The Wicked + The Divine: Depiction of Baal in Majesty, AD 2014
Baal’s atrium in Wotan’s Valhalla features a gigantic mural of Baal dressed in an understated black suit and tie. His suit is the only thing understated about his portrait, and I love him for that. The mural is a fresco, pigment painted onto a wet plaster wall. It reaches from vaulted ceiling to floor on a Heroic scale. Baal is the central figure, positioned like a god—which of course he is—attended by archangels and cherubs. At his feet and supplicant are the devil, the Egyptian god Horus, Zeus and another angel. That bearded figure might be “God the Father” but it’s probably Zeus, a lightning god.
The arrangement of figures evokes traditional depictions of “Christ in Majesty” or “Christ in Glory,” but with some key differences. Christ in Majesty is usually seated and serine whereas Baal’s face and posture are determined, he is ready to confront world. Others have pointed out the image looks a bit like Kanye West’s video for “Power”.
Artist Jamie McKelvie renders the fresco differently from his standard bold and graphic illustrations because making this art resemble a hand-painted fresco is significant.
We never saw the full fresco within the comic as published. We only see it in issue #4 of The Wicked + The Divine, obstructed by the characters viewing it. The image above is taken from the backmatter of the trade paperback. It shows that the fresco was important enough that it was made separately from the panel and then set at an angle. It was drawn digitally by McKelvie and then colored over by Nathan Fairbairn. In issue #4, we see scaffolding for painters in front of it, indicating that the work is not yet complete.
Why does it matter that we read the fresco as a painting executed on wet plaster? Because Baal’s wall isn’t decorated by poster art, or by airbrush or any modern technique– it’s Renaissance Art. Baal is positioning himself in a European pantheon. He is showing the lineage between himself and eurocentric culture and he is dominant over it.
He is Baal Haddad, a Canaanite god but painted like this he could also be Zeus or Jesus. Or Yeezus (aka Kanye).
This powerful statement reminds me of the heroic scale paintings of Kihinde Wiley. Wiley is one of the most important contemporary visual artists. He’s an African-American artist depicting black subjects. In many of his jaw-dropping traditionally executed oil paintings he casts contemporary black men (some famous, some not) as the central figure in paintings like: “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps” or “Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares”.
For most of Kehinde Wiley’s very successful career, he has created large, vibrant, highly patterned paintings of young African American men wearing the latest in hip hop street fashion. The theatrical poses and objects in the portraits are based on well-known images of powerful figures drawn from seventeenth- through nineteenth-century Western art. Pictorially, Wiley gives the authority of those historical sitters to his twenty-first-century subjects.
In 2005, VH1 commissioned Wiley to paint portraits of the honorees for that year’s Hip Hop Honors program. Turning his aesthetic on end, he used his trademark references to older portraits to add legitimacy to paintings of this generation’s already powerful musical talents. In Wiley’s hands, Ice T channels Napoleon, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five take on a seventeenth-century Dutch civic guard company.
In Wiley’s own words he “posit[s] young black men, fashioned in urban attire, within the field of power reminiscent of Renaissance artists such as Tiepolo and Titian.”
While Wiley’s depictions generally cast his subjects in the position of historical figures, never religious ones, Baal’s fresco depicts him in the position of the Christian god– the most important figure in European culture. And why not?! He is a god!
We may not have seen it on the page yet, but I’m confident Baal has one of Wiley’s paintings somewhere in his room because if Baal is sort of Kanye then Wiley has already created his portrait.
Plus, Baal does have impeccable taste. As of course does this comic’s creative team Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKevlie for using expert visual strategies to show us how Baal sees his place in the world especially in relation to the eurocentric culture of the past.
I’m aware of the criticisms of his Wiley’s work, particularly from a socialist perspective. But a lot of criticism of his work is racist and homophobic. Here’s a really nice defense of him.