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July 30, 2007

Matters of Memory

Victorian Studies, Volume 49, Number 2, Winter 2007. Papers and responses from the Fourth Annual Conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association

Athena Vrettos, ‘Displaced Memories in Victorian Fiction and Psychology,’ pp. 199-207

Thomas Hardy recounts why it might be disturbing to rent a furnished house in his observation that ‘articles…are saturated with the thoughts and glances of others,’. Not least because I am just about to rent a furnished flat myself, I found Vrettos’ analysis of Victorian representations of displaced and dissociated memories fascinating.

‘To what extent to do we possess our own memories?’ she asks. ‘Can memories be transferred between, or exist outside of human minds?’ By tracing the theories of F.W.H. Myers, Samuel Butler and William James and by recounting how their ideas were echoed in literature, Vrettos offers an insightful glimpse into the debates that were being played out in nineteenth-century British, continental and American narratives.

After recognising that ‘James sees the psychological fusion of bodies and things as evidence of how thoroughly individuals assimilate aspects of the material world into a fragile conception of self’ and that Butler and Myers understand ‘a perpetual interaction between the self and the material world’ to break ‘down the boundaries of identity,’ Vrettos maps their ideas onto the work of novelists. She analyses the complex boundaries between the self and the material world as demonstrated in Conan Doyle’s 1903 story ‘The Leather Funnel’. In this, she recognises that the theories of Lionel Darce, a collector of antiques, are almost identical to those of Myers. She quotes Darce’s argument:

According to my theory, any object which has been intimately associated with any supreme paroxysm of human emotion, whether it be joy or pain, will retain a certain atmosphere or association which it is capable of communicating to a sensitive mind.

‘Proved’ by the terrifying incident of his friend’s dream of torture, Darce is able to confirm the leather funnel as a channel for transmitting traumatic memory. After this analysis, Vrettos notes how ‘material possessions bear the physical residue of their previous owners’ lives’ in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Recognising that Thomas Hardy’s fiction offers a subtler account of the ‘displacement of memory through the haunting power of material things,’ Vrettos speaks of ancestral memory and traces signs of the ‘retrocognitive’ nature of memory as demonstrated throughout Tess of the D’Urbervilles. After considering the memory-saturated rooms of the D’Urberville mansion where Tess and Angel spend their honeymoon, she moves onto argue that

Angel’s somnambulism and re-enacted burial of Tess among her ancestors registers not only his psychological distress at Tess’ revelation, but also his pervasive sense of being haunted by traces and memories of a past that belongs to Tess but now inhabits his own mind.

Alexandra Nell, ‘”A Something-Nothing Out of Its Very Contrary”: The Photography of Coleridge’ pp. 208-217

For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Nell argues, Hartley’s theory of association ‘assumes an impoverished model of human agency best represented by the camera obscura: a hollowed out, mechanical object that simply reflects “materials ready made” from the outside.’ Rather than just illustrating the passive human agent, however, Coleridge speaks of exceeding representation and propelling the active poetic imagination. Mapping Coleridge’s theories of representation and transformation onto The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Nell traces the Mariner’s passive fancy and the active imagination necessary for the author and writerly reader. Outlining the limitations of taking the camera obscura for a model of the poet, she moves onto speak of the visuality of the poem itself and the mechanistic way of fixing images that Coleridge seeks to critique and transcend.

Mandell, Laura, ‘Imagining Interiority: Photography, Psychology, and Lyric Poetry,’ pp. 218-227

In this essay, Mandell considers William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) and William Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798). Arguing that these poems provide a similar model for imagining interiority to that which propelled the photographer’s desire to capture inner states, she suggests that ‘romantic interiority may be understood as…a byproduct of literary authors’ investigations of the limitations of printed media before 1810.’

