The root a-h-b ("love") appears 251 times in the Bible. What kinds of love? Who is loving and who is loved?
There is love of a man for a woman ויאהב יעקב את רחל Genesis 29:18
and the love of a woman for a man ותאהב מיכל בת שאול את דוד I Samuel 18:20
There is love between men נִפְלְאַתָה אַהֲבָתְךָ לִי מֵאַהֲבַת נָשים II Samuel 1:26
and there is love between women כלתך אשר אהבתך Ruth 4:15
There is love of oneself and of the “other” ואהבת לרעך כמוך Leviticus 19:18
and there is love of the stranger ואהבתם את הגר Deuteronomy 1:19
There is love of the child את בנך אשר אהבת Genesis 22:2
There is love of food ועשה לי מטעמים כאשר אהבתי Genesis 27:4
There is love of a master אהבתי את אדוני Exodus 21:5
There is love of God ואהבת את ה' אלהיך Deuteronomy 6:5
and there is God’s love of Israel זרע אברהם אהבי Isaiah 41:8
There is love of Torah שלום רב לאהבי תורתך Psalms 119:165
There is love of Good ואהבו טוב Amos 5:15
and there is love of Compassion ואהבת חסד Micha 6:8
There is love of a man for his wife ראה חיים עם אשה אשר אהבת Ecclesiastes 9:9
But the Song of Songs (hereafter, Songs) is for all readers the quintessential book of biblical love. On the one hand, this love seems to many modern readers to be mainly the erotic love of a young couple and God plays no part in it; on the other hand, traditional Jewish and Christian commentary reads the book as an allegory of human-divine love and therefore suppresses the erotic elements. Our challenge was to see how artists of various times and places understand this love and how they deal with the darker side of love that appears in several passages in the book.
The most widespread imaging of Songs in the art of the medieval Church portrays the bond between Jesus and the Church (Ecclesia) or between “the Divine Word and the individual soul”.
In most of these images one sees a haloed man with a (usually) crowned woman. In all the examples above, the couple is in close physical contact.
In contrast, while Jewish medieval art also portrays couples as the iconic representation of Songs, they are not marked as divine nor are they intimate.
In all of the examples below, the couple accompanies the initial word אתי (“with me”), found in Songs 4:8; in the Mahzor, this phrase has been incorporated into the piyyut Iti MeLevanon (“Look together with me from Lebanon”), sung in the synagogue service for Shabbat Hagadol, just before Passover. The piyyut ties Songs to Passover by interpreting the frustrated yearning of the lovers as a metaphor for the plight of Israel in Exile, especially the enslavement in Egypt.
In the Worms Mahzor, a wedding couple stands under the huppah; there is no physical contact between them; the bride is entirely covered by a long hooded coat. The ornamented word אתי (including a winking eye as a vowel mark!) takes center stage, separating the couple from the officiating rabbi and further diminishing the physicality of the couple. Similarly, אתי appears above the couple in the Levi Mahzor; here, as elsewhere, the groom wears a Jews’ hat and the bride a crown. The Jews’ hat and the blindfolded bride (modeled on the “Synagoga” of Christian art) seem to indicate the influence of Christian iconography. But here, there is some contact – the hands of the couple modestly meet at the center of the picture.
In the Leipzig Mahzor, the couple is seated side by side but again, they are separated, this time by a “tree”, designed to prevent contact and perhaps reflecting an iconographic tradition from the Garden of Eden story, in which Adam and Eve stand on either side of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Darmstadt Mahzor portrays a bride and groom, seated as far apart as possible on either side of the word אתי; the bride holds a goblet and the groom, what may be a ring. Finally, in the Laud Mahzor the couple is entirely separated by the word אתי and the accompanying text. Thus, medieval Jewish art always separated the “exuberant” couple from one another in order to undermine any hint of physical intimacy, stressing the spiritual reading of Songs.
Both in Christian and in Jewish illuminations, however, we find additional interpretations connected with Songs, some of them very arcane.
