Salome – victim, seductress, or both?

Today’s advent student offering is a marvellous essay written by THEOREL 101 student Wen-Juenn Lee. WenJuenn is a third year student majoring in English Literature and Media Studies. She tells me that she likes to read, write and discuss everything related to Harry Styles being a contemporary messiah. But, for her Bible and Pop Culture essay, she tore herself away from Harry and wrote this excellent piece on that most enigmatic biblical figure – Salome. Read on, and enjoy.

The Dance of Seduction: the Power of Popular Culture on Shaping the Portrayal of Mark’s Dancing Daughter in the Bible

by

Wen-Juenn Lee

Although religion and popular culture are often perceived as two distinct categories, the relationship between the Bible and popular culture has often been dynamic. This is seen in the biblical portrayal of Herodias’ dancing daughter in Mark, and her subsequent afterlives in film, literature and art. As society alters and gives meaning to biblical characters in a way they can understand, we see the dialectic process in which popular culture, societal attitudes and religion shape one another in an ongoing evolution.

In Mark 6:21-29, Herodias’ daughter danced before King Herod and his guests, which delighted the King. As a reward, he offered her “anything you like and I will give it to you.” Herodias, furious that John the Baptist had condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias, told her daughter to ask for John’s head. So the daughter requested, “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, immediately, on a dish.” In front of his guests and in swearing an oath to the girl, Herod was reluctant to break his promise to her. So Herod sent his guard to execute John, and to bring his head on a dish.

As Mark simply referred to the dancing daughter as “daughter of Herodias,” inevitable gaps surrounding the daughter’s identity and motivations emerge. In Flavius Josephus’ historical account The Antiquities of the Jews, a stepdaughter of Herod’s is referred to as Salome. (Book XVIII, Chapter 5, 4) In this way, people came to identify Salome as the same person as the dancing daughter, explaining why the daughter is only ever referred to as Herodias’ daughter and not Herod’s. Thus, the dynamic between “Herodias’ daughter” and Herod becomes a crucial factor in the way artists and writers understood Salome’s dance. According to Josephus, Salome was born around 14 A.D and married twice. Her name, deriving from the Hebrew word Shalom, means peace. Her status as a daughter of a queen, and eventually becoming queen herself, gives her a position of relative power, not to mention indicating her wealth.

Nevertheless, apart from these few inferences we can make, information about Salome, and the dance she became associated with, are scarce and few. Referred to as “the girl”, Salome’s age when she performed the dance could range from a pre-pubescent to a young adult. Her personality, which may have contributed to her motivations to dance, remain unstated. Thus, society is fascinated with a character and a dance about which there is has virtually no historical information. Furthermore, the question of Salome’s motivations for performing her dance, and in obeying her mother to ask for John the Baptist’s head, remains a mystery. In both Mark and Matthew, Herodias tells Salome to ask for John the Baptist’s head, but Salome is the one who makes the specific request “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, immediately, on a dish.” In asking for John the Baptist’s head, specifically “on a dish”, was Salome merely obeying her mother, or did she have personal investments in asking for his head?

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Gustave Moreau, L’Apparition (c.1876)

A hugely significant force that influenced society’s perception of Salome was Gustave Moreau’s L’Apparition, where Salome is interrupted by an apparition of John the Baptist’s head in the climax of her dance. Although the Bible does not describe Salome’s dance, Moreau interprets it in an extremely sexualised manner. Using Jospheus’ report, Moreau understood Salome as a step-daughter dancing sexually in front of her king. A languid leg peeks out from behind the sheer fabric of her dress, and an outstretched arm directs us to the decapitated head of John. Her body, twisted at the waist, directs the male gaze to her fully frontal and almost nude torso. Crowned with ostentatious jewels and Byzantine-like patterns on her skirt, Salome reinforces Western attitudes on the eroticised and oriental ‘Other’ (Said). The power of the gaze is extremely important in L’Apparition.

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Moreau’s L’Apparition, detail

Expressionless, Salome’s eyes directly meet John’s bloody head, floating in mid-air. His mouth is open in horror, while his eyes beseech and plead for Salome’s mercy. In the background, Herod, Herodias and the executioner gaze oblivious to the head of John the Baptist, while a performer looks off in the distance. While everyone averts their eyes, thereby averting their responsibility in the beheading, Salome’s expressionlessly gazes up to meet her victim’s, confirming her guilt. In depicting Salome as defiantly staring at the man she is about to behead, Moreau puts her at the forefront of the beheading, cutting out Herodias and Herod’s responsibility in John’s beheading. In this way, the nature of Salome’s dance changes. Salome is not a pawn who obliviously follows her mother’s orders, but a femme fatale who uses her sexuality to intentionally charm Herod, and simultaneously bring the downfall of a holy man. Like Eve tempting man to sin, Salome dances to ‘charm’ the King, “indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning,” to the consequences of her actions (Huysmans, 24).

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Barry Moser, Salome kissing the head of Iokanaan (2011)

In this way, the gaps of Salome’s dance and character in the Bible are filled in inadvertently by 19thcentury attitudes towards female sexuality. A dancing female who then follows her mother’s request for the beheading of a man can only be understood in one way; sexualised, immodest and manipulative. Moreau interprets Salome as solely guided by her sheer, destructive lust, an ‘enchantress’ intentionally wreaking havoc through dance. Similarly, Oscar Wilde expanded on Salome as evil seductress, seen in his L’Apparition-inspired play Salomé. Salomé, in love and spurned by John the Baptist, kisses John’s mutilated head after the climax of her vengeful dance. In this way, Moreau twists the biblical Salome to become the ultimate metaphor of destructive female sexuality, a metaphor that artists used to perpetuate patriarchal attitudes towards women. Merely referred to as “daughter of Herodias”, she is twisted into a sexualised step-daughter whose “dance”, barely described in the Bible, is interpreted as sexually manipulative. This is what shapes Salome’s appearance and personality, presented as a dark haired “exotic” temptress that is equally seductive as she is destructive.

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Salome in True Blood (HBO)

More recently, Salome emerges in HBO’s Television Series True Blood, as an elite and powerful vampire and leader of the antagonist group “The Authority.” Speaking to, and engaging in, conversation with her portrayal in the Bible and in art, Salome says, “They made me a convenient villain, a symbol of dangerous female sexuality. But I was just a girl with a severely f**ked up family.” In this way, Salome presents herself as a victim, one who was “just a girl” as opposed to the sexually developed femme fatale Moreau portrays her as. Instead, “they wrapped me up and delivered me to my step-father’s bed,” which was a “dance, of sorts.”

Thus,  Salome is portrayed as a pawn in which her mother “trades” her body in exchange for John the Baptist’s head. The syntax of “wrapped me” and “delivered me” stresses Salome’s passiveness in the face of her mother’s schemes. Helpless to the politics and “f**ked up family” she is a part of, Salome has no personal motivations in “dancing” in front of King Herod, or in asking for John the Baptist’s head. Instead, Salome is coerced by a heartless mother, and taken advantage of by her lustful step-father; the victim of the “dance” as opposed to its perpetrator.  Thus, Herod and Herodias become the vilified agents that drive Salome’s dance and John the Baptist’s beheading. Although Salome’s dance is interpreted with an underlying sexual nature like Moreau’s L’Apparition, True Blood uses the “metaphorical” dance of coercive sexual intercourse to highlight Salome’s vulnerability as a victim of the sexual act, cementing her empathy with the audience. Bill’s horror, depicted in a close up shot of his face, and Salome’s own suppressed emotions reinforce the empathy we are meant to feel for her.

