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Moving Texts: The Writings in Western Music and Visual Arts

Abstract and Keywords

The texts of the Writings in their sometimes bewildering generic variety, and their use through the centuries in multiple changing liturgical and secular contexts, have provided composers and visual artists ample room to blur the lines separating one sensory experience from the next. This is true even for those texts that seem on the surface the most stubbornly discursive and aniconic (like Proverbs)—texts least amenable to sustained visual, musical, narrative, or dramatic treatment. As David Brown has argued, readers in each generation are set free to appropriate what the imagination can discover in the interstices of the moving texts that are a religion’s story. Responding to the Writings as diverse as the Psalms, Daniel, and Job in works like the Utrecht Psalter, the Ludus Danielis, or Blake’s engravings from the Book of Job, the scriptural artist becomes in effect a scriptural performer, imaginatively blurring the boundaries separating exegetical from liturgical, musical, visual, and dramatic practice.

Keywords: Utrecht Psalter, Blake, Ludus Danielis, Bellini, Della Robbia, D. Brown, Dante, conductus, cantoria, Stravinsky

The Whole Bible is filld with Imaginations and Visions from End to End & not with Moral virtues.

—William Blake (Rowland 2011: 2)

In 1713, the Dutch collector Willem de Ridder donated a unique ninth-century Carolingian psalter to the University of Utrecht ( Until 1631 a part of the collection of Robert Cotton (the same collection that included the sole surviving copy of the Old English Beowulf), the manuscript’s earlier history is hard to trace, although it surfaced at Canterbury around the year 1000. The Utrecht Psalter, likely created in the early ninth century in Rheims and completed at Hautvilliers, remains in Utrecht today as one of that institution’s greatest treasures, recently entered in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register for Documentary Heritage.

What makes this psalter stand out is its extraordinary cycle of 166 pen drawings, often spread across the middle register of the manuscript page, illustrating the text in a vivid, kinetic detail stylistically unique for its period. Encountering a page of this haunting manuscript calls upon both the verbal and visual imagination of the reader in a way that sharply contrasts with typical practices of medieval psalter illumination. An historiated initial letter or iconographic illustration in a typical illuminated psalter functions as a kind of visual invitation to contemplate a particular theme or image related to the text at hand, complementing and enriching the reader’s (or singer’s) experience of a text copied and marked primarily for oral performance and aural reception. In contrast, the Utrecht illustrations, in a manuscript likely intended not for singing but for reading and meditation of a text already memorized (Horst 1996b: 36), constitute less a visual complement than a visual equivalent to the text, instantiating each metaphor, sometimes a single word, in a dynamic image or set of images, producing a kind of meditative rebus.

(p. 385) The experience of reading such a page would be both diachronic and synchronic. The eye follows the images, as it follows the text, from left to right across the page, one word after the other, one image after the other, moving syntactically through verbal time and visual space. But the creator of these images also took great pains to arrange them in a single coherent composition, one that the eye could take in all at once, as it were, synchronically. In fact, remembering that each verse, even each word of the sacred text carries its own theological weight, the intrepid reader could sometimes even create his or her own sequence and syntax as meditation deepened, by moving across the composition diagonally, or from right to left, or in any combination of directions. Given that for the typical user of a biblical psalter like this the psalm would have already been long since memorized, the combination of recited text and vivid image might have provided a stimulus to a fuller, more intense imaginative and religious response, one that appealed to several senses at once—aural, visual, and, given the restless energy exhibited by the slender, elegant figures often dancing across the page, kinetic as well.

Take as an example the illustrations to Ps 11/12 (folio 6v)

  1. 1. In finem pro octava, Psalmus David.

  2. 2. Salvum me fac Domine, quoniam defecit sanctus: quoniam diminutae sunt veritates a filiis hominum.

  3. 3. Vana locuti sunt unusquisque ad proximum suum: labia dolosa, in corde et corde locuti sunt.

  4. 4. Disperdat Dominus universa labia dolosa, et linguam magniloquam.

  5. 5. Qui dixerunt: Linguam nostrum magnificabimus, labia nostra a nobis sunt, quis noster Dominus est?

