“I am God,” Picasso once proclaimed. He had a monstrous ego and was monstrously impious to boot. Yet he had a point. In a career spanning eight decades, Picasso produced tens of thousands of paintings, prints, drawings, book illustrations, sculptures and ceramic pieces. With Georges Braque, he invented Cubism in the early 20th century but created work in an astonishing variety of other styles. Who else but God was capable of such fecundity? “God is really only another artist,” Picasso told his mistress Françoise Gilot. “He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style. He just keeps on trying other things.”
The creation story in the Bible only hints at the true scope of the project. In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth – as if our world were the only one and the lights in the heavens were there primarily to shine on us. Now we know the lights in the heavens are other suns like our own that also divide the day from the night. There are hundreds of billions of them in our galaxy alone, with God knows how many planets circling them. The sheer immensity of God’s enterprise beggars the imagination. And in our small corner of the universe, whirling around on the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy, we have a world with such an incredible variety and profusion of life that we cannot begin to catalogue it all. Among the vegetation brought forth on the earth, there are 15,000 known species of moss, more than 13,000 ferns and 10,000 lichens. Among the creeping things are 12,000 species of ants that in the aggregate constitute anywhere from 15% to 25% of the earth’s entire animal biomass. In Panama, entomologists collected specimens from just 19 trees and counted 1,200 species of beetles alone, most of which were previously unknown to science. Among the millions of bacteria species is a newly discovered variety that feeds on energy from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.
Amid this multiplicity of creatures great and small, only a single species has taken on the job of cataloging the rest – perhaps because there is only room for one. In the grand scheme of things, our sacred literature tells us, we stand at the apex of creation, only a little lower than the angels. Surely it would not do to share top billing with creatures of similar self-regard. Of all the attributes possessed by our kind, ego may be the most singular quality of all – and where did that come from? Can there be any bigger ego than the one belonging to God, who fathered an entire species in his own image? And which of the billions of facsimiles most resembles the original? Any short list would have to include that prodigious creature who cranked out artwork by the truckload, announcing to the world, “I am Picasso.”