The Art of Biblical Interpretation: A Review

The Art of Biblical Interpretation: Visual Portrayals of Scriptural Narratives. Edited by Heidi J. Hornik, Ian Boxall, and Bobbi Dykema. Atlanta: SBL Press. 2021. Paperback. 323pp. $52.00.

The Art of Biblical Interpretation showcases ten essays that were originally presentations in the Society of Biblical Literature’s Bible and Visual Art program unit, along with 75 full-color images distributed throughout. The volume attempts to bridge a gap between biblical studies and art history. What potentially unites these disciplines, say the editors, is a developing practice known as “visual exegesis”—that is, treating visual depictions as interpretations, rather than simply as presentations, of a written text. I say “potentially unites” because the volume has mixed results (like most sessions at SBL).

First, I would like to draw attention to the volume’s outstanding contributions.

James Clifton’s essay examines the sixteenth-century Florilegium of Philips Galle and Adriaen Collaert. (The Latin term florilegium, meaning “bouquet of flowers,” was used metaphorically to refer to literary anthologies and then, in this genre of the Dutch Renaissance, punningly to refer to printed anthologies of flowers.) The Galle-Collaert Florilegium begins with a print of the bridegroom and bride from the Song of Songs, then a print of the floral bouquet that the bridegroom offers to the bride, and then twenty-one separate plates of various flowers. By examining similar contemporary works, as well as marginalia in illuminated Bibles, Clifton argues that the Galle-Collaert Florilegium is “a hybrid work of art, science, and faith” (46). It has multiple functions: giving delight to the “anthophilous,” flower-lovers (48, 61); providing a reference work for artists and artisans; fostering meditation on the gifts of the bridegroom (Christ) to his bride (the Church, Mary, or the soul); and promoting both “rational” knowledge of God, through the contemplation of creation, and “suprarational” knowledge of God, through the symbolism of the flowers in connection with the allegorized interpretation of the Song of Songs (48–50). Clifton’s essay shows how art history can elucidate unconventional uses of scriptural imagery.

Jonathan Homrighausen’s “Symbol, Ornament, and Visual Exegesis of the Song of Songs in the Saint John’s Bible” finds that Donald Jackson’s illuminations in the Saint John’s Bible amount to visual exegesis that “points beyond the tired literal-allegory binary so often applied to the Song” (69). The calligraphy and illuminations work together to “mediate” the reader’s experience of the text and to correct our current tendency to “overlook the specificity and materiality of the book when engaging sacred text” (96). They also promote a kind of visio divina that complements the Benedictine lectio divina. Yet the visualization is not heavy-handed. These Old Testament illuminations “stand on their own” while still having a subtle, “implied” typology that hints at, but does not necessitate, the more allegorical interpretations of the Song (92). Homrighausen’s analysis of text, tradition, and the St. John’s Bible’s beautiful calligraphy and illumination successfully achieves his closing point: reception history in visual arts “can enrich the contemporary discussion over the hermeneutics of the Song, providing here a reading of the Song that is both literal and allegorical, spiritual and embodied” (97).

Ela Nuțu’s essay focuses on Bernardino Luini’s depictions of Herodias’s daughter. The two Gospels portray this “little girl” (Matt 14:11; Mark 6:28)—named Salome by Josephus (Ant. 18.5.4 §136)—very minimally, as someone with “no identity, no agency, no defense” (135). Nevertheless, she came to be portrayed as a femme fatale in connection with her pleasing dance (cf. Matt 14:6; Mark 6:22). But something quite different emerges in Luini’s depictions of Salome in the moment when she receives and/or presents the head of John the Baptist on a platter (Matt 14:11; Mark 6:28). The first four of Luini’s versions of Salome depict her along the same lines as his Madonnas: “beautiful,” “youthful,” “peaceful,” “submissive,” “deferential,” etc. (143). The fifth examined evokes more praise from Nuțu: “this is the Salome of the Bible” (151), “the Salome who asks for the platter” (155). In this fifth piece, Salome is “no longer graceful and subservient” but rather “furtive and impish, playful and amused” with “the tainted innocence of a child who is on the precipice of knowledge, of self-identity, of adulthood” (155). Yet this Salome lacks the direct gaze of, for example, Luini’s versions of Mary Magdalene. Salome is rather “vacant”; Luini does not let her gain subjectivity or “a psychological presence,” and so he construes her as more childish and guards her from the culpability that came to be associated with her depiction in the seductive dance (160). Leaving aside the five-page digression into questionable psychoanalytic theories, this chapter raises several important interpretive questions about the daughter of Herodias in Matthew and Mark. Nuțu’s analysis of Luini’s visual exegesis is careful, and her interaction with other art critics and historians is noteworthy.