  6. 6. Propter miseriam inopum, et gemitum pauperum nunc exurgam, dicit Dominus. Ponam in salutari: fiducialiter agam in eo.

  7. 7. Eloquia Domini, eloquia casta: argentum igne examinatum, probatum terrae, purgatum septulum.

  8. 8. Tu Domine servabis nos: et custodies nos a generatione hac in aeternum.

  9. 9. In circuitu impii ambulant: secundum altitudinem tuam multiplicasti filios hominum.

  10. 1. Unto the end; for the octave, a psalm for David.

  11. 2. Save me, O Lord, for there is now no saint: truths are decayed from among the children of men.

  12. 3. They gave spoken vain things every one to his neighbor: with deceitful lips, and with a double heart have they spoken.

  13. 4. May the Lord destroy all deceitful lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things.

  14. 5. Who have said: We will magnify our tongue; our lips are our own; who is Lord over us?

  15. 6. By reason of the misery of the needy, and the groans of the poor, now will I arise, saith the Lord. I will set him in safety; I will deal confidently in his regard.

  16. 7. The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried by the fire, purged from the earth, refined seven times. (p. 386)

    Moving TextsThe Writings in Western Music and Visual ArtsClick to view larger

    In circuitu impii ambulant: Ps 11/12, Utrecht Psalter, folio 6v.

  17. 8. Thou, O Lord, wilt preserve us: and keep us from this generation for ever.

  18. 9. The wicked walk round about: according to thy highness, thou hast multiplied the children of men.

The illustration of this psalm appears above the Latin text, and it occupies the entire upper half of the folio page. The drawing can be read in three horizontal registers (roughly comparable, perhaps, to heaven, hell, and middle earth). In the upper register, as one reads from left to right, one encounters a striking image of Christ, enclosed in a globe mandorla, (p. 387) with a choir of angels grouped behind him, and a single angel in front of him. He hands that angel a spear tipped with a cross. Further to the right in the same register, but in a slightly lower position, the psalmist himself stands on a hilltop, facing the Christ-mandorla and the angel, and holding an unrolled manuscript scroll in his extended right hand. To the far right, still in the same register, two smiths are seen working at a forge. In the middle register, to the far left, directly under the Christ-mandorla, a group of nine sick or crippled figures wind around another hill in ragged procession. The two figures at the front of the line extend their arms toward the angel (the same figure as is in the upper register, now appearing again), as he aims his spear toward a group of enemy soldiers grouped at the far right of the lowest register, a group rhyming visually with the group of angels in the upper right corner. Opposite the soldiers, to the far left in the same low register, one encounters the most remarkable images of all: two groups of “the wicked walking round about” (“in circuitu impii ambulant”). One group is arrayed around a circular table-like object seen from above that seems to be rotating rapidly as the impii clutch its rim for dear life; in the second image, four men seem to be pushing a four-armed turnstile, their lithe bodies drawn—like all the figures drawn in this manuscript—with a few quick and elegant strokes of sepia ink.

How is one to read such a complex array of images? The first several verses of the psalm appear to have no direct visual equivalents, but instead provide the mood and theme for the drawing, culminating in the mocking question of the wicked, “Who is Lord over us?” The illustrations for verses 6–9 provide the answer, transforming trope into narrative, unpacking metaphors, rendering abstractions concrete. We witness “the misery of the needy” in that hilltop procession; we see “the silver tried by the fire” stoked by ninth-century smiths working a ninth-century forge. But rather than expecting the viewer to read the sequence of images systematically from right to left across the three registers (as one must perforce read a manuscript text), the artist guides and even dramatizes the reader’s experience, drawing the eye first to follow the direction of the angel’s spear, thrust obliquely athwart all three registers, and aimed directly toward the group of enemy soldiers grouped in the lower right corner. The eye then turns left, settling on the Sisyphean images of the wildly rotating table and the ever-revolving turnstile. Perhaps only then, drawing back to take in the entire display, does one notice, perhaps for the first time, the psalmist himself, standing solitary on the hill, the refining forge behind him and the pure words of the Lord, perhaps the words of this very psalm, open for all eyes to read and mark: Eloquia Domini, eloquia casta: the words of the Lord are pure altogether.