In some Christian illuminations, the lovers from Songs are simply portrayed as a human couple, walking in a garden or conversing in a bedroom. These treatments of the couple are an unusual pre-modern literal reading of the book.
More widespread as an emblem of Songs is the figure of the Virgin Mary, by herself, with the Christ child, with angels or symbolized as a locked or enclosed garden.
A garden locked Is my sister, my bride, A fountain locked, A sealed-up spring. Songs 4:12
How did these visual treatments develop?
As we have already seen, Christianity interpreted Songs as an allegory for the love of Jesus and the Church. The Virgin Mary is equated with the Church. During the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Christian doctrine developed a dogma called “Immaculate Conception”: Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit while retaining her virginity. The symbol of this dogma used by artists of the time was the “enclosed garden” (hortus conclusus) of Songs.
Sometimes, as in the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, the image of the enclosed garden is paired in an astonishing midrashic leap with the image of Balaam, who according to Christian interpretations prophesied the birth of Mary in the stars (see Numbers 24:17).
An additional, and surprising, image connected with Songs in Christian illuminated manuscripts is the tomb.
In the picture above left from a Biblia Pauperum of 1470, Reuben finds Joseph missing from the pit (Genesis 37). This is connected with the Three Mary’s finding the empty tomb of Jesus. In the third image, the bride is anguished by the absence of the bridegroom (Songs 3:1-3; 5: 2 - 6). In all three images there is the pain of loss. As noted above, this combination is based on the equation of the bride in Songs with the Virgin Mary. During the 12th century, with the rise of the cult of Mary, Songs was understood to be a prefiguring of the life of Mary. Episodes from her life were equated with sections from Songs. Among these episodes is the visit of the three Marys (or the myrrh bearers) who discover the empty tomb of Jesus (Mark 16: 1 – 7), which is paralleled by Songs 5: 2 – 6. Here the beloved opens her door to receive her lover and finds him gone. The highly sexual text of Songs is interpreted as a metaphor for death and loss and Songs becomes a funeral text.
While there is no parallel to this connection between Songs and funerals in Jewish art of the Middle Ages, Songs does appear in the Jewish ritual of preparing the body for burial (taharat hamet) ; verses from chapters 4, 5 and 7 are sung during the washing process. These verses extol the beauty of the human body, to honor the physicality of God’s creation, short-lived though it is. But this use of Songs in Jewish funeral rites is never illustrated.
In addition to the image of the couple, Jewish illuminated manuscripts employ several other images as emblems of Songs.
Deer appear in one group of these emblems. The two next examples use this image in wildly contrasting ways.
In the Rothschild Mahzor, a stag and doe accompany the introduction to the Torah service during Pesach, at which time Songs is read. What does this love song have to do with deer? Deer of various sorts appear throughout Songs, in both masculine and feminine forms, as imagery of the lovers. The male:
My beloved is like a gazelle Or like a young stag. Song of Songs 2:9
And the female:
Your breasts are like two fawns, Twins of a gazelle, Browsing among the lilies. Songs 4:5
In the Rothschild Mahzor, the stag and doe create an additional level of Midrash: While the usual allegorical interpretation of the lovers in Songs is as God and the people of Israel, here the female deer represents the Torah and the male deer represents God or the people of Israel. This Midrash derives from a Talmudic passage, relating to the deer image as found in the book of Proverbs:
R. Samuel b. Nahmani expounded: With reference to the Scriptural text: A loving doe, a graceful mountain goat etc. (Proverbs 5:19), why were the words of the Torah compared to a ‘hind’? To tell you that as the hind has a narrow womb and is loved by its mate at all times as at the first hour of their meeting, so it is with the words of the Torah — They are loved by those who study them at all times as at the hour when they first made their acquaintance. ‘And a graceful mountain goat’? Because the Torah bestows grace upon those who study it. Tal. Bab. Erubin 54b
How strange it was for us to view the opening of the text of Songs and see a stag hunt in the De Castro Pentateuch.
