Today I’m sharing an image of one of my favourite biblical characters – Delilah (Judges 16). Indeed, it’s fair to say she’s become a bit of an obsession of mine. This beautiful picture of her by French artist Alexandre Cabanel is typical of her portrayal during the nineteenth century fin de siècle – an exotic, erotic, and dangerously seductive femme fatale, whose delicious allure was ultimately no match for even Samson’s extraordinary strength. Who, after all, could resist those smoky eyes, those luscious lips, those tantalisingly bare shoulders?
Cabanal appears to have captured Delilah here at the crucial moment – she reaches out her hand oh so carefully so as not to wake the slumbering Samson who rests his head on her lap, his long locks snaking across her skirts. We know what she’s reaching for – but what should we do? Leave her to get on with her hair snipping in peace or shout a word of warning to Samson before it’s too late? I know what I’m tempted to do – what about you?
For an earlier discussion about Delilah, see my blog post here.
Given the rather feisty weather Auckland has been experiencing today, I thought I’d bring an element of that into today’s advent offering. William Blake’s depiction of God appearing to Job in the whirlwind is a marvellous portrayal of the extraordinary – the meeting of divine and human upon a sweeping vista of cosmic creativity. Within the poetry of Job 38-41, this is a terrifying event, with the deity overwhelming a cowering Job, seeming to bully him into submission with a visual overload of divine power. And yet, Blake manages to bring this remarkable literary event to us using images that are both lyrical and familiar, inviting us to regard Job’s theophanic encounter as an orchestrated performance intended to inspire his awe and wonder, rather than his terror. The deity swoops gracefully towards us, his arms outstretched like a dancer or gymnast, his lush hair and flowing beard sweeping around a gentle, handsome face. Even the whirlwind itself holds no threat, composed as it is of angelic bodies, whose aim seems less to inspire fear than to play their choreographed part in this divine performance. This vision of Blake’s God – and his whirlwind – may not have taken away from Job the bitter pall of his intense and unjustified suffering at the hands of the deity, but, had he seen it, it may at least have provided him with a moment of respite, a flicker of warmth within an otherwise dark and hope-less time.
To mark the first day of Chanukah, I thought it would be apt to include a menorah in my advent image today. The menorah that came to mind is in a work by one of my favourite artists, Marc Chagall. These stunning stained glass windows can be seen in all their true blue glory in the Chicago Art Institute – Chagall created them to mark America’s Bicentennial and they were unveiled to the public in 1977. I was fortunate enough to see them in person a few years ago and remember being captivated by the myriad detail, rich symbolism, and stunning use of colour that wove their way through each of the glass panels. So, enjoy looking at them – and Happy Chanukah!
If you want to know more about these windows, follow this link here.
I’ve spent the morning researching the tradition of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) in literature, so thought I’d share an image drawn from one particular afterlife of this biblical story that particularly caught my eye. François-Nicolas Chifflart’s stunning painting La Conscience portrays a scene from Victor Hugo’s poem of the same name (read it here). The poem traces the long and desperate flight of Cain with his family after he has murdered his brother Abel; in particular, we see his fruitless and increasingly desperate attempts to escape the wrath of the deity. Yet, despite his best efforts, there will be no peace for Cain; for, he is followed wherever he goes by the ‘Eye of God’, its oppressive presence ensuring his continued torment and terror. A symbol perhaps of his guilty conscience, the divine eye is even there after Cain seals himself in an underground tomb, “As a lone man within his sepulchre.” The tone of the poem is one of gut-gnawing anxiety, as we run alongside the increasingly desperate Cain on his search for asylum. And, going by the image Chifflart presents us with, we can all too easily understand his terror and, perhaps, even sympathise with him.
A beautiful, reflective image for today’s advent offering – a painting of Israel’s King David by Yorkshire artist Frederick Leighton. Rather than depicting the king robed in splendour or engaged in some high-powered affair of state, Leighton presents us with a man who, on this cool evening, has cast aside his crown (weary, perhaps, of his royal responsibilities) and who sits on the roof top, contemplating the grey clouds that are jostling their way into his horizon. Certainly, we need only read II Samuel to know that David’s life had more than its fair share of clouds (many of which he invited in himself). And yet here, perhaps, he is also looking beyond them, to the glorious sun-soaked golden clouds that stretch out in the distance and to those two doves, hovering in the twilight sky, who, perhaps, represent for Leighton’s David that glorious, untrammelled sense of liberty and peace of mind, which, as King of Israel, he can only dream of.