David B. Gowler analyzes Thomas Hart Benton’s Prodigal Son. He begins by considering the original parable (Luke 15:11–32) in its own context first, and then he considers works by Rembrandt, Tissot, and Dürer to note common themes and tropes in the depiction of the parable. This brings Gowler to Benton’s 1939 lithograph. Gowler examines the lithograph with Benton’s biography and outlook in mind. It is “an idiosyncratic depiction of a prodigal like Benton (and others) who waited far too long to return home” (188). Because the depiction has the prodigal returning to an empty and run-down house without a father, robe, ring, etc., it provocatively “subverts and undermines the parable of Jesus” (197). While the depiction could be autobiographical, Gowler proposes that it also reflects Benton’s populism and hatred of big industry. Gowler, in a moving denunciation of former-President Trump’s hostility toward immigrants and asylum-seekers, suggests a new way of interpreting the parable: while much of the reception history of the parable evidences self-identification with the prodigal son, Benton’s bleak depiction rather “should encourage us to identify with the father, the one who joyfully, lovingly, and compassionately initiates reconciliation and restoration and who welcomes the prodigals/immigrants/strangers home” (203). Whether you take the suggestion or not, Gowler’s examination of the visual exegesis in Benton’s lithograph is exemplary and his conclusions are worth reckoning with.

Ian Boxall’s “Seeing Christ’s Angel: Visual Exegesis of Revelation 10” begins by examining Albrecht Dürer’s (1471–1528) woodcut interpreting the scene from Revelation 10 in which a mighty angel gives John a scroll to eat. The passage’s description of the angel is a challenge to imagine and even harder to depict in visual art. Boxall finds that Dürer’s “stilted” and “overly literal” depiction “disappoints” (263). The rest of this essay presents a search for other depictions before and after Dürer to see whether visualization of the mighty angel can ever escape the sense of absurdity and ridiculousness. Boxall first surveys some of the exegetical challenges of Revelation 10 and the broad history of interpretation of the mighty angel—a survey well worth reading for anyone interested in the passage. Then Boxall turns to several thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman Apocalypses. These illuminated manuscripts “are arguably more successful in conveying the subtlety and exegetical ambiguity of the angel” (268). Boxall is sensitive to the detail of these depictions and does much spadework in tracking down inter-iconic and inter-textual connections. An interesting similarity shared in the illuminations is the mighty angel’s gaze at the reader, not at John. Boxall turns then to Jean Duvet (1485–c. 1562), who maintains the ambiguity in the text’s reception history about whether the angel is Christ himself, Christ’s angel (cf. Rev 1.1), or an angel like any other. Boxall then considers three nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists whose depictions “evoke the sublime, otherworldly character of this angel” (282): William Blake, Benjamin West, and John Martin. It is the last one that catches Boxall’s (and my own) eye. Martin “seems to be problematizing in visual terms the nature of angelic vision. . . . How does one see an angel? . . . To see and hear requires a particularly apocalyptic sensibility which will always retain an element of ambiguity” (287). Boxall’s concluding observations are fitting for the whole volume. First, he notes the superior ability of visual depiction to “convey ambiguity and multivalence more effectively than written commentary” (288). Second, he notes that visual depiction can prioritize particular moments in a narrative or present a narrative (inherently diachronic) synchronically. Third, visual depictions “often exploit and magnify features that are less significant in the biblical source text, resulting in a novel or unforeseen reading of that text” (289). This fact is especially appropriate for the prophetic and apocalyptic visionary texts in the Bible, such as the book of Revelation.