Although this motif is found in other Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in a variety of contexts, only here is it used in association with Songs. The lettering alternates red and blue. The picture is dominated by the word Song (Shir); to the right, a stylized tree conceals a hunter, sounding his horn. To the left, the object of the hunt, a leaping stag, is attacked from below by a large hound, while a smaller dog stands below the opening word. The image of the stag hunt in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts has been explained by art historians as a symbol for the oppression of the Jews in Galut; the stag is Israel (see II Samuel 1:19), the hunter is the gentiles (compare Esau, the evil hunter of Midrash). The strange imaging of the love story of Songs by such a cruel emblem affirms that Songs was understood here to revolve around the plight of Israel in the Galut. According to this interpretation, the thrice repeated oath:
I adjure you, O maidens of Jerusalem,
By gazelles or hinds of the field:
Do not wake or rouse
Love until it please! Songs 2:7; 3:5; 8:4
is understood as part of the extended allegory of God and Israel and actually refers to three oaths taken by Israel submitting to its exile. Do not wake…love means: Stay in your dormant state of exile, from God and the land of Israel until.
Thus, in the two pictures above, Songs is linked to the reality and the hope of Jews in the Middle Ages – their reality is oppression (the dog biting the stag), their hope is Israel at peace (the stag and the doe).
One of the most enigmatic pictures connected with Songs in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts is found in the Kaufmann Tripartite Mahzor of 1322.
All are agreed that the picture shows King Solomon, the traditional writer of Songs, seated on his throne. All agree further that the major literary source of the picture is Targum Sheni to Esther, a late midrashic work. But there is disagreement about all of the other elements of the picture. According to B. Narkiss and G. Sed-Rajna, the picture shows the famous Judgment of Solomon (I Kings 3). Solomon is seated on the right on his magical throne, sword in hand, about to split the living child. On the left, below, the two contesting mothers (portrayed in accordance with the practice of the time and place with animal heads!) raise their hands toward the king; above, looking on in wonder, the Queen of Sheba (who actually only appears well after the Judgment, in I Kings 10), is identified by her royal robes and crown. Both above and below on the left there are chimerical figures, playing music and romping as befits a royal audience.
But as S. Shalev-Eyni has pointed out, there is no baby here, as in all other portrayals of the biblical scene; so perhaps this is not the Judgment. In all other pictorial versions of the Judgment, the killing sword is in the hands of the executioner, not in the hands of the King, the man of Peace. Shalev-Eyni further points out that the supposed royal robe of the woman above is identical to that of one of the women below, who is supposedly a prostitute. The supposed crown she wears is, in fact, spiked hair, just like that of the chimerical figure in front of her. And finally, these chimeras reflect both Jewish and Christian midrashim on Solomon’s power over a variety of demons and spirits. Note that in the Muslim world too, Solomon (=Sulayman) is usually portrayed in the company of both angels and demons, seated on his throne and sometimes accompanied by Balqis, the Queen of Sheba.
Thus, Shalev-Eyni rejects the identification of the picture from the Tripartite Mahzor as the Judgment of Solomon and sees it as a picture of Solomon praised by a group of women and spirits, employing an amalgam of characteristics of the King, produced by a remarkable co-production of Jews and Christians.
The final question is: what have either of these interpretations to do with Songs? On the one hand, we might see the stories of the Judgment of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which associate the King with women, as parallel to the love interest of Songs. On the other hand, we might see the image of Solomon and women as alluding to the classical allegory of God (the male principle) and Knesset Israel/the Church (the female principle). In both cases, the erotic nature of Songs is well-concealed beneath the royal robes.
In the very same manuscript, we find a second illumination connected with Songs, again by way of the piyyut Iti MeLevanon.
Again our expectations of an expression of love are thwarted; instead two knights are jousting on horseback! Shalev-Eyni has suggested that this battle scene is a reference to the battle of Muhldorf in 1322, in which the champion of the Jews was bested in the struggle for control of the Holy Roman Empire. Since the piyyut expresses hope for salvation of the Jews, the battle scene was employed, with the almost unnoticed addition of a naked man turning his backside to the victor. In this manner the defeated Jew is thumbing his nose at his oppressor. An additional explanation of the surprising use of military imagery regarding Songs is that such imagery is actually found in Songs in close proximity.
