the allusion to the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, evidenced in Qohelet's place within the skeletal rib cage of a massive Sperm Whale. These intelligent mammals have brains six times the size of humans yet, like us, they suffer the same fate of death: "the dust returns to the ground it came from." [iv]

The Elf Owl perched atop Qohelet's head recalls Celtic tales of saints such as St. Kevin of Glendalough (498-618). Living in complete solitude in the wilderness, he was in such earnest contemplation and prayer that a blackbird built a nest in his open hands. [v] The insertion of the curious owl evokes the irony and humour indicative of when we get 'lost in a book' oblivious to the world around us... as Qohelet is often prone to doing!

[i] Ecclesiastes 12:12

[ii] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 423.

[ii] John Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard. 12-13, 27.

[iii] Ecclesiastes 12:7

[iv] Tracy Balzer, Thin Places. 114.


Josh Tiessen was born in 1995 in Moscow, Russia. He is an international award-winning contemporary artist based near Toronto, Canada. Tiessen is best known for his hyper-surreal shaped oil paintings, which take up to 1700 hours to complete, and reflect the interaction between the natural world and human-made structures, drawing upon his studies in philosophy, theology, and environmentalism.

From April 28th through May 26th, New York gallery Rehs Contemporary will present Josh Tiessen – Vanitas and Viriditas.


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13 October 2023 / David Miller Interview

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24 August 2021 / On the Gifts of Street Art

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27 July 2021 / Russia’s 1st Biennale of Christ-centered Art

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30 June 2021 / Jacques and Raïssa Maritain among the Artists

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13 May 2021 / GOD IS...

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21 April 2021 / Photographing Religious Practice

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23 March 2021 / Constanza López Schlichting: Via Crucis

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10 February 2021 / Gert Swart: Four Cruciforms

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08 January 2021 / Reflecting on a Gauguin Masterpiece

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11 December 2020 / ArtWay Newsletter 2020

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27 October 2020 / Art Pilgrimage

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18 September 2020 / Interview with Peter Koenig

by Jonathan Evens

Koenig's practice demonstrates that the way to avoid blandness in religious art is immersion in Scripture.



How Other Cultures See the Bible

Christian Weber, Wie andere Kulturen die Bibel sehen. Ein Praxisbuch mit 70 Kunstwerken aus 33 Ländern.


17 July 2020 / The Calling Window by Sophie Hacker

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In 2018 British artist Sophie Hacker was approached to design a window for Romsey Abbey to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Florence Nightingale.


12 June 2020 / A little leaven leavens the whole lump

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Ydi Carstens reports on the group show ‘Unleavened’ which was opened in Stellenbosch shortly before the Covid-19 lock-down. 


14 May 2020 / Jazz, Blues, and Spirituals


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17 April 2020 / Andy Warhol: Catholicism, Work, Faith And Legacy

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While Warhol’s engagement with faith was complex it touched something which was fundamental, not superficial.


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22 February 2020 / Between East and West

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15 February 2020 / Imagination at Play

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07 December 2019 / ArtWay Newsletter 2019

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16 November 2019 / Scottish Miracles and Parables Exhibition

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23 September 2019 / Dal Schindell Tribute

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04 September 2019 / The Aesthetics of John Calvin

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02 July 2019 / Quotes by Tim Keller

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29 May 2019 / Art Stations of the Cross: Reflections

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03 May 2019 / Marianne Lettieri: Relics Reborn

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27 April 2019 / Franciscan and Dominican Arts of Devotion

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01 January 2018 / Jonathan Evens writes about Central Saint Martins

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08 September 2017 / David Taylor: The Aesthetics of John Calvin

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02 June 2017 / I Believe in Contemporary Art

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07 March 2017 / Socially Engaged Art

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01 November 2016 / LAbri for Beginners

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30 September 2016 / Book Review by Jonathan Evens

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01 September 2016 / Review: Modern art and the life of a culture

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29 July 2016 / Victoria Emily Jones on Disciplining our Eyes

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30 June 2016 / Aniko Ouweneel on What is Christian Art?

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09 June 2016 / Theodore Prescott: The Sagrada Familia

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19 May 2016 / Edward Knippers: Do Clothes make the Man?

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27 April 2016 / Alexandra Harper: Culture Care

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06 April 2016 / Jonathan Evens on Contemporary Commissions

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12 March 2016 / Betty Spackman: Creativity and Depression

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24 February 2016 / Jim Watkins: Augustine and the Senses

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11 February 2016 / H.R. Rookmaaker: Does Art Need Justification?

Art is not a religion, nor an activity relegated to a chosen few, nor a mere worldly, superfluous affair. None of these views of art does justice to the creativity with which God has endowed man.


26 January 2016 / Ned Bustard: The Bible is Not Safe

Revealed is intended to provoke surprise, even shock. It shows that the Bible is a book about ordinary people, who are not only spiritual beings, but also greedy, needy, hateful, hopeful, selfish, and sexual.


14 January 2016 / Painting by Nanias Maira from Papua New Guinea

In 2011 Wycliffe missionary Peter Brook commissioned artist Nanias Maira, who belongs to the Kwoma people group of northwestern Papua New Guinea, to paint Bible stories in the traditional style for which he is locally known.