During the past few years, when I’ve been teaching courses on the Hebrew Bible, I’ve developed the habit of brightening up my PowerPoint slides with images from the visual arts which depict the biblical scene or character that I’m lecturing about. I initially did this in order to make my slides more visually appealing for the students and to avoid the PowerPoint death blow of having excessive amounts of text and bullet points oozing from each slide. After a few weeks, however, I noticed that students enjoyed dwelling on these slides, contemplating their deliciously dramatic depictions, laughing at the anachronisms of biblical characters dressed in period costume, and asking questions about the (sometimes unconventional) ways in which the artist appeared to have imagined the biblical text in visual form. These slides thus came to serve as more than mere illustrations to the texts we were discussing; they provided for the class an additional source of interpretation of these texts, one that was colourful, immediate, and engaging.
Of course, the use of the visual arts as an interpretative tool in biblical studies is far from new; seasoned scholars, including Cheryl Exum, Caroline Vander Stichele, Martin O’Kane, and Hugh Pyper have been thrilling us for years with their imaginative explorations of the intersection between ‘text and canvas’. At the Chicago Annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature last year, I was lucky enough to attend two sessions put on by the Bible and Visual Art panel which is dedicated to exploring the interpretation of biblical texts in art throughout the centuries. During both sessions, I encountered a real sense of excitement amongst both speakers and audience members as together, we explored the potential for dynamic and engaging biblical interpretation through the visual arts. Despite grumbling reservations from some of the more traditional arenas of biblical scholarship, this decidedly civil partnership between the Bible and art will, I believe,
stand the test of time as a valuable and lasting addition to the biblical studies family.
Let me give you an illustration. I’m currently teaching a postgraduate course on the books of I and II Samuel and last week, we began by looking in detail at the opening chapters of this remarkable narrative. We focused in particular on the rather bizarre scene set out in chapter 1: Hannah, sick of the cruel mocking she has to endure from her husband’s other wife, escapes the family feast at Shilo and retreats to the local temple, where she utters a fervent prayer to her God that he fill her barren womb with a longed-for male child. Eli, the elderly priest who is sitting nearby, sees Hannah’s lips moving in silent prayer but cannot hear her words, so concludes (rather mystifyingly) that she is drunk (was the spectacle of inebriated women in the temple common in those days?) He tells her to sober up, she retorts that she’s distressed not drunk, and he then shoos her off with assurances that God will have heeded her prayer (whatever it may have been – he doesn’t ask).
In my search for images capturing this colourful scene, I came across a woodcut by 19th Century artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), whose stained glass window designs adorn St Paul’s Cathedral in London.Despite its monochrome simplicity, von Carolsfeld still catches the moment of high drama in the Shilo temple with a delightful clarity. Hannah is portrayed kneeling in prayer just left of centre in the picture. She is framed by two heavy curtains, which drape around her in a manner reminiscent of theatre curtains, thus giving the impression that she is an actor – or opera singer, perhaps – performing her sacred aria before us, the audience. A heavy wooden pole, supporting the temple ceiling, frames her to the right, completing her seeming separatedness from the rest of the scene and splitting her from the shadowy figure of Eli who sits in the background. Hands grasped in prayer, she is awash with light, suggesting to us her central role in this dramatic moment and perhaps assuring us that a heavenly presence is indeed listening to her heartbroken words.
To Hannah’s right, Eli sits, lurking in the wings of her well-lit stage. The contrast between the two figures is startling.There is no heavenly light shining upon him; rather, a heavy gloom seems to drench the corner of the room in which he sits, shrouding him from our scrutiny. This darkness that enfolds the aging priest may be understood as both literal and metaphorical, foreshadowing not only his eventual loss of sight in his old age (I Sam. 4:15) but also his current ‘blindness’ to just how corrupt and useless the Israelite priesthood has become under his family’s dynastic reign (I Sam. 2:12-17, 22-25). Yet, through the shadows, we can see his figure reposing on the priestly throne. His body posture is utterly relaxed and in a state of non-movement; leaning right back in his chair, his hands rest folded in his lap, and his legs adopting a position that suggests he is in no rush to get up and approach the woman who kneels just a short distance away from him. Through this perfect study of a body in stillness, von Carolsfeld draws our attention to Eli’s refusal or incapacity to react to Hannah in a way fitting for a priest. He sits back and passively watches; rather than leaning forward to try and hear her words, to find out what is wrong, he prefers to reach the lazy assumption that she is drunk without having even to leave his comfortable throne.
In her distress, Hannah has come to the temple to call to her God; the priest who should have mediated this communication for her chooses instead to remain very much off centre stage, unwilling to get involved, uninterested in her predicament. That the woman encroaches on Eli’s priestly world of shadows is left in no doubt by his somewhat sneaky gaze which seems to rest lazily upon Hannah’s kneeling figure, and also by the small detail of her robe, whose hem breaks out from her theatrical frame and lies on the floor, just to the right of the pillar, within the priestly space of the temple. This small corner of Hannah’s garment lies like a crumpled accusation, confronting Eli with her distraught presence and asking why he continues to sit, passive and shadowed, rather than reaching out to meet her. It draws our attention to one of the central concerns of the early chapters of I Samuel – the brokenness of the priesthood and its ineptitude as a conduit between God and his covenant people. Hannah is left to enact the performative duties that the priest should have carried out on her behalf; she, not Eli, is on the temple stage, pouring out her heart directly to God without help from a priestly intercessor. Eli, sitting frozen like a statue in the gloaming can neither see nor hear her properly. Yet, he makes no effort to move closer to her, to participate in her performance, to offer her his help. Rather, he prefers to remain unseeing and unhearing, gazing dispassionately at the woman before him.
To my mind, Von Carolsfeld’s woodcut captures this narrative’s moment of high drama, with Hannah performing centre stage and Eli relegated to the wings. But more than that, it presents its own interpretation of the text. Hannah, illuminated in light, becomes more than a barren woman beseeching her God for a child; she is a religious functionary, communicating effectively with the deity in this holy space and signalling to the shadowed, silent priest behind her that his performance in Israel’s religious life is fast drawing to an end.