4 Your neck is like the Tower of David,
Built to hold weapons,
Hung with a thousand shields—
All the quivers of warriors.
8 From Lebanon come with me;
From Lebanon, my bride, with me!
Trip down from Amana’s peak,
From the peak of Senir and Hermon,
From the dens of lions,
From the hills of leopards. Songs 4:4,8
Thus, in both pictures from the Tripartite Mahzor, not only is there no intimacy, there is no love at all; perhaps the general context of the time and place could not deal with the erotic nature of Songs.
In the late 15th century Rothschild Mahzor, similarly, there is no treatment of the love of a young couple. But here, on the right, we have Solomon seated on his throne, gesturing toward a book, presumably Songs. And on the left stands a troubadour, suggesting the love songs yet to be sung. This is a simple, even a conventional, presentation of Songs, alluding to its authorship by the youthful, unbearded Solomon.
In conclusion, both Christian and Jewish artists chose the allegorical interpretation of Songs over the depiction of carnal love. In both cultures, most imaging presented a symbolic couple. In some cases, the allegorical interpretation went very far afield: Solomon’s extraordinary powers, the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception, stag hunts, jousting knights, etc. Only from the 19th century would artists dare to interpret Songs literally.
Very few if any treatments of Songs seem to have been produced in the 16th to the 18th centuries. This lacuna may be linked to the rise of humanism and changing attitudes toward the Church – since the bride had been formerly identified as the Church, humanist artists (especially Protestants) lost interest in the book. They couldn’t yet read the book as love poetry; this only happened in the 19th century with the rise of romanticism, stressing love, the body and the exotic East.
Once we leave the liturgical environment, two new interpretations appear: love and romance, on the one hand, and the exotic/erotic on the other. We will see greater exposure of the body, more naturalistic use of nature motifs and some rare glimpses of violence.
Gustave Moreau is the earliest artist we know of who portrays an incident from Songs in a naturalistic manner; his painting of 1851 “La Sulamite” is violent.
I met the watchmen
Who patrol the town;
They struck me, they bruised me.
The guards of the walls
Stripped me of my mantle. Songs 5:7
The Shulamite is surrounded by a gang of drunken soldiers. They will not protect her or help her find her lover; they are about to abuse her. As if to say “Unhand me”, she pushes away one of the soldiers, who lifts her veil aggressively, causing another soldier to spill the chalice of wine he is offering her. Moreau has turned the city guards into a drunken mob. This is the nightmare of the Shulamite and the danger faced by a lone woman, out at night in biblical times. It is not clear whether Moreau meant to describe naturalistically the well-known interpretation of Theodoret, the 5th century Bishop of Cyrus (the Shulamite is the Church and the guards/soldiers are its Roman persecutors) or was he giving the passage his own special literal interpretation. In any event, he belongs to the Orientalist school of his time that stressed the exotic, the erotic and the violent in its portrayal of the (Ancient) Near East. See other examples of this trend, below:
An entirely different trend in 19th century art was that of the Pre-Raphaelites.
The name most widely associated with this English artistic and literary movement is that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In reaction to the stilted Academic style of the time, this group mandated a return to medieval and early Renaissance detail and strong colors. However, it was not really the Middle Ages that inspired them, but their 19th century Romantic interpretation of medieval chivalry, courtly love, etc. Their major focus was on chaste love and idealized beauty.
Rossetti’s painting “The Beloved” is the crowning expression of Pre-Raphaelite chaste beauty. The pale Beloved is surrounded by her companions (“the daughters of Jerusalem”), who are also aspects of herself. There is a bouquet of roses below her, symbolic of restrained passion. The black child, holding the roses, is a more open expression of passion and the only male figure in the painting.
Rossetti labeled the painting with verses from Songs and Psalms:
My beloved is mine, and I am his; He pastures his flock among the lilies.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.
She shall be brought unto the king in raiment of needlework: the virgins her
companions that follow her shall be brought unto thee.