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Salome and Bill, in True Blood (HBO)

But as quickly as True Blood tries to deconstruct Salome as dancing femme fatale, it perpetuates it. Salome uses her sexuality as a tool for power, in gauging the trustworthiness of Bill and Eric, and in coercing them to join “The Authority.” Her attempts and success, in seducing both Bill and Eric, are depicted as calculative and insidious, rather than acting out of genuine affection. Meanwhile, Bill and Eric, unaware that the other has been “wooed” by Salome, are depicted as helpless victims in the face of Salome’s aggressive sexuality: “She gets what she wants.” The gratuitous panning shot over Salome’s nude body as she slowly disrobes in front of Eric parallels Moreau’s male gaze, directing our attention to Salome’s breasts and hips. Staring at Eric as she undresses, Salome’s defiant gaze also parallels Moreau’s Salome, depicting her sexual agency as diabolical through the power of her gaze. Clothed in black lace and pink silk, Salome’s dark hair, red lipstick and heavily accented speech reinforces her depiction as a “foreign” femme fatale, who uses her sexuality to bring about the downfall of men. As Bill and Salome become lovers, Salome is depicted as bringing about Bill’s moral downfall, coercing him to do increasingly immoral acts. Urging Bill to feed on a pregnant women, and causing him to betray his best friend, Salome “taints” Bill’s moral compass, threatening his notions of good and evil. In this way, Salome embodies the stereotype she claims not be, seducing men for her own evil purposes.

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Sexualised Salome in HBO’s True Blood

On the one hand, then, True Blood seeks to dismantle the patriarchal interpretation of Salome as destructive femme fatale, by offering an alternative interpretation of Salome as victim, rather than perpetrator of a dance that caused John the Baptist’s beheading. Echoing mainstream feminist thought, Salome draws attention to the misogynistic portrayals of women in art: “I became a convenient symbol of dangerous female sexuality.” But the on the other hand, Salome as victim also has the danger of perpetuating gendered stereotypes. She must either be a damsel in distress or a manipulative whore, there is no in between. True Blood, reflecting wider Hollywood discourses, still relies on simplified and dichotomous understandings of female sexuality to interpret and depict Salome’s dance; as a virtue, with Salome as victim, or as a sin, with Salome as sexual agent. Either way, Salome’s physicality, as an object to be dressed in revealing clothes, and to be gazed at with long panning shots, perpetuates society’s hyper-sexualised treatment of female bodies; Salome, as a biblical dancing woman, is part of that. Perhaps “a progressive straight feminist reading…is actually impossible in light of the heavy misogynist cultural burden the Salome figure has carried for almost two thousand years” (Dierkes-Thrun, 201). Thus, True Blood’s Salome reflects conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality, shaped by a society whose own negotiations with gender and sexuality attempt to be progressive, but are equally influenced by lingering, traditional ideologies.

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True Blood‘s Salome – sexy and terrifying

From the gaps that emerge in Salome’s depiction in the Bible, her motivations to dance, and her responsibility in John the Baptist’s beheading, popular culture understands and depicts Salome’s motivations and character as a hyper-sexualised femme fatale, reflecting the varying and sometimes conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality. As L’Apparition and True Blood shows us, popular culture has the ability to adapt and shape Salome, through contemporary cultural attitudes that transgress the ambiguous and sometimes static depiction of a character in the Bible.

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References

Primary Sources

All biblical quotes are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible.

Moreau, Gustave. L’Apparition. 1876, oil on canvas, the Louvre, Paris.

“Whatever I Am, You Made Me.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Raelle Tucker, directed by David Petrarca, HBO, 2012.

“Somebody That I Used To Know.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Mark Hudis, directed by Stephen Moyer, HBO, 2012.

“Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Raelle Tucker, directed by Dan Attias, HBO, 2012.

Secondary Sources

Cooke, Peter. “‘It isn’t a Dance’: Gustave Moreau’s Salome and The Apparition.Dance Research, Vol. 29 Issue 2, 2012. pp. 214-232

Clanton, Dan. “Trollops to Temptresses.” Daring, Disreputable and Devout : Interpreting the Hebrew Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. T & T Clark International, 2009.  Print.

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.

Girard, Rene. “Scandal and the Dance: Salome in the Gospel of Mark”. New Literary History. Vol. 15, Issue 2, 1984. pp. 311-324

Huysman, Joris Karl. À Rebours. London, UK; Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jewish. Accessed on http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York, US; Pantheon Books. 1

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Prophecy and M.I.A.

Today’s advent offering is from another Bible and Pop Culture (THEOREL 101) student, Pooja Upadhyay. Pooja is a fourth year student studying Law and Arts at Auckland, who thoroughly enjoyed this course, describing it as ‘a wonderful breath of fresh air’ in their otherwise hectic schedule. Pooja has written about British rap artist M.I.A., comparing her to Marcus Borg’s definitions of the biblical prophets. Enjoy!

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M.I.A.: Present-day Pop Prophet

by

Pooja Upadhyay

This essay compares Borg’s definitions of a biblical prophet to the popular-music rap artist Mathangi Arulpragasam (M.I.A.), concluding that M.I.A.’s role in western popular culture is similar to that of a biblical prophet. Like biblical prophets, M.I.A. challenges the status-quo, has a passion for social justice, and engages with forms of prophetic speech. Although she does not have the same relationship with God as biblical prophets, her relationship with God still resembles biblical prophetic behaviour in more secular ways. In sum, this essay will conclude that M.I.A. and ancient biblical prophets play similar roles in society.

According to Marcus Borg, biblical prophets challenge the status-quo (2001, 124-5). M.I.A. certainly follows suit. Firstly, many pop-culture artists tend to create mass-produce music that avoids controversial themes (Hirsch 1971, 372). Unlike these artists, she produces music that is politically charged. In her music video for “Born Free” (2010), she depicts US soldiers arresting boys with ginger hair, taking them to a field, and graphically killing them. The video is a shocking portrayal of genocide in modern-day United States, which led to considerable flak for the artist. M.I.A. used this to condemn western institutions and audiences for their outrage against the fictional video, and their contrasting indifference to a real video of “naked dead bodies being shot in the head, blindfolded” that she had tweeted months before. Thus, she challenges the status-quo with her art.

M.I.A. also confronts another convention of the pop culture industry, which requires mass-produced artist to package, market and sell not just their art, but themselves as a commodity (Shuker 2016, 132). She rejects product endorsement opportunities and struggles with the idea of the musician becoming the focus, not the music. Thus, similar to biblical prophets and their role as agitators, she refuses to conform to multiple aspects of the mass-produced pop-culture artist paradigm.

Pursuant to Borg’s work, biblical prophets are also passionate about social justice and advocate for oppressed peoples (2001, 118). M.I.A. is a champion of refugees and persecuted Sri Lankan Tamils. Through her song “Borders”, she brings the harsh realities of refugees to the forefront of western media consumption. In “Borders”, she lists a number of antagonistic ideas such as “identities”, “your privilege”, and “egos”. She ridicules these by rapping, “what’s up with that?” after each one, condemning the powers of the world for their identity politics and general complacency in alleviating the Syrian refugee crisis. M.I.A.’s passion comes through when she advocates for solutions and discusses how multi-culturalism and integrating refugees enriches communities.