One wishes that all of the contributors in the volume had noted Boxall’s insights and followed the examples of the other contributors mentioned thus far, especially of Homrighausen and Gowler. But the other five essays fall short in their analyses for several reasons and fail to achieve the stated purpose of bridging the gap between biblical studies and art history. I offer a few criticisms in this regard.

Yohana A. Junker’s essay on Bathsheba is more interested in how Bathsheba could be depicted and prescribing how she should be depicted than in delving deeply into the actual reception of Bathsheba (textually and visually) in conversation with the details of the biblical text.

The essay by Heidi J. Hornik, one of the editors, juxtaposes Scarsellino’s visual exegesis and Cornelius à Lapide’s Great Commentary but never moves beyond mere juxtaposition. The best part is the material from à Lapide, who gets a total of fourteen(!) block-quotes, some of which include egregious typos. And alas, Hornik’s analysis of such quotes strays off topic at several points. The concluding explanation given for the importance of Peter and Mary Magdalene in the Counter-Reformation, yet another block quote from a different scholar, seems to be a point that can be made quite apart from anything Hornik brought forth from Scarsellino or from à Lapide.

Christine E. Joynes’s “Picturing the Parable of the Sower” fails to convince that any of the visual depictions discussed, save one, have anything to do with the Parable of the Sower from the Gospels. And while she claims that her work pushes against “biblical scholars’ attempts to separate the parable from its allegorical interpretation” (178), I cannot think of any serious “biblical scholars” who are offering non-allegorical interpretations of Jesus’s parable of the sower; no one thinks that Jesus is teaching his disciples about horticulture. Joynes’s essay contributes little to the discussions about Jesus’s parables.

Jeff Jay’s “Visualizing the Beloved Disciple in the Art of the Reclining Banquet” seeks to answer the question about the narrative description of the Beloved Disciple’s reclining “in Jesus’s lap” (John 13:23) and “on Jesus’s chest” (John 13:25; 21:20) by looking at Greco-Roman depictions of lap-holding in material culture. The major flaw with Jay’s project—given the stated aims of the volume—is that it has nothing to do with the documented reception history of the imagery in John 13. Jay’s essay belongs in a volume on social-historical criticism.

Meredith Munson’s essay on Grant Wood’s Dinner for Threshers is another case of an essay that fails to meet the aims of the volume stated by the editors. There is almost no interaction with the biblical texts of the Last Supper, and I came away suspecting that Wood never intended Dinner for Threshers to be a visual exegesis of those biblical texts.

In summary, this volume has five excellent chapters that fit the stated purpose of the editors in the introduction and five chapters that I judge to be irrelevant for this volume and/or severely flawed in method. The excellent chapters provoke readers of biblical texts to consider how they themselves engage in visualization; how another’s visualization can highlight new perspectives and obscure others; what genres lend themselves to visualization; what genres are most transformed, for good or ill, by visualization; and how visualization can aid or hinder a teacher’s exposition of the Bible. The more flawed chapters will not give readers of this volume any help for treating visual depictions as instances of “visual exegesis”—probably because of a misunderstanding of this ambiguous term—but they are well documented and interesting studies. Disappointing as they are in relation to the aims of the volume, they may still be useful to researchers deep in the recesses of art-historical or social-historical scholarship.

Philip Thomas Mohr is a doctoral candidate at the Catholic University of America, a licentiate in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and an online instructor at Westminster Theological Seminary.

*Image Credit: Pexels


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