Psalms 45: 14
In the verses from the Bible there are multiple “voices”: first, second and third person. Rossetti wants to transfer these different voices to the painting. The Beloved, while she seems to be looking at the observer, is actually focused internally. The women around her are the speakers of the texts.
Only 10 years after Moreau, Edward Burne-Jones, a younger member of the Pre-Raphaelites, treated Songs in a stained glass window for St. Helen’s Church in Darley Dale, England.
The windows have a subdued, dark atmosphere, utterly devoid of the erotic. Burne-Jones treats a variety of scenes from Songs and places them not in the order of the book, but in a way that creates a plot centered on the lovers seeking, but not finding each other. Particularly interesting is Burne-Jones’ treatment of the same episode from Songs 5:7 that Moreau had chosen. The scene is placed centrally to the view of the parishioners.
The young woman, wrapped in a long black dress, her head covered, has been knocked to the ground, only her foot, hand and face are exposed
The angry watchman, also dressed in medieval garb, grips her arm and is about to berate her, but the artist won’t allow violence. In order to identify her, the guard shines a lamp in her face. Since both his hands are occupied, his abuse can only be verbal.
The artist takes liberties with the text, both adding and deleting details: there is only one guard in the panel; the veil is missing; and the lamp is the artist’s creation. Texts are quoted under each picture, but only in part.
The window looks like a throwback to medieval art, perhaps because it was designed for a church and perhaps because of the moralistic inclination of the Pre-Raphaelites. But Burne-Jones’ major statement regards the hardships of love, the trials which lovers must experience, the often unrealized quest for the beloved. The beating scene is the most painful example of this statement.
From the first years of the 20th century, Songs has attracted mainly Jewish artists, among them, especially Zionists. How should we explain the paucity of Christian artists dealing with Songs in this period? Perhaps by the decline of figurative art in general and narrative art in particular in the 20th century. Jews, on the other hand, have remained anchored in the biblical text.
1. Pre-State artists
In the early years of the 20th century, two artists representative of Jugendstil (also known as art nouveau) dominated the field: Ephraim Moshe Lilien and Zeev Raban. Both of these artists were educated in Europe and both developed strong ties to the nascent Zionist movement and the Land of Israel. While Lilien only visited Palestine several times, Raban immigrated in 1913 and became one of the leading figures of the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. The emotional climate in the works of Lilien and Raban is melodramatic .
Lilien’s etching of 1906, like Moreau’s earlier painting, is entitled “the Shulamite”. As with the Pre-Raphaelites, the subject is chaste, caring, maternal and sweet. She wears simple peasant clothing and carries a lamb and a crook, identifying her as a shepherdess. She is seen in broad daylight, against the backdrop of open skies and a peaceful country landscape with stereotypical palms and the Sea of Galilee.
The foreground of the etching is a celebration of the artist’s name, a field of lilies. While the title of the piece is taken from Songs 7:1, the Shulamite is never identified in the book as a shepherdess. Lilien imaginatively transforms the male shepherd mentioned in Songs 2:16 and 6:3 into a female counterpart. But the main inspiration for this figure would seem to be the Christian motif of “the Good Shepherd”.
In his etching entitled “The Silent Song”, Lilien took a very different approach, reminiscent of Moreau in its eroticism. The etching may be a reference to the opening words of Songs:
In his etching entitled “The Silent Song”, Lilien took a very different approach, reminiscent of Moreau in its eroticism. The etching may be a reference to the opening words of Songs:
2 Oh, give me of the kisses of your mouth,
For your love is more delightful than wine.
In contrast to the open space of “The Shulamite”, this piece is a provocative night scene, lavish with texture and set in an enclosed garden, framed by a window. The embracing couple is dressed in richly embroidered garments that blend the two into one. But she is half-naked, while he is fully clothed, as is typical in Orientalist art. His kiss is not aggressive, but he is dominant.
Zeev Raban was certainly influenced by Lilien, but is more attached to the physical Land of Israel. However, his love of the Land is visionary romanticism. His images include both land- and cityscapes. He is devoted to text, young love, imagining biblical times by observing local Arabs, their dress and customs, on the one hand, and imagery from the ancient Near East, on the other.