A strong parallel can be drawn between the archetypal biblical prophet Moses, and M.I.A. when she advocates for Tamils. Called upon by God in Exodus 3, Moses takes responsibility for leading the Hebrews out of oppression in Egypt (Exod. 3.7). Similarly, through media interviews, she acts as a leader for the liberation of Tamils oppressed by the Singhalese regime. The exile and displacement experienced by the Hebrews in Moses’ narrative (and in other prophetic texts, including Isaiah and Jeremiah) resembles the experiences suffered by the Syrian and Tamil refugees for which she advocates (Slessarev-Jamir 2011, 28). Thus, through her advocacy, she performs the role of social justice warrior that is so fundamental to Borg’s conception of biblical prophets.

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Borg posits that while some biblical prophets arouse feelings of hope through ‘prophetic energizing’, others engage in more pessimistic speech, called ‘prophetic criticising’ (2001, 130). This is where prophets speak critically of dominant systems of power, whose practices oppress others. M.I.A. criticises governments for their sins (their ignorance of others’ suffering and their persecution of particular groups), in a way that is similar to the prophetic critique Jeremiah performs when declaring the sins of Israel (Jeremiah 2). Rather than issuing a prophetic oracle though, M.I.A. uses 21st century media to convey her message, tweeting sarcastic and cynical comments such as, “Can u catch Pokemon Go at these refugee camps tho”, and “#SriLanka rejects international involvement in accountability + denies war crimes…again.” She thus fulfils the more negative function of prophetic speech, offering a voice of protest against those in power.

Despite, M.I.A.’s cynical dialogue, the effect of her prophetic behaviour generates hope. Although no current scholarship can demonstrate the effect she has on audiences, comments from Twitter and web articles suggest she arouses and inspires audiences. For example, Anupa Mistry, writing in the Pitchfork e-zine, discusses how she fears xenophobic attacks in Canada as a woman of colour, particularly after the Paris terrorist attacks (2015). Mistry argues that M.I.A. is a lifeline for outsiders like her. Additionally, on the release of M.I.A.’s new album AIM, some of her Twitter fans tweeted comments such as, “AIM uplifts me” and, “This album is a voice for the voiceless”. These are contemporary manifestations of M.I.A.’s prophetic impact.

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Lastly, Borg asserts that biblical prophets have a strong relationship with God. This relationship involves ‘call stories’ whereby God appoints individuals with a sacred task (Borg 2001, 124). While M.I.A. may not have received a prophetic ‘call’ from God herself, she does call on God herself through her art, as a means of highlighting God’s absence. In her song, “Born Free”, M.I.A. raps “Lord whoever you are, come out wherever you are”. In the video for this song, images of Mary and the crucifix appear in the context of the ghetto. This Christian imagery, in conjunction with M.I.A.’s demand that God come out, reflects the idea that despite victims of violence and oppression looking to God for protection, God fails to save them. Further, in the song “Story to be told”, M.I.A. raps that she wrote a letter to the Pope but “he never gave me a rope”, highlighting once more God’s silence in her time of need.

However, even biblical prophets have doubted God’s efficacy. In Exodus 5. 22-3, Moses asks God, “Why have you brought trouble on this people?” and then criticises God for not rescuing his people. Furthermore, calling on God to answer for suffering is a recognized feature of contemporary religious prophetic activism (Slessarev-Jamir 2011, 37). Thus, M.I.A.’s apparent doubts about God’s power does not detract from the similarities that bind her to both biblical prophets and contemporary prophetic figures. And, while her proclamations, “I’m not a Christian girl”, and “I don’t even need a religion”, may appear to highlight her differences to religious prophets, I would argue that she still shares with the biblical prophets a passion for social justice, which, as with the prophets (Borg 2001, 123), is shaped and directed by the cultural context in which she is situated.

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This essay has compared artist M.I.A. to the biblical prophets, as defined by Marcus Borg. Like these prophets, M.I.A. challenges the dominant expectations that come with being a pop-music rapper signed with a powerful record label. M.I.A.’s passion for social justice resembles Moses, whilst her prophetic critique may remind us of Jeremiah. Although, God did not call on M.I.A., she still has the sense of duty towards her people that biblical prophets inherited from God. Overall, despite being centuries apart and living in hugely different contexts, M.I.A. still shares a similar role with these ancient prophets.

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Bibliography

Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally. New York: PerfectBound, 2001.

Hirsch, Paul M. “Sociological Approaches to the Pop Music Phenomenon.” The American Behavioral Scientist 14, no. 3 (1971): 371-388. http://ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/docview/194670965?accountid=8424.

“How M.I.A. is a Lifeline in Times of Terror.” Pitchfork. Nov. 23, 2015. http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/967-how-mia-is-a-lifeline-in-times-of-terror/.

Jones, Gaynor, and Jay Rahn. “Definitions of Popular Music: Recycled.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 11. No 4 (1977): 79-92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3332182.

Lewis. Twitter post. Sept. 13, 2016, 1:10am. https://twitter.com/lewniverse/status/775607452653985795?lang=en.

MIA. “Born Free.” YouTube video, 9:05. Posted by “MIAVEVO,” April 28, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeMvUlxXyz8&oref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DIeMvUlxXyz8&has_verified=1.

MIA, interview by Jian Gomeshi. “M.I.A. on Q TV (viewer discretion advised).” Q on CBC. YouTube video. October 18, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaK0YBA8Lss.

MIA. “Born Free.” YouTube video, 4:42. Posted by “MIAVEVO,” February 17, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-Nw7HbaeWY&list=RDr-Nw7HbaeWY.

“M.I.A. talks about her music video “Borders” on Al Jazeera.” YouTube video, 3:58. Posted by “worldtown,” January 14, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTMQXBQMSU0.

“MIA: Pop singer M.I.A’s Interview on Channel 4.” YouTube video, 12:48. Posted by “Tamil News,” January 14, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezhPp5rK9UQ.

MIA. Twitter post. July 25, 2016, 1:02pm. https://twitter.com/MIAuniverse/status/757667438318260224?lang=en.

MIA. Twitter post. June 15, 2016, 7:05am. https://twitter.com/MIAuniverse/status/743081911703212032?lang=en.

MIA. Sexodus. Interscope, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOcRiv9BZwU.

MIA. Freedun. Interscope, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_Nc1FdTD10.

Shuker, Roy. Understanding Popular Music Culture. Oxon: Routledge, 2016.

Slessarev-Jamir, Helene. Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America. New York: NYU Press, 2011. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/stable/j.ctt15zc8pw.

Yusuf. Twitter post. September 13, 2016, 12.44am. https://twitter.com/yuzi/status/775600934076448772?lang=en.

Delilah and Judith

Today’s wonderful student offering comes from Elizabeth Newton-Jackson, who focuses on one of my favourite biblical characters – Delilah.  Elizabeth has just finished the first year of her BA, majoring in religion and art history. Elizabeth has a passion for the study of religion and is particularly enthusiastic about exploring the relationships between religion and art. She therefore really enjoyed taking our Bible and Popular Culture course this year (THEOREL 101), describing it as ‘the perfect introduction to the study of religion’. The course has also  increased her determination to study religion at postgraduate level.

So sit back and enjoy Elizabeth’s thought-provoking essay on Delilah and Judith – two biblical women who, despite similarities in their stories, are so often depicted very differently in popular culture.