Outlining the contradictions inherent in contemporary romantic criticism, Mandell writes of the debate over the importance of the graphic and the aural in the composition of poetry. Arguing that Blake and Wordsworth knew that most would encounter their work as silent and graphic, she suggests that ‘their poems thematize their own soundlessness while offering compensatory images.’ One of these compensatory images, she writes, was the lexical illustrations Blake used to decorate his poems.

Mandell encourages us to look at Blake’s plate, Holy Thursday from Songs of Innocence and Experience and recognise how the ‘marks engender difficulty for the eye and therefore require that other sense be brought into the reading process: sound and perhaps even touch.’ For this reason, she argues, ‘Blake’s Songs challenge Hegel’s vision of poetry as the “universal medium” that translates the materiality of other arts into the nonmaterial, by refusing to remain silent and nonsensous.’

Considering the dynamics between depth and surface that function in our understanding of poetry, Mandell moves onto compare William Henry Fox Talbot’s picture of his wife Constance with the passage from “Tintern Abbey” in which Wordsworth poetically draws a portrait of his sister Dorothy.

Turning from an analysis of the photograph to ‘Tintern Abbey’, she speaks of how the ‘tension between aura and mastery, between sight and sense’ enables Wordsworth to transform an image of Dorothy into ‘meaning-laden graphical marks.’ To conclude, Mandell writes that

As readers-and as viewers of a photography-we become seers seeing without sound. Poetic narrators struggling to see printed words or human figures reproduced graphically…They teach us…to warm up graphic marks by anthropomorphizing them into a voice, the voice that is similarly conveyed by figures in photographs or photographers’ ways of seeing, carved in light.

Deidre Lynch, ‘Matters of Memory: Response,’ pp. 228-240

Apposite here, Lynch suggests, is the observation made by Helen Groth in her book Victorian Photography and Literary Nostalgia (2003) that ‘the experience of reading was injected by the Victorians with a new time-consciousness and a new sense of the disparity between “poetic time” and “photographic time”’ (45). After briefly considering the ‘disparate accounts of the formalizing of subjectivity’ in the three essays in this cluster, Lynch looks at the complex feelings of the Victorians about the medium of photography and the ways in which the technological advancement of the daguerreotype set them apart from the romantics.

June 22, 2007

Disciplines of Feeling workshop

Thought this workshop looked good. I will probably go depending on how I get on next week with other work commitments.

Disciplines of Feeling
Thursday 5th July, 2-5pm
Birkbeck, University of London
30 Russell Square, Room 101

This half-day workshop for postgraduates will explore interdisciplinary approaches to affective knowing from the perspectives of cognitive psychology, history of science, literature and cultural history. Discussion will range from the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility, through nineteenth-century sentimentalism and mechanical analogues of feeling, to the unconscious as an affective domain, artificial intelligence, and the present-day concept of the ‘emotional’ computer.

June 20, 2007

NAVSA Conference, Victorian Materialities

NAVSA conference

Click on the image to see the details of the 2007 NAVSA conference at which I will be presenting a paper entitled ‘Architectural Metaphors in Christina Rossetti’s Poetics.’ The details of the keynote speakers and information about the various sessions have recently been added. They all look very interesting so I’m really looking forward to going.

March 27, 2007

'From House to Home': Conference Review

Our aim in organising the 2007 BAVS interdisciplinary postgraduate conference was to address and tackle issues concerning representations of houses and homes in Victorian literature and art. Through panels and discussions, we hoped to bring to light many of the roots of our twenty-first century cultural assumptions. We envisaged that the conference would be of relevance to MA and PhD students working in the field of Victorian studies. Our hopes were fully realised. The day went better than we dared anticipate. A huge variety of papers coupled with lively discussion and questions made for an interesting and fully packed event.