The picture above illustrates Songs 1:13:
13 My beloved to me is a bundle of myrrh Lodged between my breasts. 14 My beloved to me is a spray of henna blooms From the vineyards of En-gedi. 15 Ah, you are fair, my darling, Ah, you are fair, With your dove-like eyes! 16 And you, my beloved, are handsome, Beautiful indeed! Our couch is in a bower; 17 Cedars are the beams of our house, Cypresses the rafters.
The Seven Species crown the scene with authenticity. Pillars, reminiscent of the Egyptian lotus pillars of Luxor, frame the medallion. The pair of lovers, dressed in Raban’s fantasy Arab costume, reclines on a carpet of red flowers bordered by a cypress, a cedar and fir tree, while a mountain peak rises in the background. Ein Gedi never looked anything like this; Raban does not reproduce the physical reality, but a romantic idealization, with Japanese influence.
A grey palette marks the tone of the next selection from Raban’s series that is taken from Songs 8:5:
Who is she that comes up from the desert,
Leaning upon her beloved?...
6 Let me be a seal upon your heart,
Like the seal upon your hand.
For love is fierce as death,
Passion is mighty as Sheol;
Its darts are darts of fire,
A blazing flame.
Vast floods cannot quench love,
Nor rivers drown it.
If a man offered all his wealth for love,
He would be laughed to scorn.
The dramatically colorful central tableau poses the embracing lovers in a desolate desert scene. This endless, burning landscape is not a desert characteristic of the land of Israel; it comes out of Raban’s imagination.
The somber side of love, a grey frame, surrounds the central tableau. A pattern of embossed menorot fills the background. Raban has daringly turned this traditional symbol of the Temple and the Jewish people into an icon of burning passion; is this a resurfacing of the traditional allegorical interpretation of Songs?
Allegorical figures surround the lovers. Flanking the central tableau are Death and Jealousy, trying to separate them. Death is a skeleton holding apart a pair of doves and Jealousy is an angry demon, wrapped in snakes. Both are framed by serpentine columns. Love, above the central tableau, is an embracing couple, burning with passion, balancing the text, below.
It is worth noting that Raban’s interpretation is refuted by many modern Bible commentators, who translate קנאה as ardor, rather than jealousy. The comparison to death and ardor indicates the power of love and not it’s down side
Our final choice in Raban’s series is the strange and disturbing scene from Songs 5: 7, that we have already seen.
Framed by an idealized gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, replete with lions and columns, the scene itself is a cityscape, practically a photograph from the 1920’s, in contrast to the imaginary landscapes of the previous pictures. Two guards accost the girl; one is about to strike her, the other, holding a lamp, scowls and seizes her shawl. She raises an arm in self-defense, meanwhile exposing herself.
The treatment of this scene from Songs by Moreau, Burne-Jones and Raban can be explained as part of the orientalist interest in the exotic/erotic and sometimes violent expressions of passion
Songs in the young State of Israel
Shraga Weil’s illustrations of Songs are a refreshing change. Sabena Schweid identifies Weil’s shepherdess as a Yemenite woman, holding herself
erect, accustomed to balancing loads on her head, while the young man is a former Palmachnik. The style is still romantic, but no longer melodramatic, reflecting the youthful dreams of Weil’s generation of the 1950’s. The unlikely romance portrayed below takes place in a rocky landscape, populated by
goats, thorns, and withered trees. Weil relates to the text impressionistically, rather than photographically.
His treatment of Songs 5: 3 – 5 is erotic without being vulgar.
4 My beloved took his hand off the latch, And my heart was stirred for him. 5 I rose to let in my beloved; My hands dripped myrrh— My fingers, flowing myrrh— Upon the handles of the bolt.
Weil represents this single image in two sections that fill a double page of his illustrated Songs.
We see the beloved from behind, reaching for the bolt on hearing her lover knock:
3 I had taken off my robe—
Was I to don it again?