Struck Down by a Woman

by 

Elizabeth Newton Jackson

To be “ensnared by a woman” (Josephus Ant. 5.8), to be deceived and defeated by one of the fairer sex has long been considered one of the greater downfalls of man. This perceived weakness of men however, seems to reflect more negatively on the women involved. Artistic portrayals of the infamous Delilah of Judges 16 exemplify this perfectly. The deceptively dangerous woman is a trope well established in art, and yet the figure of Judith from the deuterocanonical book of Judith, who betrayed a mighty warrior for her people, is hailed as a hero. The two women, infamous and famous, are treated with vast differences in art. These artistic treatments take liberties in altering and adding to the original biblical narratives to a point where these biblical characters, Delilah the perceived harlot and Judith the virtuous widow, seem almost pitted against each other as the two sides of woman. Not only do these artistic representations reflect back onto readings of the biblical text, they also embody and perpetuate certain ideas of the intrinsic nature of woman in the world outside the text.

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Rubens, Samson and Delilah, 1609-10 (oil on wood), National Gallery, London

Delilah’s image as the artful seductress is so entrenched that her name has become almost synonymous with the danger of female allure (Kahr 1972, 282). Art has played a significant role in bolstering this image with Rubens’ Samson and Delilah, 1609-1610 unashamedly presenting Delilah as the “harlot among Philistines” (Josephus Ant. 5.8) The sensuality of the scene heightens the air of shocking betrayal as Samson the great warrior lies in a post coital slumber in the temptress’s lap, his hair gently cut under the soft light of a candle. Tension is suggested by the menacing presence of the Philistine soldiers at the open door, waiting for a signal to strike (Kahr 282). Delilah’s exposed breasts are explicit signifiers of her sexualized role in the scene but viewers are further assured of her status as a harlot through the rich red of Delilah’s dress (Exum 1996, 192) and the presence of the elderly procuress (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 461). A statue of Venus and Cupid perched in an alcove of the dingy wall further emphasises the brothel atmosphere (469). Even the inclusion of so many figures in an otherwise intimate scene helps to define a tone of detachment. Delilah is simply doing her duty, she has seduced Samson and has no qualms about betraying him. Although this Delilah is not vengeful or triumphant in the way she is in another work of the same subject by Rubens, titled Gefangennahme Simsons (Exum 1996, 194), she is clearly a woman who has surrendered to her senses and coerced Samson to do the same. Her utmost fault is in her sexuality.

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Rubens, Gefangennahme Simpsons, 1618-20 (oil on wood), Alte Pinakothek, Munich

This emphasis on sexuality does not come from the biblical text. Judges 16:1-22 discloses nothing of Delilah’s profession or personality. We are told only that she lives in the valley of Sorek, was given money by the lords of the Philistines in return for the secret of Samson’s strength and (depending on the translation) cut his hair or had it cut by a manservant (Clanton 2009, 68). There are many gaps within the story of Samson and Delilah and yet the specificity of the gaps that Rubens’ painting fills results in a clear portrayal of Delilah as a heartless femme fatale. Painting Delilah in this light solidifies ideas of the character that may have no real basis in the biblical text. Artists are known to approach subjects with licence, but in the illustration of biblical narratives there is perhaps an assumption of greater respect for the original source (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 463). Respect of this kind is particularly relevant when considering past uses of biblical art in depicting sacred stories to those who were illiterate or did not have access to the Bible in their own language. Many Northern European artists, likely Rubens himself, used not only the Bible itself as a source but commentary by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish scholar of the 1st century AD. Josephus barely changed the narrative of Samson and Delilah, but he did change it enough by pointing to Delilah’s identity both as a harlot and a Philistine in the very first sentence (Ant. 5.8). The world inside the text of Rubens’ Samson and Delilah depicts a narrative that is at odds with the world inside the biblical text and yet the strength and frequency of the portrayal of Delilah as a deceitful harlot reflects back on the biblical text, making it more difficult to distinguish between these two separate worlds.

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Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-9 (oil on canvas), Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica

Although the book of Judith does not have the ambiguities of Judges 16, revealing much about Judith and her defeat of Holofernes, the famous heroine is most certainly a character of paradoxes. She is virtuous (Judith 8:2-8) but knowingly uses her beauty to seduce (10:3-4). She is righteous but lies (11:5) and ruthlessly kills (13:8). Her actions seem to far exceed the mere ‘seduction’ of Rubens’ Delilah. However, Judith is an Israelite and thus cannot fit the femme fatale image her actions may suggest. Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-99 proves this through its lack of reference to the character’s lies and seduction. Caravaggio paints a figure of pure innocence, dressed in pale, modest clothing and bathed in light, the use of chiaroscuro splitting the canvas in two in a blatant display of good and evil. Viewing only the half of the canvas containing Judith herself, one would find difficulty recognising the murder being committed. Her expression displays pity and she stands as far away from Holofernes as possible, severing his head from his body in a detached, almost meek way.

donatello
Donatello, Judith and Holofernes, 1455-60 (bronze), Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

The painting gives us no doubt as to Judith’s status as a heroine. Yet in the biblical text, Judith lies repeatedly, disrespects the dead by taking Holofernes’ head back to her people (Judith 13:15) and ultimately disregards the lives of her own warriors by sending them after the retreating enemy (15:2-3). However, in artistic representations these unsavoury deeds are brushed aside, likely due to Judith’s status as an Israelite. The point here is not to condemn or defame Judith but instead to explore the reasons behind her depiction in art. In Donatello’s bronze Judith and Holofernes, 1455-60, Judith is again a righteous heroine. This work was commissioned by the Medici family and used as a symbol of power and virtue, proving the dedication of this influential family to the people of Renaissance Florence (McHam 2001, 32). The fact that the biblical character of Judith could be appropriated for this purpose and used as recognisable symbol for power and purity proves how wide the divide is between representations of Delilah and Judith. While one is a heroine and invoked to defend and uphold the virtue and power of a great family and city, the other is used to warn men of the danger of women’s allure. The world inside Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes does not quite seem to add up with the world inside the biblical text and yet the two are conflated, resulting in an image of Judith that is far removed from that of Delilah.

Both Samson and Holofernes were struck down by women, charmed by words and beauty before an ultimate betrayal. Surely this common ending for the men of each story must also draw a parallel between the women. Both Judith and Delilah are witty with their words and take it upon themselves whether directly in the case of Judith or indirectly in the case of Delilah to destroy great warriors. There are ambiguities as to whether Delilah does this willingly but the book of Judith makes it clear that the widow formulates and single-handedly carries out her own plan of revenge.

There is far less known about Delilah than Judith but the holes in Delilah’s narrative have been liberally filled by artistic representations. If one was to simply read the biblical text without knowledge of these representations, perhaps it would not be so easy to condemn Delilah and praise Judith. However, there are aspects of the characterisations of these women which make it clear how we are to judge each. Judith is pure. She refuses to remarry after her husband’s death (Judith 8:4) and although she uses her beauty to seduce Holofernes into trusting her, she does not give him her body (13:16). This is emphasised within both biblical and artistic representations. Delilah on the other hand, although the Bible does not comment on her sexuality, is unequivocally labelled as a prostitute in Rubens’ two works and the works of other artists as well as within Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. Perhaps this specific alteration of the biblical text is designed to emphasise Delilah’s definite place on the ‘wrong’ side of womanhood due to the part she played in the destruction of one of God’s chosen. However, bringing sexuality into the narrative does more than solidify a negative image, it makes this sexuality the reason for Delilah’s position as the enemy. This is because it is a point of clear difference between her artistic representations and not only those of Judith but of other saintly women of the Bible, the Virgin Mary being the most obvious example. For the world in front of the artistic representations, this makes Delilah and Judith more than two biblical characters. They are instead portrayals of the different sides of women, and respectively connote ideas of Eve (sinful temptress) and Mary (holy virgin). This categorisation marks a clear divide that equates ‘purity’ with self- sacrifice and sexuality with greed and betrayal.