The day started with Alice Stainer’s paper, ‘‘I had a little chamber in the house’: The Subversion of Domesticity in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.’ The central focus of was on Aurora’s ‘little chamber’:

I had a little chamber in the house,
As green as any privet-hedge a bird
Might choose to build in, through the nest itself
Could show but dead-brown sticks and straws; the walls
Were green, the carpet was pure green, the straight
Small bed was curtained greenly, and the folds
Hung green about the window, which let in
The out-door world with all its greenery.
You could not push your head out and escape
A dash of fawn-dew from the honeysuckle,
But so you were baptized in the grace
And privilege of seeing…

Aurora Leigh (I.567-78)

Alice spoke of the room as an organising principle for a discussion of the conventions and subversions of female domesticity. She argued that Aurora’s personal ‘chamber’ allowed her to annex the spaces traditionally aligned with the male artist. The greenery inherent in her chamber, serves, Alice argued, as a means of access to the natural world from which Aurora’s gender excludes her. Confined by male categorisation as ‘the Angel in the House,’ she suggested that instead of abolishing the established feminine affiliation with domesticity, Aurora Leigh charts a new kind of domestic space that is conductive to artistic creation.

Entitled ‘‘A garden in a garden’: The Enclosed Gardens of Christina Rossetti’s Poetics,’ my paper also focused on the overlap and inversions between the garden and the house as it developed notions of the spiritual significance of several of the many enclosed gardens that figure in Christina Rossetti’s poems. In my analysis of Rossetti’s utilisation of the enclosed garden, I reflected on its complexities as a place of overlap between the spiritual and the earthly as I considered her interpretations of the Garden of Eden and of the enclosed garden of the Song of Solomon as well as the hermeneutical understandings of these gardens by several of her most influential literary sources. My title, ‘A garden in a garden’ was derived from the opening of Rossetti’s sonnet ‘On Keats’ which she wrote in 1849:

A garden in a garden: a green spot
Where all is green: most fitting slumber-place
For the strong man grown weary of a race
Soon over. Unto him a goodly lot
Hath fallen in fertile ground; there thorns are not,
But his own daisies: silence, full of grace,
Surely hath shed a quiet on his face:
His earth is but sweet leaves that fall and rot.
What was his record of himself, ere he
Went from us? Here lies one whose name was writ
In water: while the chilly shadows flit
Of sweet Saint Agnes’ Eve; while basil springs,
His name, in every humble heart that sings,
Shall be a fountain of love, verily.

After introducing Keats’ grave in terms of ‘a garden in a garden’ I explored how Rossetti worked with the complicated connotations garden imagery gives rise to as it features both as a place of regeneration and life as well as a place of decay and death. I then linked Rossetti’s poetics of the garden to the writings of her medieval predecessors and her contemporaries in the Tractarian movement.

Throughout the rest of the day, many of the other panellists built on the ideas of the overlap between inside and outside as they considered the ideologies implicit in notions of the Victorian house and home. In her paper, ‘Inside Out; Outside In: Inversions of Fashionable Space and the Mid-Victorian Feminine Ideal’, Kara Tennant used fashion plates and illustrations to discuss how fashionable ‘inversions’ of domestic space challenge and complicate understandings of the feminine ideal. She spoke of the fashionable woman as located with a domestic setting, whether that is in the drawing room or in a subliminal place such as a hothouse or an outdoor picnic consisting of all the paraphernalia of the interior. Rather than escaping from the confines of the roles assigned to them by patriarchal society, Kara suggested that these fashionable women posing outdoors or indoors by an over-sized window do not necessarily represent female freedom. Rather, they serve to highlight the precocious boundaries between interior and exterior domains. Kara ended her paper by highlighting the importance of context in fashion illustrations. What may be an appropriate indoor costume would not be tolerated easily outdoors and vice-versa.

The complications inherent in constructing and adhering to social and cultural norms were also explored in Anne-Marie Millim’s paper, ‘The Idea of Home in George Gissing’s Diary (1888-1902).’ Anne-Marie argued that through his diaries, Gissing demonstrated a need to fit into socially accepted norms by marriage. His idealisation of the place of home and his early conception of marriage were sorely disappointed following the quarrels and violence he experienced in the realities he suffered when he was married. Following the failure of his marriage in 1898, Gissing increasingly preferred to surround himself by fictional characters. As described in his diaries, the interior of his house had on display portraits of famous writers such as Shakespeare and Tennyson. These writers came more and more to infiltrate Gissing’s consciousness and his construction of his own authorial subjectivity.