This very sexy picture stimulates the imagination. We the viewers are also participants, looking in the same direction as she and involved in her excitement.
Our eye follows the strong line of her elbow, jutting out from her transparent nightgown all the way to the detail of the bolt.
The bolt on the left is actually a closeup of the left hand of the girl on the right, showing what is hidden by her head. The intense detail of the bolt and the bracelet serves to further emphasize the already suggestive image. Our eye returns to the girl, peeking through a crack in the door toward her now absent lover.
She is 100% present, filling the double page; he is 100% absent, his hand is no longer on the latch.
In a world of color, Weil has chosen the medium of black and white; perhaps color would distract us from appreciating the forms.
Weil is more emotionally accessible and contemporary than Lilien or Raban, whose figures live in a different world.
Chagall’s five paintings of Songs, done in the late 1950’s, were originally intended for a church in southern France. Painted as a memorial to his first wife, Bella, the paintings are now exhibited in the Chagall Museum in Nice.
While Raban and Weil interpreted Songs as a linear narrative, Chagall, perhaps more in keeping with the actual form of the book, produced a series of scenes combining literal, personal and exegetical elements from diverse sections of Songs that are often repeated and embellished. We have chosen two of the five paintings to discuss.
Both of these paintings employ the female body on many levels: Painting II, a uterus and Painting III, the breasts and belly of the beloved woman.
In Painting II, the beloved is anticipating fulfillment. She lies on a verdant bed, within the womb, soon to be born into love. The womb/tree/lawn floats above a pastoral village scene in which we see a herd of sheep, a disembodied hand, the sun radiating behind a crescent moon and a shepherdess. While this shepherdess could be the Shulamite, she might also represent the matriarch Rachel, the beloved of Jacob, balancing the moon, alluding to Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37. Chagall employs his stock of icons, drawn from the Bible, Jewish lore and personal experience, creating a collage, his Midrash on Songs. For example, the central figure of the nude woman is flanked by the silhouette of her lover below and the donkey above, symbolizing animal passions on the one hand and eliciting associations with the Messiah, on the other. The blue crowned angel on the right will morph in other paintings of the series into the blue bridegroom/Chagall/Solomon. Above this angel is an inverted tree, an image taken from Kabbalistic literature and to the angel’s right, the empty throne of Exile, still awaiting the Messiah. In sum, this painting is not an illustration of a particular event or passage from Songs, but Chagall’s expression of the mood of anticipation found throughout the book. Note that only in this painting is the bridal pair absent.
This bridal pair is the dominant figure in Painting III.
It would seem to be a reference to Songs 3:11.
O maidens of Zion, go forth
And gaze upon King Solomon
Wearing the crown that his mother
Gave him on his wedding day,
On his day of bliss.
This sole reference to a wedding in Songs inspires Chagall’s recurring bridal images.
This is another indication that the artist’s intention is not to illustrate the book of Songs. Chagall presents a double focus in this painting. His personal reminiscences conjure up a bridal couple, she in white and he in blue, standing under the huppah, and subsequently lying together. The second focus is a midrashic interpretation of the wedding as the ingathering of the exiles. This connection between the personal and the midrashic is further elaborated by the cities of Jerusalem and Vitebsk, sandwiched at the center of the painting. Above (below?) Vitebsk hovers Chagall’s favorite image of the Wandering Jew/Elijah. Smoke rises from Jerusalem; is it from the Temple sacrifices or its destruction? Wedding and Temple are connected by the breaking of a glass at the climax of the marriage ceremony. In any event, the two cities express the double identity of this 20th century European Jew, galut (exile) and geulah (redemption). On the margins of the painting, we find, once again a sampling of Chagall’s stock images: an inverted tree, a crowned donkey, an acrobat, and yet another self-portrait (in the upper left corner). In sum, Chagall has produced a quintessential visual midrash, combining and juxtaposing materials from the Bible and Jewish lore with his own personal life experience. This is his Song of Songs.
In the painting below, from Salvador Dali’ series Biblia Sacra, a man on bended knee, proposes to his beloved, crowned with a halo.
