To be an Appalachian-American means a number of things: You’ve ridden down dirt roads in the back of a pickup truck without giving it a second thought, you’ve spent a countless number of summer nights catching “lightning bugs”, and you’ve probably waded in a creek with pant legs rolled up to your knees.
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There’s also another great assumption that can be made if you grew up in the hills and hollers of “down home”: Beyond any shadow of a doubt you are very familiar with the painting posted at the top of this article and probably own a copy in some form or another… Am I right?
For me, there was one that hung in my grandmother’s living room, my sister had a jewelry box with this image inside and the Sunday school room of a church we often visited had this picture glaring down on us as we would sing, “Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
But what’s the backstory of this image and why is it that there are so many of them floating around our region?
To understand the significance of this painting, you must first know the eleventh verse of the 91st Psalm: “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.”
Out of this Biblical promise that God would protect His saints with angels grew a Roman Catholic doctrine of “Holy Guardian Angels”, in which morning prayers are recited which read, “Holy Guardian Angel whom God has appointed to be my guardian, direct and govern me during this day, Amen”.
Over the past 500 years, the idea of guardian angels really caught on and by the 1800s painters across Europe began selling various depictions of guardian angels, particularly watching over young children as they traveled along dangerous pathways.
In most of these paintings, the guardian angels were watching as children braved the edges of rock cliffs with massive drop-offs.
In 1900, however, a German postcard maker broke tradition and instead published a painting of an unknown artist that featured two children being protected as they crossed a broken down bridge over treacherous waters rather than sharp cliffs.
Interestingly, the postcard found a receptive audience in protestant-America, especially in the hills of Appalachia, where just about every family had a broken down bridge that led to their home place… and on more than one occasion were communities disrupted by flooding.
Mind you, this is the same region of the country where the saying “Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise,” referring to the Creek Indian tribe was changed to “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise,” referring to the unpredictable waters that ran at the base of every mountain.
It was out of this understanding of the dangers rushing water presented and the many ways in which the painting pictured all of life’s many treacheries, one by one, grandma’s across the mountains began hanging this picture in their living rooms!
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Helping to expedite the painting’s fame was the fact that it quickly entered into the public domain in America and is now free for reprint by everyone (barring any derivative works), which means that anyone who has the capabilities can take this painting and affix it to a night light, a picture, furniture, a Bible or anything else… Making its distribution cheap and limitless.