June 20, 2006

Interpreting the Bible through the Arts

Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, Saturday 17th June 2006

Mark’s Gospel through the Arts: A Test Case? Dr Christine Joynes

Why use the Arts to read Mark?

  • The Biblical text is DYNAMIC rather than static and therefore its interpretation is a journey of discovery. The arts can open up the text and bring various events together for dramatic impact, making them seem simultaneous. The example that was given was Picasso’s ‘Salome’ which depicts the events as told in Mark 6:14–29. In this, Salome is shown to be dancing to Herod whilst, simultaneously, the head of John the Baptist is presented on a plate. Her pose in the painting is provocative, suggesting her position as a seductive temptress. Other depictions portray her as an innocent victim.


  • Exploring the interpretation of the Bible in the arts highlights the involvement of the self and the formation of consciousness in the act of hermeneutics. In Biblical interpretation, Chris argued, we recognise our own situation as individuals and move on to form our own identity. This idea is most apparent in paintings of Biblical scenes which include landscapes familiar to the artist.
  • The interpretation of the Bible through the arts can help us to understand the ‘other’ since our horizons become enlarged and we overcome elitism. Of course, the opposite can also happen whereby the arts can impose a rigid interpretation. Examples of this can be seen in paintings which depict a white Jesus in a colonial context.
  • The arts can highlight neglected elements of the Biblical text. The example that was given was of Mark 1:2 which speaks of John the Baptist as a ‘messenger’ in one translation and as an ‘angel’ in another. Seventeenth century iconic depictions of John with wings allow us to read the text in a new way.

Chris went onto discuss readings of Mark’s passion narrative through the arts. What I found most interesting was the consideration of the various interpretations of Jesus’ cry of dereliction upon the cross. In music as well as painting, this moment has been associated with Jesus’ baptism. The juxtaposition of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with the end can be seen in Dali’s famous depiction of Jesus and the cross, as well as in the music of Golijov.

From Biblical bit part to devotional diva- scriptural sources and the development of Marian imagery, Dr Cathy Oaks

This talk focused primarily on medieval imaginings of the biblical text. I found the discussion of symbolism and typology partially illuminating and helpful to my research and considerations of Pre– Raphaelite paintings. Below are some examples of the symbols that were discussed:

  • The image of a book served as a domestic token of wisdom. In the New Testament apocrypha, Mary is said to been educated in the Temple before her marriage to Joseph. The symbol of a book is an indication of her worthiness and of her grounding in Old Testament scripture.
  • The tree of Jesse (from Isaiah 11:1) is often depicted in medieval depictions of the Annunciation. This was to typologically link it to the Immaculate Conception.
  • Gabriel’s baton in pre–thirteenth century depictions of the Annunciation links him to the pre–Christian tradition of Mercury carrying a baton.
  • The Lilies– in early paintings there were nearly always three. As well as relating to Mary’s chastity, they could also be seen to be representative of the Trinity.
  • The Apocalyptic woman (from Revelation 12:1). An image of this woman was adopted to represent the doctrine of the virgin’s Immaculate Conception.
  • Unicorn iconography. The unicorn is a symbol of virginity and has often been shown to depict the Virgin Mary. Dr Oaks spoke of a painting which depicted the unicorn as residing in the Virgin’s lap. In this, the unicorn served to represent Jesus’ mortality. The mirroring between the iconography between the iconography of Mary and the iconography of Jesus was a significant feature of medieval art. Often, panels depicted various scenes in sequence with the various paintings containing similar iconography.
  • Joseph with his head in his hands– this pose prefigures the pose of John at the crucifixion.
  • Mary holding the baby Jesus’ foot– the reference to his feet has come to symbolise Christ’s humanity.
  • The Throne of Wisdom (from 1 Kings 10:18–20). Mary has often been typologically read as sitting upon the throne similar to that of Solomon.
  • Especially in the fourteenth century, images of the angel Michael weighing souls on scales were popular. In many depictions, Mary’s mercy is portrayed as she interferes with the weights
  • The serpent serves an allusion to Mary’s position as the second Eve who crushes the serpent beneath her.

William Blake and the New Testament, Dr Christopher Rowland

‘You say that I want somebody to elucidate my ideas. But you ought to know that what is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the ancients consider’d what is not too explicit as the fittest for instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses, Solomon, Esop, Homer, Plato. Why is the Bible more Entertaining and Instructive than any other book? Is it not because they are addressed to the Imagination, which is Spiritual Sensation and but mediately to the understanding of reason.’ (Letter to Trusler, Keynes edition, 793–4).

Dr Rowland began his talk by speaking about Blake’s hermeneutics, drawing attention to his idea that ‘what is not too explicit’ is the ‘fittest for instruction’ since it allows the individual imagination to engage with the Bible. He moved on to speak about the twenty–two engravings Blake undertook in 1826, illustrating the Old Testament book of Job (click here to view the whole sequence).
The second illustration, ‘Job and his Family’, can be seen exemplify Blake’s own complex and imaginative system of theology. By juxtaposing image and text, and framing his illustration with words from the New Testament, Blake acknowledges deep levels of meaning implicit in the Job narrative. Also, by including images such as the instruments hanging on the tree, an image that is derived from the Psalms, he interprets the book of Job within the framework of the Old Testament as a whole.

Blake’s painting, ‘The Nativity’ further exemplifies Blake’s idiosyncratic theology. In this, the baby Jesus appears as a spiritual and celestial child, more akin to the early theories of deitism which asserted that Christ only ‘appeared’ human than to the popular nineteenth–century conceptions which emphasise his humanity. Also, it is interesting to note how Blake links the visitation with the nativity, showing both events simultaneously. The light coming in at the window seems to be deliberately ambiguous and perhaps Blake’s intentions of letting the imagination come to the forefront in Biblical interpretation was realised when, at the end of the end of the talk, the delegates debated what or who it represents.

Blake, The Nativity

After highlighting the schema of Blake’s inter–textual and typological approach to the Bible in various other illustrations, Dr Rowland introduced Blake’s painting, ‘The Last Judgement’. He highlighted the movement of the people going into the Inferno or purgatory and then back out into the light and argued that this illustrates the transformative process of Judgement. He also made a case for Blake’s vision of judgement as being in the here and now, rather than just being something that will happen in the future.

Last Judgment

Poetry and Truth, Revd John Drury

This talk focused on Herbert’s poetry collection, The Temple, which he published in 1633. In this, the poems are arranged in a manner which reflects the entry into, and the architectural framework of, the holy place and emphasises the nature of the Temple as a place of exchange and reciprocity between the believer and God. Herbert argued that the working out of a true poem is the working out of a true life, and hence seems to invite autobiographical readings of his work. ‘The Alter’ was among the many poems Drury drew our attention to.

This poem exemplifies the ideas of reciprocity, exchange, and sacrifice. It also highlights Herbert’s use of Biblical typology as it alludes directly to the imagery of Exodus as well as Hebrews and 1 Corinthians.

Drury’s talk has certainly encouraged me to look at the work of George Herbert in more detail and consider the inter–relations of his work with Christina Rossetti as well her contemporary, Isaac Williams whose work The Cathedral was partially modelled on Herbert’s The Temple.

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. This looks like a really interesting day Lizzie. I particularly enjoyed reading your summary of the talk on William Blake, as he is one my favourite poets/artists.

    21 Jun 2006, 11:58

  2. Lizzie

    Yes, it was very interesting Maddie. Lots more was said about Blake– will discuss it another time.

    21 Jun 2006, 13:28

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