This portrayal certainly derives from the classical allegorical interpretation of Songs as the love of Jesus and Mary. But the quotation accompanying the painting adds another level of meaning. While the published notes to the painting refer to Songs 2:12,
The flowers have appeared in our land, the time of pruning is come: the voice of the turtle (sic) is heard in our land
the Latin verse used as the painting's title is actually taken from Hosea 2:22 (19 in the Vulgate):
And I will espouse thee to me forever.
In other words, Dali has juxtaposed two biblical verses; Hosea’s express use of marriage and weddings as a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel and the love relationship in Songs, as understood metaphorically by both Jewish and Christian traditional exegetes.
Finally, two contemporary Jewish American artists, who represent the pop tendency of other artists of our times and their treatment of Songs. Gone is the romanticism of the early Zionist painters and the charming clichés of Raban and others.
Each of Archie Rand’s “19 Diaspora Paintings” is oddly paired with one of the nineteen blessings of the Amidah, the central part of the daily prayers. The eighteenth blessing, Thanksgiving, finds its partner in a picture relating Songs 1:2
Oh give me the kisses of your mouth
Because your mouth is more delightful than wine
The association between the verses, the painting and the blessing is enigmatic. As for the painting itself, we think of it as a visual soap opera or comics. Set at a rural southern front gate, boy meets girl. She is coiffed and dressed for a big date. He’s dressed in white: Is it a tux? Is it a kittel? Is it a bathrobe? We think we understand her idea of the date, but we can’t figure out his. Is this because the biblical text lives only in her mind and heart? Perhaps the pairing with the Thanksgiving blessing is meant to express the couple’s expectation of a romantic soiree. Rand has stated that his intention is to display the range of cultural influences on him and makes no differentiation between the texts that contribute to his identity: the Bible, the prayer book and comics – none takes precedence and none stands on a pedestal of holiness.
Judy Chicago created a series of lithographs entitled “Voices from the Song of Songs” in 1999. Her texts are Marcia Falk’s poetic translation of the biblical book.
The title of the painting refers to Songs 7:8:
There you stand like a palm,
Your breast clusters of dates.
Shall I climb that palm and take hold of the boughs?
Unlike Rand, Raban and many others, no context is provided for the image of a man grasping the fronds of a palm tree, the woman. Although the biblical text is written from the man’s point of view, Chicago’s woman-tree is also active, grasping the behind of her man, helping him in the act of love. All we know about her is that she has strong hands, dark skin and “big hair”. The emphasis here is on the act and not on the emotions. Representing radical feminism, Chicago creates a performance around the female body, devoid of the romanticism associated with male domination. In giving voice to the woman’s desire and sexuality, even in reference to a verse wholly representing the man’s view, Chicago is celebrating the general mutuality of desire in Songs.
Our challenge was to see how artists of various times and places understand love in the Song of Songs and how they deal with the darker side of love that appears in several passages in the book.
1) Songs in medieval art is allegorical – Christian art tends to portray the relationship between God and the Church as passionate; Jewish art portrays the relationship between God and the people of Israel with greater restraint. Christian art also uses Songs to express some of the ascendant beliefs of the middles ages, such as immaculate conception and the bliss of the world to come, because of the pain of life in this period. Jewish art, on the other hand, found in Songs expression of the pain of Exile and the hope for Redemption.
2) In modern times, Songs was generally understood literally. In the 19th century, romantic artists were drawn to the book’s eroticism, due to changes in sexual mores. More recently, Songs was treated mainly by Jewish artists, and particularly Zionists, who strove to connect its diverse vignettes with their own conceptions of biblical reality.
3) In our post-modern world, romanticism has been abandoned and Songs has been lampooned or become the stuff of pop culture. Its sexuality has been totally exposed; the human body, both male and female, are unabashedly undressed. At the same time, there has been a renewed celebration of the role of the woman in Songs and in enlightened society.
While Songs is unlike any other book of the Bible, artists have treated it as they have treated the other books. Each generation paints Songs in its own image.