Title: Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
Artist: Ruth Starr Rose
Size: 11.875″ x 16″
Credit: Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Description: In the center of the image is an old-fashioned farm windmill with a water pump underneath it. Surrounding the windmill are four angels who are actively trying to spin it: one on the left, one on top, and two on the right. The top right angel around the windmill is blowing air to make it spin, while the bottom right angel is using a set of bellows to produce air. To the right of the windmill, in the sky, are ghostly forms of two oxen pulling a cart driven by an angel in the top right corner of the image. To the left of the windmill is a ghostly image of a car circa 1930s being pushed by two angels. On the ground, in the center foreground of the image is a man with his hands folded in prayer, looking up at the windmill in astonishment. To his left, situated behind him, are a black and a white donkey. On the ground, in the background, is the silhouette of a person with two more donkeys.
Ezekiel Saw the Wheel is based on an African American spiritual of the same name, which is futher based on the Biblical story of Ezekiel and his vision outlined in Ezekiel 1. In the story, Ezekiel talks about seeing a windstorm with a large cloud laden with lightning and “surrounded by brilliant light” (Ezek. 1:4 NIV). In this, there was a fire that appeared to have four living creatures made up of human forms with four faces (a human, a lion, an ox, and an eagle), four wings, and hoofed feet. Beside these creatures were four wheels that moved wherever these creatures moved “because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels” (Ezek. 1:21 NIV). This is when God appoints Ezekiel as a prophet.
For spiritual African Americans, the circle and/or wheel is prominent imagery, especially in the sense of music. Bishop Daniel A. Payne wrote about his time in the late 1870s in which he attended what he referred to as a “bush meeting” to see a “Praying and Singing Band” at the bequest of a local pastor. Bishop Payne speaks poorly of the way the Bands worship but, through this, the reader is given an insight into the concept of ring shouts and the symbolism of rings and wheels in African American spirituality. When Bishop Payne confronts the person who’d led the ring shout, the leader responds that “Sinners wont get converted unless there is a ring … The Spirit of God works upon people in different ways. At camp-meeting there must be a ring here, a ring there, a ring over yonder, or sinners will not get converted.”
Ezekiel and the wheel is a popular motif in art, especially when referencing African American spirituals. Similar to Ruth Starr Rose, artist Lamar G. Baker was a white artist whose art focused on social issues including racial injustice. He also depicted African American spirituals, including a piece based on “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel”. Famed African American artist, William H. Johnson is also among many artists of the period who depicted “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel”. Johnson’s version takes on a more traditional look of what appears to be a shepherd with a loin cloth and literal wheels in the sky, rather than the “modern” look of a windmill, chariot, and car to symbolize the wheel in Rose’s piece or a set of mechanical gears to represent the wheels Ezekiel saw by Baker.
Fisk University Jubilee Singers. “Ezekiel Saw De Wheel.” Internet Archive, 1920. https://archive.org/details/78_ezekiel-saw-de-wheel_fisk-university-jubilee-singers_gbia0103059a.
McIntosh County Shouters – “Spirituals and Shout Songs” [Behind The Scenes Documentary]. YouTube. Smithsonian Folkways, 2017. youtube.com/watch?v=fUdBru-7s7w.
Payne, Daniel Alexander. “In the East – Praying Bands.” Essay. In Recollections of Seventy Years, 248–57. New York, NY: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1969.