Artistic interpretations of Delilah and Judith seem to work like a form of Chinese whispers. The two biblical women are taken out of the pages of the Bible, passed through the works of artists such as Rubens and Caravaggio who have the power to alter and add, and then presented to us, the world in front of the text as the unaltered originals; in reality, however, they are markedly altered. Presenting the Delilah and Judith of artistic interpretation as the same women as the biblical text also reflects back onto readings and interpretations of the women in the Bible, suggesting that there is always a clear black and white divide between the virtuous ‘virgin’ figure and the deceitful harlot.

The bible is a vastly influential spiritual, cultural and historical text and for this reason artistic portrayals of its characters are far more than depictions of narrative. The differences between Delilah and Judith as portrayed in the paintings of Rubens and Caravaggio do not simply reflect differences between two biblical characters but shape and emphasise ideas of the how the Bible addresses women and even how women are seen in our secular world, the world in front of the text. Although this may not be the explicit purpose of the artistic representations of Judith and Delilah, the division between purity and perceived sexual immorality as a division between right and wrong has and will continue to have a lasting impact.

Bibliography

All biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version.

Clanton, Dan W. Daring, Disreputable and Devout : Interpreting the Hebrew Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. New York: T & T Clark International, 2009.

Exum Cheryl J.  Plotted, Shot, and Painted Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.

Georgievska-Shine, Aneta “Rubens and the Tropes of Deceit in Samson and Delilah.” Word & Image 23, no. 4 (2007): 460-473. doi: 10.1080/02666286.2007.10435799

Josephus, Flavius. The Whole Works of Flavius Josephus, Translated by Sir Roger L’Estrange. The Seventh ed. Aberdeen: Printed and Sold by J. Bruce and J. Boyle, 1768.

Kahr, Madlyn “Delilah.” The Art Bulletin 54, no. 3 (1972): 282-299. Doi: 10.2307/3048997.

McHam, Sarah Blake. “Donatello’s Bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence.” The Art Bulletin 83, no. 1 (2001): 32.

 

 

Showcasing Student Work 10: BioShock: Infinite and the American Monomyth

Last week, we showcased an essay by Brianna Vincent, who had written about messianic themes and the American Monomyth in the videogame Dragon Age: Inquisition. Today’s student offering from our Bible and Popular Culture course likewise looks for a modern messiah in a popular video game, this time focusing on the first-person shooter game released by Irrational Games in 2013: BioShock Infinite. Our guest author is Samuel McKenzie, a soon-to-be third year BA student in the Faculty of Arts, who is majoring in French and German. Samuel took the course because he has always been fascinated by religious and biblical themes in pop culture; he also admits that he enjoyed the opportunity to write an essay on a videogame, and his favourite game to boot! After completing his degree, Samuel hopes to eventually do a Masters degree in Translation Studies.

So, whether or not you are a gamer yourself, give yourselves a treat and listen to Samuel as he considers the way that BioShock Infinity both affirms and disrupts conventional themes of messiahship.

Picture1

‘You think a dunk in the river is gonna wash away the things I’ve done?’

BioShock Infinite as critique of the American Monomyth

by Samuel McKenzie

The protagonist of a First-Person Shooter (FPS) videogame is typically a mysterious loner who emerges to rescue a community from evil. His morality is absolute, his violence justified, his sexuality renounced or absent. He is composed – almost divinely competent – even when facing odds and taking damage that would surely destroy a lesser man. His abilities may sometimes even seem supernatural. These qualities, then, mean that the FPS protagonist typifies the archetype that is the American Monomyth (Jewett and Lawrence 2002, 47), and one would then expect the protagonist of a game that has been referred to as “one of the best-first person shooters ever made” (online review) to be a particularly striking example of the concept. But Booker DeWitt, protagonist of Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite, is not your typical messianic archetype. In this essay, I will be analysing how Booker’s portrayal both fulfils and subverts the concept of the American Monomyth, and how this ‘’anti-messiah’’ figure ties in to the Biblical messiah through analogy for the Christus Victor theory of atonement. As this essay will discuss storyline elements and plot details, spoilers will follow.

Flying city
The flying city of Columbia, the setting of the game

A Last Chance for Redemption

     In many ways, Booker DeWitt is an example of the American Monomyth. He is an outsider to the city of Columbia, the setting of the game. We know very little about his backstory but for a few key elements – such that he is from New York, that he fought in the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, and that he worked for the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. (fig. 1)

Fig 1
Fig 1: Booker’s Detective ID from the game’s loading screen

Booker renounces temptation, not once in-game showing any sexual interest, or getting caught up in a game of cards or round of drinks. This rejection of temptation parallels a key story in the life of the messianic figure the American Monomyth is intended to replace – Jesus of Nazareth. In Matthew’s gospel, we are told a story of how Jesus was tempted thrice by the devil in the wilderness, and rejected temptation each time (Matt 4.1-11).

  Like many messianic figures, Booker faces persecution. Soon after his arrival in Columbia, he is taken for the “false shepherd” foretold of in prophecy by Prophet Comstock, the leader of Columbia’s theocracy. The people of Columbia believe that the false shepherd will lead their “lamb” – Elizabeth, Comstock’s daughter and heir – ‘’astray’’. (fig. 2)

Fig 2
Fig 2: an in-game poster featuring the “false shepherd”

As such, he receives an extremely hostile reception. The rhetoric of a ‘’false shepherd’’ has Biblical roots – the Book of Ezekiel uses an analogy of ‘’false’’ shepherds to decry leaders of Israel who will not care for their people (Ezekiel 34).

As he is our protagonist, we naturally ally with Booker. The player must play as Booker DeWitt, and thereby sees all situations with him at centre. We unconsciously justify his actions as necessary to achieve his goals, and through doing so, are presented with a figure whom we see as unjustly targeted, but one we believe will make things right, as the standard messianic archetype.

I am not a righteous man, I am not a holy man

        However, Booker DeWitt is not the standard messianic archetype. The concept of the American Monomyth is not without flaw, and BioShock Infinite subjects it to thorough critique. The messiah is very much an ideal – Sarbatoare notes that the Jewish messiah’s “personal qualities surpass the ordinary standard of human abilities” (Sarbatoare 2004, 54). (fig. 3)

Fig 3
Fig .3: Booker using a “vigor” in a fight, a tonic that grants him pseudo-magical powers

The American Monomyth’s violence is typically seen as sanctified – but in fact, this seems to contrast several Biblical views on the topic. In Genesis 6 – the story of Noah – the Bible claims that the flood was sent because the earth was “filled with violence” (Gen 6.11-13). In Isaiah 59.2-7, Isaiah’s criticisms of the unjust involve accusations that “acts of violence mark their ways”. The sins humans perform are summarised under the concept of their effect – violence (Schwager 1987, 48-51). Booker goes through the game wracked with guilt over his violent past. When he, near its end, encounters a priest performing river baptisms, he snarls at his companion, Elizabeth, “You think a dunk in the river is gonna wash away the things I’ve done?”

BioShock Infinite takes place across different timelines, and through two of Booker’s alternate selves, the game criticises the expectations of the American Monomyth as a social outsider. Lang and Trimble note that the American Monomyth must complete “some violent act that the rest of society is incapable of performing” (Lang and Trimble 1988, 166), and yet is expected to serve as saviour figure. In one timeline, Booker allies with the anarchist Vox Populi, and quickly rises to become a leading figure in their movement. (fig.4) However, when Booker and Elizabeth enter this timeline, they discover that the revolution has destroyed Columbia and slaughtered most of its civilian population. The combination of expectations of abnormal violence and leadership results, unsurprisingly, in a ticking time-bomb.