O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest.”(Psalm 55:6-8)
For today’s advent offering, I’m returning to the marvellous Rembrandt for another of his stunning portrayals of a biblical narrative (I can’t help it, I think his work is wonderful). The Woman Taken in Adultery depicts the tradition found in the gospel of John 8.3-7, where the scribes and Pharisees try to trick Jesus into condoning Torah disobedience. Presenting Jesus with a woman who has apparently been ‘caught’ in an adulterous scenario, they ask him whether or not she should be stoned. In response, John’s Jesus delivers that well-kent phrase that has since entered the public consciousness of popular culture: ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. In other words, don’t be such a hypocrite to condemn someone for their wrongdoings when all the time, your wrongdoings are just as bad, if not worse.
Rembrandt’s depiction of this tradition is absolutely delicious in its use of colour, shade and texture. The muted tones conjure up the cool shadows of the temple, while glimmers of gold around the temple throne as well as the plush velvets of some of the onlookers’ costumes bring a sense of richness and opulence that befits this ostentatious setting – just see how the jewel on the hat of the chap standing nearest us on our right winks brightly in the light (for a lovely enlarged image of this painting, click here). The figure of Jesus seems to loom head and shoulders over the other temple-goers, Rembrandt suggesting, perhaps, Jesus’ superiority (intellectual and moral) over those trying to trick him here. Moreover, while most people stand in the shadows or semi-shadows, Jesus, by contrast, is positively spot-lit as he stares impassively at the woman kneeling before him. Rembrandt’s Jesus is obviously ‘enlightened’ compared to those temple companions and religious leaders who share this scene with him.
Interestingly, the woman too shares some of this spotlight – we can see all too clearly that her head is bowed, her face pained, her eyes red from crying. In her white dress and veil, she looks almost bridal, or perhaps virginal – is Rembrandt hinting here that she is innocent of the charges laid against her? Certainly, according to the gospel tradition, her guilt is taken for granted, as Jesus tells her to ‘go and sin no more’. He may not wish to see her punished, but in his eyes, she’s a wrongdoer nonetheless. Yet, looking at Rembrandt’s portrayal here, we may instead prefer to see her as an innocent victim of a game of one-upmanship played by those religious leaders who wear their power like a peacocky velvet cloak but whose humanity and empathy are lost in the shadows.
I’ve been over in the UK the past couple of months and just arrived back in NZ this morning. So, as I’ve been airborne for most of the past day and a bit, I felt it only apt that today’s advent offering should depict a winged creature. J.W. Waterhouse’s painting, The Annunciation, offers us a vision of Mary’s visitation by the angel Gabriel as told in the Second Testament book of Luke 1:26-38. Waterhouse has added some interesting details to this gospel tradition – Mary appears to have been spinning yarn before Gabriel appeared to her. There is also what looks like a Torah scroll on a stand to her left. Perhaps she was doing some scriptural study?
Moreover, dressed in a gorgeous deep lilac tunic with red trim, Mary also appears to be connected visually to the angelic form who stands before her. For, compared with more traditional depictions of angels in art, Gabriel is not swathed in white, but in various violet tones; even the wings are a lush indigo. And, unlike the angelic figure we read about in Luke, this divine messenger appears to be female. Perhaps Waterhouse wanted to suggest the possibility of a bonding between these two characters – a shared understanding of the news being imparted and the implications that it would bring to this young Jewish woman. Mary does look aghast at the news of her impending pregnancy, but the angel’s placating stance, her gift of white flowers, and her shared feminine identity (which is also accentuated by the women’s matching dress colours) allows Waterhouse to depict this dramatic scene as a visit by one friend to another, rather than a traumatic intrusion of the heavenly into Mary’s thus-far peaceful earthly existence.