John Valentine Haidt was born in Germany and began his artistic career when forty-five or forty-six years of age in the Moravian community of Herrnhaag. His father, a goldsmith, taught him this trade, though the boy wanted to become a minister. However, he studied drawing for three years at the Royal Academy of Arts in Berlin. Later, when established in London as a goldsmith, he joined the Moravians after a profound religious experience at a Moravian love feast in London. He became a lay preacher in England, then returned to Germany in 1746.
His motivation for devoting himself entirely to painting came when the Moravian church was going through the so-called Sifting Period. Haidt, who was impressed by the Moravian emphasis on the blood and wounds of the Saviour, felt that the Moravians were straying from the true gospel. Thus, he wrote Count Zinzendorf and asked to be allowed to paint rather than preach, saying, “For, I thought, if they will not preach the martyrdom of God anymore, l will paint it all the more vigorously.” Permission was granted and Count Zinzendorf, who had already asked him to do one painting, increased the request to nine. In 1754 he left England with his family for Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, then the center of the Moravian church in this country. In the communal economic system of the Moravians there was no such thing as a non-religious occupation. The church supported him, even providing him with a painting room. As official church painter, he did not have to get commissions from congregations or individuals. He painted portraits as well as many Biblical scenes, and indeed was very productive. He concluded his memoir in 1767 with the words, “I hardly need to mention that I have painted, because almost all the congregations have some of my work, which the dear Savior has also let be a blessing to many a heart.”
Haidt’s paintings were intended, as Walter Peters writes, “literally as visual aids in expounding the Scriptures not only in Moravian churches but also in Moravian mission chapels among the Indian nations and other mission fields.” Though Haidt did portraits, a large group of the extant paintings are preponderantly on Passion subjects; there are several versions of the Crucifixion, Christ in Gethsemane, the Ecce Homo, and Lamentation over the Dead Christ. All of these emphasize the blood and sweat and anguish of Christ, recalling the ‘incomparable hymn’ by Count Zinzendorf which moved Haidt at the time of his conversion: “The Savior’s blood and righteousness / Our beauty is, our glorious dress; / Thus well arrayed we need not fear, / When in His presence we appear.”
Today many of Haidt’s paintings are on view at the Moravian Historical Society in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and at the Archives of the Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Jane Dillenberger and Joshua C. Taylor The Hand and the Spirit: Religious Art in America 1700 – 1900 (Berkeley, Cal.: University Art Museum, 1972)