Fig 4
Fig. 4: A Vox Populi poster of Booker from an alternative timeline

In another timeline, Booker becomes the architect behind and ruler of Columbia, Zachary Comstock. Comstock possesses an intensely bigoted, binary moral outlook. In one offshoot timeline, Booker finds an elderly Elizabeth in 1984, tortured by Comstock into ideological compliance, overseeing Columbia’s airships attacking New York. (fig.5, fig.6)

fig 5
Fig. 5: A mural to Comstock at Columbia’s “Welcome Centre” for new arrivals

Through the character of Comstock, BioShock Infinite manages to highlight the flaw in the American Monomyth’s morality – its absolutism. When the American Monomyth’s black-and-white moral view is coupled with his sanctified violence, the result is someone with absolute belief in his ways and a willingness – or even propensity – to take any ends to achieve them.

Fig 6
Fig. 6

Dies, Died, Will Die

   But the end Booker takes to achieve redemption is that of sacrifice, in a parallel to the Christus Victor theory of atonement. The Christus Victor theory posits that through his death, Jesus “fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world… under which mankind is in bondage” (Gunton 1985, 129). As Booker progresses through the story, he is witness to the injustice, oppression and devastation resulting from Comstock’s extremist rule over Columbia. He realises that to truly defeat Comstock, he must “smother that bastard in his crib”, at the root of all his timelines. This leads to Booker to the site of a river baptism, where he learns that Zachary Comstock is him, in a universe where he underwent the baptism to cope with his post-war guilt, and, believing himself to be absolved of his sins, became a religious zealot. Elizabeth is his daughter – Comstock, infertile from repeated use of trans-dimensional technology, travelled to Booker’s reality and bought his then-infant daughter, Anna, off an indebted Booker in order to have a biological heir. (fig.7)

Fig 7
Fig. 7: Booker attempts to stop Comstock from leaving with Anna DeWitt

Booker then undergoes the baptism, but stays under the water and drowns in what appears to be suicide, which is then implied to have undone Comstock’s becoming. (fig.8)

Fig 8
Fig. 8: Booker drowning while various iterations of Elizabeth look on

Booker’s death is redemptive. He starts the story travelling to Columbia to repay a debt, and ends it by wiping away another – the blood debt that Comstock has accrued. By sacrificing his own life, Booker takes on the sins of others – the injustice, oppression and violence occurring in the game – and redeems them by ensuring that they never occurred. Romans 6.3-4 mentions the idea of a “baptism into death”, saying that those baptised were “buried with” Jesus in order to “live a new life”. With Booker’s death as parallel to this analogy, the renewal it creates is highlighted, allowing his story to close so that others may begin.

Lives, Lived, Will Live

   BioShock Infinite’s protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is both an example and subversion of the American Monomyth, highlighting the key issues of the trope – those of its violence, moral absolutism and unrealistic expectations. And yet, Booker is far from being a failed messiah – he delivers redemption that his more typically messianic alternate selves cannot. Perhaps the game means to show that a messianic figure does not need to be some grand, imposing, perfect moral hero – it can just as easily be a flawed messiah, an imperfect messiah, but a believable messiah. It is realism that makes a fantasy more compelling – and thus, humanising a messiah gives his message more potency. After all, when Elizabeth asks Booker, “Booker, are you afraid of God?”, his response is “No – But I’m afraid of you.”

end

Bibliography

All references to the Biblical text are from the New International Version (UK).

“List of accolades received by BioShock Infinite.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 26th, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_accolades_received_by_BioShock_Infinite

“Booker DeWitt.” BioShock Wiki. Accessed September 27th, 2015. http://bioshock.wikia.com/wiki/Booker_DeWitt

Gunton, Colin. ““Christus Victor” Revisited. A Study in Metaphor and the Transformation of Meaning.” The Journal of Theological Studies 36, no. 1 (1985): 129-145.

Lang, Jeffrey S., and Patrick Trimble. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero.” The Journal of Popular Culture 22, no. 3 (1988): 157-173.

Jewett, Robert, and John Shelton Lawrence. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002

Sarbatoare, Octavian. “Messianic Ideas: Historical Sources, and some Contemporary Expectations of Fulfilment.” Honours Thesis, University of Sydney, 2004. http://prijipati.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/7194 (accessed September 27th, 2015)

Schwager, Raymund. Must there be scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1987.

 

Danger and Desire – Edenic reflections

Adriaen van der Werff, Adam en Eva (c.1711)
Adriaen van der Werff, Adam en Eva (c.1711)

As you will recall from a previous post, I’ve been teaching a course this semester on the Bible and visual exegesis, exploring visual culture as a source of biblical interpretation. Classes have been going well, so I thought I’d share some images and insights we’ve covered in some of the lectures. I’ll start off with our lecture from a few weeks back on Adam and Eve in art and advertising.

We began with an overview of some of the ambiguities in the text of Genesis 2-3, particularly in relation to what Genesis 3 – the story of the ‘Fall’ – says about gender and female sexuality. Does Eve’s creation after Adam – and from Adam – suggest that woman is subordinate to man within the divinely mandated created order? Why does the snake talk to Eve, rather than Adam – does it suggest women’s greater vulnerability to temptation and disobedience? Why did Adam eat the fruit given to him by Eve – did she have to persuade or tempt him to eat it or did he bite into it quite willingly? And what was the forbidden fruit anyway – and why was it forbidden by God in the first place?

Countless interpretations of these textual ambiguities have been put forward over the centuries, many of which have pointed not only to woman’s secondary status in the created order but also to her textual characterisation as weak-willed and naive, prone to sin and solely to blame for the ‘fall’ of humanity and the loss of Edenic relations between both male and female and humanity and God. Moreover, Eve also stands accused of being the archetypal temptress, who uses her sexual allure to entice men away from their natural godliness and to indulge in the ‘forbidden fruit’ of untrammelled sexual desire. As the early Christian and Jewish readings of Genesis 2-3 quoted below suggest, this biblical narrative does not only recount the misdeeds of the first female biblical character, it advances an ideology about all women, explaining their dangerous nature and justifying the need for male dominance and control.

  • 1 Timothy 2.12-14: ‘I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor’.
  • Ben Sirach 25.24 (2nd Century BCE wisdom text): ‘From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die’.
  • Philo (Jewish philosopher, 25 BCE-50 CE): Women are ‘the beginning of blameworthy life’. Their bodily appetites are ‘the beginning of wrongs and violation of law, the pleasure for the sake of which men bring on themselves the life of mortality and wretchedness in lieu of that of immortality and bliss’.
  • Augustine (Christian theologian, 354-430 CE): ‘[Eve] was of small intelligence and … lives more in accordance with the promptings of the inferior flesh than by the superior reason’.
  • Clement of Alexandria (Christian theologian, 150-215 CE): ‘Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman…the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame’.
  • Tertullian (Christian theologian, 155-245 CE): ‘And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert— that is, death— even the Son of God had to die’.
  • Jerome (priest, theologian 347-430 CE): ‘Woman is the root of all evil
  • 15th Century with-hunter’s manual, Malleus Maleficarum: ‘In the Old Testament, the Scriptures have much that is evil to say about women, and this because of the first temptress Eve and her imitators’.