Freedom to Appropriate: David Brown and the Moving Text

The synesthetic complexity of the Utrecht Psalter, spectacular even in its miniscule scale, is not unique in the afterlife and reception of the Writings in Western art and music. The texts of the Writings, in their sometimes bewildering generic variety, and their use in multiple changing liturgical and secular contexts, have provided composers (p. 388) and visual artists ample room to blur the lines separating one sensory experience from the next. This is true even for those texts that seem on the surface the most stubbornly discursive and aniconic (like Proverbs)—texts least amenable to sustained visual, musical, narrative, or dramatic treatment. As David Brown (1999) has argued, speaking of Scripture more generally, undue focus on the text as text by exegetes and theologians can obscure the liturgical, musical, and visionary experience of these sacred writings in their rich hermeneutical afterlife, an afterlife that itself constitutes the continuing, unfolding significance of the ancient texts in contemporary aesthetic and spiritual experience (see also Morgan 1990). As Brown writes, only in “the most trivial sense” does the text remain the same over the centuries of its interpretation: “the words on the page do not alter. Its content, focus and themes are so restructured, however, that effectively a whole new grid has been imposed, with what is most important often seen as hidden, as it were, in the interstices of the text” (Brown 1999: 209). One needs

to acknowledge how much religion flourishes, and thus the revelation that God seeks to address to humanity, by the reader in each generation being set free to appropriate what the imagination can discover in the interstices of the “moving” texts that are a religion’s story. For that to be possible truth cannot be narrowly confined to “fact”: nor can the biblical text be allowed the final say. Image, text and truth need to work together, not in opposition.

(Brown 1999: 276 [my emphasis])

What goes for Brown’s reader goes equally for the listener or the viewer. Visual, dramatic, and musical interpretations of the Writings often constitute the kind of multisensory lived experience in the service of which the actual texts themselves function frequently as scripts for performance. Responding to the text, the scriptural artist becomes in effect a scriptural performer, imaginatively blurring the boundaries separating exegetical from liturgical from artistic practice.

This being said, one can begin to take seriously the multiple senses of the word “moving” as Brown employs it. It can be argued that Western artists have found their best material in what Brown calls textual interstices. “Moved” by the text, they then in turn “move” the text itself, exploiting its peculiar echoes, resonances, silences, and narrative lacunae—occupying its “textual interstices”—by creatively filling in the blanks, moving both through and beyond an original sense and context (if an “original” sense could be retrieved at all) to answer both to the exigencies of artistic form and to the cultural, social, and theological needs and expectations of the current reader or viewer or hearer. In so doing, the artist or composer also aims to “move” the reader (or hearer, or viewer) emotionally and spiritually, leading to a more grounded and memorable relation to the original text, if not necessarily a deepening of belief. In the case of a contrarian interpreter like the English poet and engraver William Blake (1757–1827), an artist of genius can also “move” through and beyond the text to reshape it to his or her own subversive artistic and theological agenda: an agenda that echoes and ironically reinforces the contrarian spirit of Wisdom texts like Ecclesiastes or Job, texts whose “Imaginations and Visions from End to End” constitute what Blake famously calls “the Great Code of Art.”

(p. 389) Synesthetic Exegesis: Music, Ritual, and Liturgical Drama

The lyric, nonnarrative structures of many Writings texts, particularly Psalms, Lamentations, and the Song of Songs, with their shifting moods and richness of metaphor, provide ideal material for musical settings—whether in plainsong, chorale polyphony, or even secular art-song (see Hamlin 2004). The musical settings for these texts, especially the Psalms, are deeply embedded in (or at least indebted to) liturgical practices that appeal as much to the eye as to the ear and, in some ways, to taste, touch, smell, and movement as well. This is especially clear in the Christian rites associated with Holy Week, leading up to the celebration of Easter. One thinks of the musical settings of Lamentations during the dramatic office of Tenebrae, where lights are extinguished one by one following each sung segment, punctuated at the end with the startling sound of a crash in the darkness; or the chanting of Ps 22 during the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday in Anglo-Catholic liturgies; or the dramatic use of psalmody in response to the series of Old Testament readings in the darkness of the traditional Easter Vigil. The common design of the monastic church, with rows of choir stalls facing each other across the chancel aisle, gives architectural shape to the antiphonal chanting of the Psalter itself. Space, text, voice, and—in the illuminated choir books—painted image as well combine in the monastic performance of the Psalter to create a sensorily rich vehicle for scriptural expression. It is fitting that the Holy Week Triduum determines the fictive time-span of the pilgrim’s journey in Dante’s Commedia, especially in the second canticle, the Purgatorio. Set on the holy mountain that functions as a great theme park of thirteenth-century music and the visual arts, the canticle echoes with the virtual sound of chanted psalms and canticles, evoked time and again in the reader’s aural imagination by the mention of its Latin incipit. In exitu Israel ex Egypto: “When Israel escaped from Egypt”: this is the psalm that Dante the Pilgrim hears in the distance, sung by the redeemed souls as their boat approaches the purgatorial shore:

  •  Da poppa stave il celestial nocchiero,
  • tal che aria beato pur descripto;
  • e pur di cento spiritu entro sediero.
  •  “In exitu Israël ex Aegypto
  • cantaran tutti insieme ad una voce
  • con quanto di qual salmo è poscia scripto.
  •  At the stem stood the heavenly pilot—
  • his mere description would bring to bliss—
  • and more than a hundred souls were with him.
  •  “In exitu Israël de Aegypto”
  • they sang together with one voice,
  • and went on, singing the entire psalm.

Purgatorio, II.43–48 (Hollander translation)

(p. 390) “And went on, singing the entire psalm”: the poet assumes that his readers would not only recall the entire text of the psalm (here enacted allegorically as the rescued souls make their way toward their ultimate purgation and redemption on the holy mountain), but likely also recall its associated psalm tone—the tonus peregrinus, the pilgrim tone, wandering in pitch and then coming to rest in melodic resolution, echoing the action the psalm describes.

Like Dante’s poem, but enacted not on the manuscript page but rather in real time, the thirteenth-century Play of Daniel (Ludus Danielis) illustrates the porousness of hermeneutical boundaries in the afterlife of a sacred text. Most likely first performed in the old cathedral in Beauvais, the Ludus combines dialogue, sound, image, and physical movement to reshape and reinterpret the ancient narrative in response to contemporary experience (Collins 1976; Ogden 1996). The biblical book of Daniel itself is something of a generic anomaly, regarded by some traditions as a Wisdom text to be included in the collection of Writings, and by other traditions classed as a prophetic or even historical book, with the episodes of Bel and the Dragon and Susannah (the latter richly attractive to visual artists through the centuries) relegated to the Apocrypha. The Ludus entertains no such limitations. In the biblical imaginary of its crafters, genre lines are porous. Its libretto (to employ an anachronistic term) includes allusions to the apocryphal materials (“You freed Susanna of the deadly accusation . . .You slew Bel the Dragon in front of the assembled people”) and draws a direct parallel to the figure of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs/Sirach (“the book of Solomon”): “solvitur in libro Salomonis/Digna laus et congrua matronis”:

  • In the book of Solomon
  • Worthy and due honor is given to womankind.
  • She is valued as someone strong
  • Coming from afar, from the ends of the earth.
  • Her husband trusts her in his heart;
  • She is his treasure beyond wealth.
  • Let this woman be compared with her
  • Whose support the King deserves.
  • For the eloquence of her words
  • Corrects the judgment of the learned men.
  • And we, who because of this most solemn day
  • Are granted the occasion for playing this play,
  • Let us devoutly give her praises
  • And let those who are far away come and sing with us.

In this richly complex moment, as the Queen makes her procession (her conductus) down the aisle of the cathedral nave, the multivalent resonances of these texts become manifest, as does the play’s self-conscious theatricality. Likely performed to celebrate the Nativity season, the Ludus constitutes a typological tour de force. The Writings emerge less as texts than as texture, providing the maker of the play with a network of intertextual allusions enacted in theatricalized double and triple meanings. The Queen is at once (p. 391) the avatar of Lady Wisdom celebrated in Proverbs and Sirach, and at the same time a prefiguring of the Virgin Mary. The ancient writings are also given contemporary point. For instance, the episode early in the play that hinges on the abuse of the sacred vessels is likely a bow to the sometimes problematic activity of the Beauvais subdeacons as keepers of the cathedral patens and chalices (Emmerson 1996: 34). At the climax of the play, once rescued from the lion’s den, Daniel emerges as the prophet of Christian salvation and proclaims the advent of the Holy One, of which the performance of the play itself is a festive celebration. To signal this theological-liturgical-chronological swerve, a charming angel enters literally ex machina, perhaps lowered from above in a stage machine, and ex improviso exclaims in the present tense that the Christ is born:

  • I bring you a message from high heaven,
  • Christ is born, Ruler of the world,
  • In Bethlehem as the prophet foretold.

This climactic coup de theatre transforms the ancient story into a contemporary liturgical experience, capped appropriately with the chanting of the Te deum, perhaps sung by all those present. “One can assume . . . that for a medieval audience the sound of Daniel came from everywhere. So did the movement” (Ogden 1996: 21). Theater gives way to liturgy, liturgy is experienced as theater, scripture is experienced as both.

Two centuries later, it is this kind of synesthetic liturgical tradition that could permit Luca della Robbia in the 1430s to carve a cantoria in the Duomo of Florence, its surface crowded with sculpted images modeled on adolescent Florentine choristers likely living in the neighborhood, posing for the artist in sumptuous contemporary costumes, and depicted in charming groups of three and four and five under a frieze incised with the words of the 150th psalm. Della Robbia’s cantoria, with its combination of text and image in parallel registers, is a striking three-dimensional equivalent of the doubling of text and image in the Utrecht psalter, and in its original setting displays a similar cross-sensory appeal. Although now relegated to display in the cathedral museum (unfortunately minus the frieze with its psalm text), this cantoria in its original placement would have hovered above the liturgical action, at once a decorative complement to the sacramental rites below as well as a seductive visual interpretation of the psalm text itself (Hartt 1994: 242–243).

Even in a post-Christian, postmodern, or perhaps now postsecular world, this complex interplay of liturgy, theater, scripture, and festive occasion, with the Writings providing both text and subtext, retains its power to move an audience, no matter what its collective beliefs. In 1958, the New York Pro Musica famously revived the Ludus Danielis, in a production at least twice removed from its original liturgical purpose: performed by a secular troupe of actors and singers, and staged in an ersatz medieval setting—the Fuentedueño apse in the Metropolitan Museum of New York’s Cloister galleries. The play has been revived time and again in the more than fifty years since its opening in New York, and, like the Beauvais play itself, always in the Christmas season. ( (p. 392) This cross-sensory ritualized experience of the Writings might also describe what can be regarded as the secular liturgy of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century concert hall, such as the audience might experience in listening to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s setting of Russian Orthodox Vespers (the Vsenoshchnoe Bdenie, Opus 37), including Ps 1 in the third section, first performed in concert in Moscow in 1915 in what the composer himself called “a conscious counterfeit of the ritual” (Bertensson, Leyda, and Satina 2001: 191). Even more striking is the crossing of sacred and secular boundaries manifest in Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (1929), with its lavish and rhythmically complex settings of the Latin Vulgate texts of Pss 38, 39, and 50. Commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930, but first performed in Brussels, the work can be linked biographically to the composer’s own spiritual crisis of 1926–1927 (Ross 2008: 115–119). Stravinsky himself remarked of this music that “it is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing” (White 1979: 321). As Alex Ross argues in The Rest Is Noise: “The great non-expresser and maker of objects lets down his guard, giving us a glimpse of his terrors and longings.”

Notice a telltale repetition of words in the first two psalms that Stravinsky chose to set: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry . . . I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.” William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, wrote that a condition of desperate mental flailing is often the prelude to spiritual renewal: “Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! help!”