malleus.cover

Yes, throughout the long history of interpretation surrounding Genesis 2-3, Eve gets the blame for all humanity’s woes; moreover, all women are Eve, all women are associated with sin, guilt, temptation, and evil. No wonder men have to exert power over us, lest our evil natures wreak further havoc in this divinely ordained patriarchal world. We might be tempted to roll our eyes at the outdated views of these early interpretive efforts, dismissing their horrible misogyny as the result of archaic responses that no longer wield power in our contemporary Bible-reading cultures. Alternatively, we may tend to agree with their general interpretation of Genesis 2-3, but seek to whitewash the violence and vitriol of of such readings with platitudinous appeals to the far more equitable creation account of Genesis 1, where ‘male and female’ are both created – concurrently it seems – in the ‘image of God’. And yet, despite the fact that these early interpretations of Genesis 2-3 are indeed products of their time, their legacy across time and space has been ubiquitous and far from harmless; indeed, it’s almost a truism to say that the Genesis 2-3 text has had and continues to have a real and deleterious effect on women’s social, political, and religious lives: as feminist theologian Mary Daly noted:

0704339935.01.MZZZZZZZ‘The myth [of Gen 2-3]  has projected a malignant image of the male-female relationship and of the “nature” of women that is still deeply imbedded in the modern psyche … The myth has in fact affected doctrines and laws that concern women’s status in society and it has contributed to the mind-set of those who continue to grind out biased, male-centred ethical theories … [It] undergirds destructive patterns in the fabric of our culture’.

Beyond God the Father, 1973.

So, if we turn to some of the visual depictions of Genesis 2-3 created across the centuries, what can we tell about the way artists have interpreted this biblical text? Do they likewise reflect the views of those early readings given above, pinning the blame on Eve for the whole sorry mess that was ‘the Fall’? Carrying out a survey of artists’ presentations of Genesis 3 from the Medieval period through to the nineteenth century fin de siècle and on to the present day, it becomes clear that the notion of Eve as Adam’s temptress – and her close affiliation with the snake, that source of sinful temptation – remained alive and well in visual culture. In some artworks, for example, Eve and the snake share a rather spooky resemblance, confirming the artists’ association of woman with this serpentine symbol of evil.

Masolino, Temptation of Adam and Eve, 1425
Masolino, Temptation of Adam and Eve, 1425
The Fall of Adam and Eve, Hugo van der Goes, c. 1470
The Fall of Adam and Eve, Hugo van der Goes, c. 1470

In other visual portrayals of Genesis 3, Eve may not look like the snake, but her close affiliation with it is clear to see. In William Blake’s Eve Tempted by the Serpent, this bizarre couple sashay around the tree of knowledge together, while Adam lies snoozing, oblivious to the disastrous events about to unfold.

William Blake, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, c.1800
William Blake, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, c.1800

In works by Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Henry Fuseli, and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, there’s even a wee bit of flirtation going on between Eve and the snake, while in Franz von Stuck’s work, Adam and Eve, Eve and the snake appear to become one flesh, the lapis lazuli creature mimicking the serpentine curves of the woman’s body until they coalesce to form one terrible fanged mouth that offers the man that fateful fruit.

Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Eve, 1896
Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Eve, 1896
Henry Fuseli, The Serpent Tempting Eve (Satan’s first address to Eve), 1802
Henry Fuseli, The Serpent Tempting Eve (Satan’s first address to Eve), 1802
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Eve Tempted (c.1877)
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Eve Tempted (c.1877)
Franz von Stuck, Adam and Eve (1893)
Franz von Stuck, Adam and Eve (1893)

Also, note how in some of these paintings, Eve is alone with the snake, accentuating the closeness of their relationship and, as J. Cheryl Exum has suggested, allowing Adam to be acquitted of at least some of the blame for his and Eve’s act of fruity disobedience. And even when he is present in the picture, some artists seem to insist that Adam was an unwilling partaker of the forbidden fruit, driven to this disastrous act as the result of Eve’s feminine wiles and skills of temptation.

William Strang, The Temptation (1899)
William Strang, The Temptation (1899)
Titian, The Fall of Man (c.1570)
Titian, The Fall of Man (c.1550)
Victor Brauner, Adam and Eve 1923
Victor Brauner, Adam and Eve 1923

But how did Eve tempt Adam to eat the forbidden fruit? And what was this fruit anyway – what did it represent? The biblical text doesn’t explicitly tell us, but as Katie Edwards has suggested (in her fabulous book Admen and Eve), given the rich biblical tradition of pairing together the themes of female sexuality and fruit (see Song of Songs 2:3-5 and 4:12-16 for example) – not to mention the sexualised implications of female nakedness found throughout the Hebrew biblical traditions – it may be that Eve’s ability to tempt her man to disobey the divine word was due to the overwhelming power of her sexuality. In other words, she didn’t simply persuade Adam to eat a piece of fruit – she seduced him until he was powerless to resist her charms, until he forgot about any divine prohibition and, throwing caution to the wind, sank his teeth into the delights of the flesh. And certainly, artists such as John Liston Byam Shaw make quite explicit this association between female sexuality and the sin of the ‘Fall’. Eve – as woman – is shamelessly seductive here – framed by the rich colours and exotic creatures of Eden (including a rather ginormous snake), she appears to have entranced poor Adam to the point of catatonia as he stands, trapped between those two most deadly of creatures – the woman and the snake – with nowhere left to run.

John Liston Byam Shaw, The Woman, the Man, the Serpent (1911)
John Liston Byam Shaw, The Woman, the Man, the Serpent (1911)

Even in contemporary depictions of the Adam and Eve biblical traditions – for example, advertising images that use iconography from the Genesis 2-3 text – this sexualising of Eve persists, along with that same insistence that Adam, while not entirely blameless, was rendered helpless by the overwhelming (and thus dangerous) power of woman’s sensual allure.

Bobby's Taproom and Grill advert
Bobby’s Taproom and Grill advert
Bobby's Taproom and Grill ad
Bobby’s Taproom and Grill advertising image
TSUM department store ad
TSUM department store ad

These contemporary images – although created under the banner of (hetero)sex positive postfeminism – may still convey an implicit message that such allure may need to be proscribed and policed. As Edwards notes in Admen and Eve, women’s sexuality and self-objectification before the male gaze can now be advertised as a source of their social and sexual power; yet, there is a concomitant claim that such potent female sexuality poses a threat to men and masculinity. Meanwhile, both of these ideological responses blissfully ignore the daily reality for countless women that their sexuality is less a source of their power than a site of shame, vulnerability, and violence.   While Paul, Philo, the Church fathers, and countless others insist that women’s sexuality led man to lose his paradise, the reality may be that the paradise of patriarchy never did get lost in the first place, but remains very much a reality, sustained by those myths and misperceptions surrounding female sexuality – given voice in Genesis 2-3 and their interpretive traditions – that serve to keep women firmly in that marginal space of shame, subordination, and sexual sin.

I’ll be back soon with more reflections from our Danger and Desire course – next time, we’ll survey the cultural phenomenon of ‘Salomania’ – that centuries-long artistic love affair with the young royal dancer who caused John the Baptist to, quite literally, lose his head.

References for this discussion:

Edwards, Katie B. Admen and Eve: The Bible and Contemporary Advertising (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012).

Exum, J. Cheryl. “Notorious Biblical Women in Manchester: Spencer Stanhope’s Eve and Frederick Pickersgill’s Delilah.” In Bible Art Gallery, edited by Martin O’Kane, 69-96 (The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).

Danger and Desire: New course offering for Theology at Auckland

crowd

Those of you who have visited the blog before will be aware that I have a bit of a thing for exploring the Bible in the visual arts (see our annual December Advent offerings, for example, or some previous posts here, here, and here). So I’m thrilled this year to be teaching  on this very topic. Titled Danger and Desire: The Bible and Visual Culture, this brand new course will introduce students to the concept of visual exegesis, showing them how visual images (including art, film, TV, and advertising) can be valuable tools for the biblical interpreter to use in their readings of biblical stories, themes and, characters. These pictorial presentations of the biblical material are rather like biblical commentaries or scholarly articles in visual form – the image maker is an interpreter of the text, not merely its illustrator. And, through their particular visual media, they gift to us fascinating retellings of the biblical stories, multicoloured afterlives of biblical characters, and reflections on biblical themes that can at times be thrilling, surprising, and even challenging.

Robert Lentz
Robert Lentz, David and Jonathan (c. 2005)

Exodus-Gods-and-Kings-Poster-7

In case I’ve whetted your interest, I’ve listed the course description and lecture topics below, along with a very select bibliography of some resources we’ll be using. And, as the course progresses, I’ll share with you some of the insights that I get from each lecture, not to mention some of the wonderful images we’ll be looking at each week.

Franz-Von-Stuck-adam-and-Eve
Franz von Stuck, Adam and Eve

Danger and Desire: The Bible and Visual Culture

An exploration of the ways that biblical characters, themes, and stories have been represented in the visual arts, including fine art, advertising, and film. Students will consider the interrelationship between biblical and cultural texts, learning various methods of biblical interpretation which utilise visual images as interpretive tools to make new sense of the biblical traditions and their history of interpretation.

Lectures:

  1. Introduction to visual exegesis and hermeneutical aesthetics
  2. Sin, sexuality, and selling power: Adam and Eve in art and advertising
  3. Don’t lose your head: Judith and Salome as biblical femmes fatales
  4. Querying masculinities: exploring biblical ambiguities in the visual arts (David and Jonathan; Jacob wrestling with the man at Jabbok)
  5. Querying femininities: exploring more biblical ambiguities in the visual arts (Ruth and Naomi)
  6. Highlighting or hiding the abject body? Hagar in art
  7. Bathing beauties and peeping toms: Bathsheba and Susanna in art
  8. Giving shape to suffering: the book of Job in art (focus on William Blake and Samuel Bak)
  9. Retelling familiar tales: the parable of the good Samaritan in art and on screen
  10. Visualizing the (masculine) holy: Jesus and messiah imagery in art, film, and advertising
Samuel Bak Journey
Samuel Bak, Journey (1991)

Select bibliography

Adams, Ann Jensen. Rembrandt’s Bathsheba Reading King David’s Letter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Allison, Dale C. Jr., Christine Helmer, Thomas Römer,  Choon-Leong Seow, Barry Dov Walfish,  and Eric Ziolkowski (eds.) Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009-

Clines, David J. and J. Cheryl Exum (eds.). Biblical Reception (2012-2013).

Clanton, Dan. Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. New York: T&T Clark, 2009.

Edwards, Katie B.  Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising. The Bible in the Modern World, 48. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2012.

Exum, J. Cheryl. The Bible in Film: The Bible and Film. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Exum, J. Cheryl.  Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012 (2nd edn).

Exum, J. Cheryl and Ela Nutu (eds.). Between the Text and the Canvas: The Bible and Art in Dialogue. The Bible in the Modern World, 13. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009

Harvey, John.  The Bible as Visual Culture: When Text Becomes Image. The Bible in the Modern World, 57. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.

Joynes, Christine E. (ed.). Perspectives on the Passion: Encountering the Bible through the Arts. London: T&T Clark, 2007.

O’Kane, Martin (ed.). Bible Art Gallery. The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011.

________ (ed.). Imaging the Bible: An Introduction to Biblical Art. London: SPCK, 2008.

________. Painting the Text: The Artist as Biblical Interpreter. The Bible in the Modern World, 8. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009.

Renan, Ernest. Christ in Art. New York: Parkstone International, 2010.

Rowland, Christopher. Blake and the Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Terrien, Samuel. The Iconography of Job through the Centuries: Artists as Biblical Interpreters. University Park: PSU Press, 1996.

Salome and John the Baptist John Vassos 1927
John Vassos, Salome and John the Baptist (1927)
Adam and Eve Underwear Ad
Adam and Eve imagery in Bench/ undies ad
banksy-graffiti-street-art-8
Banksy, Crucifixion


Advent offering – 21 December

For the last few days of the advent calendar, I thought I would look at some images depicting the nativity story, as told in the Christian gospels of Luke and Matthew. To start us off, I’ve chosen this beautiful painting usually attributed to Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Brueghel the younger (brother of Jan Brueghel the elder, whom we’ve met in a past post). The painting is titled The Census at Bethlehem, depicting the events of Luke 2, which describe the journey of Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem in order to be registered as part of the Roman imperial census:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered… So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. (Lk 2.1-5)

The painting shows a snowy Bethlehem, buzzing with those who, like Mary and Joseph, have come for the census. The detail in the picture is wonderful to look at (I recommend you enlarge the picture on your computer screen – I promise you’ll be captivated by all the action taking place in it). Children play on the frozen river, people crowd round bonfires and braziers trying to keep the winter chill out, and a rather boisterous snowball fight appears to be taking place in the background (see if you can spot the woman rubbing snow into the face of a man lying on the ground). To the left in the foreground, a crowd forms around a building that is usually taken to be the place of registration for the census –  people queue up at a table, behind which others sit taking down details and receiving payment (taxes perhaps?) Meanwhile, to the right of this building, near the centre of the painting, we spot Mary and Joseph, making their way across the snow. Joseph is pointing ahead to their destination, while Mary sits, riding on a donkey, keeping warm in a teal green cloak. With all the action, hubbub, and clamour that seems to fill this scene, the couple easily get lost – for the moment, they are just two ordinary folk amidst many others – tired, cold, and hungry after their long journey. Yet very soon, according to gospel traditions, they will become extraordinary, given the events that unfold in this nativity narrative. But more about that tomorrow…

Image
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Census at Bethlehem (c.1605-10)

Advent offering – 17 December

Yesterday, I mentioned the use of colour in art to evoke a painting’s mood – today, as my advent offering, I’ve chosen an artist whose use of shade – light and darkness (or chiaroscuro, to use the proper term) – makes his paintings, in my mind, simply beautiful. French Baroque artist Georges de La Tour (1593-1652) is best known for painting religious and biblical figures in scenes that are illuminated by candlelight. I love all his works, but the one I’ve chosen to share today is his depiction of New Testament figure Mary Magdalene, titled Magdalen with the smoking flame (c.1640).

In this painting, Mary is sitting quietly at a table, deep in thought, seemingly staring at the candle flame. On her knee, she holds a skull, a common symbol of mortality. Her dress is plain, her hair loose, her feet bare, suggesting she is alone, content with her own company. Candlelight illuminates her bare neck, shoulders, and legs – perhaps hinting at the latent sexuality of this woman – the woman so commonly misidentified as a prostitute throughout Christian history. Upon the table lies a cross and some books, suggesting that she has been engaged in study and prayer. Jarring the peaceful mood of this scene, we can also see what looks like a scourge, used perhaps by Mary for self-mortification. This, it seems, is a penitent Magdalene – a fallen woman redeemed by her repentance and her adoption of an ascetic life of quiet contemplation. Yet it is also a Magdalene who can still fascinate us with her quiet beauty, whose many cultural afterlives are such a mix of light and darkness that we cannot help but want to find out more about her.

Image
Georges de La Tour, Magdalen with the Smoking Flame (c.1640)