(Ross 2008: 119)

Picturing Saint Job: Bellini and Blake

Sometime in the late 1470s, Giovanni Bellini, working in Venice, completed a massive altarpiece for the Franciscan church of San Giobbe—Saint Job—a work that now resides in the Gallerie dell’Accademia. A regal Madonna and Child—a favorite Bellini image—reign from the throne of Wisdom, which occupies the central space in the lower half of the painting. The upper register is given over to a resplendent illusionistic rendering of an apsidal niche, its semidome soaring above the throne. At the Virgin’s feet, directly below the throne, three angelic creatures are seated, robed in streaming blue satin. These are celestial musicians: the angel on the left plays a lira de braccio; the other two are strumming lutes, prestigious instruments that the artists has highlighted in luminous detail (Goffen 1989: 147). Six saints flank the Virgin’s throne, three on either side, their heads level with the Infant sitting upright on the Virgin’s right knee. Francis, John the Baptist, and “Saint Job” stand on the viewer’s left; Dominic, Sebastian, and Louis of Toulouse on the viewer’s right. In this monumental sacra conversazione, the figures of (p. 393) Sebastian and Job stand out from the rest. They face each other across the panel, their near nudity in striking contrast to the rich robes of the Virgin and the seated angels. On the right, closest to the viewer, a young, athletic Sebastian, hands tied behind his back, half turns his body toward the viewer as he gazes lovingly at the Infant. A single arrow pierces his abdomen, its shaft cutting an elegant horizontal in this otherwise vertically oriented composition, drawing the viewer’s eye toward the Infant’s feet. A second arrow has pierced his right calf, its shaft directing the eye toward the angelic consort below the throne. Opposite, on the left side of the throne, stands the white-bearded, elderly Job, his body positioned in profile, his skin pallid and sagging. Job stands closer to the throne than his counterpart—an appropriate placement, as he is the patron saint of the Franciscan church in which this altarpiece first hung. Both figures are bathed in a golden light, the same light that illuminates the Virgin and Child. The other four saints stand fully clothed, Francis in his friar’s habit, St. Louis in full episcopal regalia. On the far left, Francis directly faces the viewer, displaying the wounds of his stigmata. But the three other saints are all but obscured by the golden figures of Job and Sebastian, behind whom all but Francis are are made to stand in semidarkness. As Rona Goffen suggests in her recent study of Bellini, “only when we emulate Francis’s compassion may we join the sacra conversazione psychologically and spiritually. Bellini’s visualization of faith encourages us to do so . . . these are beings who ‘ravish souls’ ”(Goffen 1989: 150; see also Papadoki-Oekland 2009: 118ff).

Job’s presence in the painting provides an entry into the colorful interpretive history of the biblical book as reflected in its artistic representation through the centuries. Job can be thought of as a “moving” text par excellence. Both Samuel Terrien and Mark Larrimore have recently traced the history of Job’s transformation in various artists’ visual and aural responses to the book (Terrien 1996; Larrimore 2013). As Larrimore argues, books have their own biographies. Like the Psalter, the biblical text of Job provides a wealth of metaphors and images highly adaptable to visual and musical response (e.g., Leviathan, Behemoth, or the dance of the morning stars). These images have been present in visual renderings from the start. But the iconography of the book of Job has also shifted markedly in the course of the book’s long interpretive history, its verbal meaning more often reshaped less to illuminate the text as it stands, than to reflect the preoccupations of the artist’s own cultural and theological moment. As Larrimore has argued, “much of the drama of Job concerns the limits of language and the power of representation that goes beyond them” (Larrimore 2013: 29). The power of representation can overwhelm the text, and in some cases even preempt it.

The Bellini panel is a case in point. In this Renaissance sacra conversazione, Job emerges as the exemplar of patient suffering, a mirror image of the wounded yet preternaturally serene St. Sebastian standing opposite. The Franciscans in fact may well have commissioned the work as a response to the recurrence of the Black Plague in Venice; the church itself was situated adjacent to a hospital. This focus on Job as a sufferer and intercessor developed relatively late in Western art. As Terrien has shown, in the earliest Christian images Job was more often depicted as philosopher, rebel and martyr, a kind of avatar of Christian hope and resistance to evil (Terrien 1996: 23, 33–43). But by the late (p. 394) Gothic period in Europe, the elaboration of the Job story in the apocryphal Testament of Job, in many respects more influential in the shaping the biblical imaginary than the original book itself, shifted the focus from the book of Job as an exercise in theodicy to the character of Job as exemplar of patient suffering, offering comfort to contemporary sufferers. It is a theme made prominent, for example, in the fifteenth-century French mystery play, La Pacience de Job, performed regularly well into the seventeenth century (Papadaki-Oekland 2009: 24; Larrimore 2013: 134ff), and executed with startling effect in a sculpture installed in the right tympanum of the north portal at Chartres (Katzenellenbogen 1959: 67–70). In Bellini’s Venice, Job might also have been regarded as an intercessor for sexual reprobates, at a time when the authorities were targeting homosexual behavior for persecution and punishment (Terrien 1996: 128–135). Add to this a tradition, again stemming from an episode in the Testament, that Job was the patron saint of musicians (Meyer 1954). In the apocryphal work, Job comforts some widows by playing a ten-stringed lyre and undergoes a kind of torture at the hands of three Satanic musicians: this double sense of music as both curative and demonic persists well into the Renaissance (see Terrien 1996: 139–145). Bellini’s placing Job as the figure nearest the angelic musicians is thus no accident.

Of all the images of Job that Terrien describes, it is perhaps only the 1825 series of engravings by the English poet and visual artist William Blake that is equal to the Bellini in imaginative power and layered complexity of interpretation. Blake’s interpretation focuses once again on Job the sufferer, but it does so in keeping with Blake’s own reimagining of the Job narrative (including elements of the Testament of Job) as an allegorical psychomachia, the crowning achievement of what Christopher Rowland describes as Blake’s lifelong practice of allegorical hermeneutics. The Job engravings constitute a kind of imaginative Bildungsroman of the emerging creative soul. In Illustration XI (“With Dreams upon my bed thou scarest me & affrightest me with Visions”), Blake depicts the relentlessly judging God (the God of Eliphaz) as an image of Satan, a transgressive move that constitutes the ultimate expression of Blake’s rejection of a divinity who encumbers and restrains the creative soul—what Blake elsewhere calls “the Poetic or Prophetic character” (Damon 1966: 31–32). A haggard, bearded Job lies prostrate on a bed-like sarcophagus, as demonic hands reach up from the fire raging below to pull him down in chains. A massive, clove-hoofed Jehovah—whose face, here centered in a star-like nimbus of glowing beard and hair, paradoxically bears the features of Job himself—hovers prostrate in the air above him, his countenance oddly thoughtful and gentle, one figure rhyming visually with the other. This succubus-like, cloven-hoofed Jehovah is himself enwrapped by (or perhaps captured by) a wide-eyed serpent, whose snout, emerging from behind Jehovah’s radiant beard and streaming hair, follows the angle of Jehovah’s outstretched arm—an arm caught in the act of reaching toward the massive chain offered by a smiling demon emerging from the flames below. It is an image of terrific and terrifying beauty, depicting, in Damon’s phrase, “the nadir” of Job’s internal life “and the turning point,” or, in Christopher Rowland’s interpretation, “the recognition of the complementarity, the contraries, of the human soul” (Rowland 2010: 47).

(p. 395) Blake produced these astounding engravings late in his career, although as Rowland notes, his interest in the Job story spanned his entire working life, both as poet and as visual artist. As in the Utrecht psalter centuries before, in Blake’s work text and image are in constant interplay: each engraved image in the series of representative episodes is literally surrounded by texts drawn both from the book of Job and from other parts of the Old and New Testaments, in a kind of intergeneric, verbal-visual Glossa ordinaria. “Blake’s composite art does not represent words in pictures and pictures in words, so much as two very different media juxtaposed, in which the complex relationship invites us as readers and viewers into the process of exegesis” (Rowland 2011: 14). Blake was “the great illustrator of the repressed text who brings out its latent meaning which has been covered over by pious and tendentious commentators” (Paulson 1982; Rowland 2011: 72). This critical impatience with received interpretation can be said to be in the same ironic spirit as many of the Writings themselves. It is no accident that Blake appropriated and ironized the book of Proverbs, and the proverb as a genre itself, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. As Rowland argues in his important commentary on the Job engravings, for Blake “the story of Job is the story of a man who comes to learn that ‘if it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character, the Philosophic and Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things & and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again’ (There is no Natural Religion, Conclusion, E3)” (Rowland 2011: 71). It is an artistic and theological stance that Qoholeth himself would have understood.


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