This symbiosis between psychological states and the materiality of the home was explored in relation to Dickens in Maddie Wood’s paper. Entitled ‘Architectural Subsidence and Affective Displacement in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit , Maddie’s paper considered how the psychological oppression of the characters of Little Dorrit was displaced onto the House Clennam itself. Working with the framework of the street, the house, and the room as the contraction of the world in the novel, Maddie spoke about the construction of Mrs Clennam’s room in terms of a tomb and execution chamber housed within the cage the rest of the house represents. She then focused specifically on the correlation of the home and the mother and traced the ways in which the force of the returning mother lies at the house of the House of Clennam’s dissolution.

Moving on from a discussion of the supernatural occurrences within the houses of Little Dorrit, Dickens’ A House to Let and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Dr Catherine Spooner opened her keynote lecture with the description of a real house thought to be haunted. In Wardley Hall, ( a manor house on the outskirts of Manchester, a skull kept in the hall is said to cause storms and poltergeist activity when it is removed from the house.
Wardley Hall

The phenomenon of stories of such skulls is largely isolated to Manchester and Lancashire and as such, Catherine argued, contributes to a sense of uniqueness of location. Instead of conceiving of ghosts as deconstructive presences (or, indeed, absences) Catherine suggested defining ghosts in terms of their time and place in material reality. Using the maps in The Lore of the Land (Westwood and Simpson 2005), she revealed how ghost stories have geographical belonging. Especially in Victorian fiction, the location of a ghost story is often a key to its interpretation. The case of Sheriden Le Fanu is especially interesting since he used Derbyshire as a disguised Ireland for the setting of Uncle Silas in order for it to achieve greater commercial success. Whilst Italy and Spain were often the focus for eighteenth century gothic tales, the rural outposts of Britain were coming to stand in for more exotic locations by the mid-late nineteenth century. The north of Derbyshire was seen especially to be an apt location for a ghost story in view of its abundance of local legends. After briefly outlining the plot of Was It an Illusion? a Parson’s Story by Amelia B. Edwards, Catherine considered the significance of ghosts in the rural and industrial north and concluded by reiterating the negotiations of houses and homes in Victorian ghost stories and tales of the supernatural.

February 09, 2007

Elisabeth Jay on Nineteenth Century Literature and the Bible

Writing about web page

Elisabeth Jay began her talk by observing the worrying speed at which general Biblical knowledge has declined. That fact that undergraduates no longer begin university with a firm grasp of the Old and New Testaments, she argued, means that the approach to teaching Victorian literature must, by necessity, be modified. As Victorian literature’s ‘chief inter-text’ she recommended that tutors provide students with entire Biblical passages which relate to the specific chapters being studied in the seminars. Hence, she suggested, the students would be encouraged to make the links between the Bible and the literary text for themselves. Another solution to restoring Biblical knowledge to undergraduates is, as was suggested at the end of the talk, is the introduction of basic reference books such as Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction Emma Mason and Mark Knight.

Emphasising the wide-spread knowledge of Biblical narratives in the nineteenth century, Jay quoted from Coleridge’s letters in which he proclaimed the ubiquity of the gospel. From domestic servants who were exposed to the Bible at times of family prayer, to authoritarian figures, Biblical knowledge was appropriated and interpreted everywhere in Victorian Britain. One of the most obvious places through which to evidence the assumption of the existence of a common biblical knowledge throughout the literature of the time is, of course, in the work of Charlotte Bronte. In the preface to the second edition of Jane Eyre, Bronte figures Thackeray as a modern day Micah when she claims:

There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital — a mien as dauntless and as daring. Is the satirist of “Vanity Fair” admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst whom he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time — they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Rimoth-Gilead. Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day — as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterise his talent. (The Author’s Preface to the Second Edition, 1847)

In attributing to Thackery the qualities of the Old Testament prophet, as well as drawing on a common point of reference, Bronte was to some extent, however accurately she rendered the original, reworking the scriptures in order to fit her own reading. Interestingly, throughout her paper, Jay introduced a Bakhtinian framework which speaks of our necessary exteriority and distance to the text. Considering the final chapters of his book, The Dialogic Imagination, she proposed to consider Bakhtin’s question about the point at which an author, in attempting to re-work a master text, actually subverts it. From the extreme Calvinist fears of Nancy in Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey to the limited readings of the Bible evidenced by some of the characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, Jay spoke of the ways in which an author could interrogate or enter into dialogue with the possible meanings of a biblical story through his/her characters. As a means of emotionally abusing children in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, she then explored the extent to which the Bible can be seen to function as a central adult ‘weapon’.

August 24, 2006

Rossetti's 'Chelsea years': An article by Angela Leighton

Writing about web page,,25336-2315620,00.html

I came accross this interesting article on the TLS website. I was particually fascinated to read Angela Leighton's analysis of the word–play in operation in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's letters which he wrote around the time of the exhumation of Lizzie Siddal's grave. I was also struck by her discussion of the way in which his 'Willowwood' sonnets converse with the work of his sister and Lizzie Siddal.

Willow–land, Leighton argues, is a 'place full of echoes in the Rossetti family, as if it drew on some shared mythology even beyond the facts of life.' In some sense, she claims, 'its “wandering” thing is the ghost–presence of Lizzie Siddal – a presence that Christina imaginatively “inhabits” in her numerous poems about dead women.'
After linking Siddal with the numerous poems Christina Rossetti writes about dead women, Leighton concludes her article by suggesting that an understanding of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s art is to be found, not in his letters at all…

but in the writings of the poet who, even more than he, understood the morbid, freakish ways of the imagination: his sister Christina. It was she who, as early as 1850, wrote a short story in which she rattled her own oddly premonitory skeleton in the closet. In “Maude”, she describes how, on the death of the girl poet of the title, a manuscript of her verse is buried with her in the coffin. As a figure for where poetry comes from – a figure ransacked, in different ways, by both brother and sister – this one is perhaps as good and secret as any.

July 10, 2006

Time and the self

We have dreams moving back and forward in time, though to use the words back and forward is to make a nonsense of the dream, for it implies that time is linear, and if that were so there could be no movement, only a forward progression. But we do not move through time, time moves through us. I say this because our physical bodies have a natural decay span, they are one–use–only units that crumble around us. To everyone, this is a surprise. We see it in parents and our friends and we are always amazed to see it in ourselves. The most prosaic of us betray a belief in the inward life every time we talk about ‘my body’ rather than ‘I’. We feel it as absolutely part not at all part of who we are. Language always betrays us, tells the truth when we want to lie, and dissolves into formlessness when we would most like to be precise.

Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry (London: Vintage Press, 1990) p. 90

July 03, 2006

Fashioning the Frame

4 out of 5 stars

Dress challenges boundaries: it frames the body and serves both to distinguish and connect the self and the ‘Other.’

Warwick and Cavallaro begin by asking whether dress should be regarded as a part of the body, or merely as an extension of, or supplement to it. Derrida’s analysis of the logic of the supplementary suggests that the supplement operates as an optional appendix and as a necessary element. The authors’ arguments are based upon this idea as well as upon the concept that the body is both a boundary and not a boundary; its ambiguity producing a complex relationship between self and non–self. More is written about the concept of a ‘boundary.’ Interestingly, the authors challenge the conventional notion that a boundary is a border demarcating a strict division and propose the idea that boundaries can be fluid and diverse. In their introductory essay, they conclude that boundaries may indicate ‘points where something could begin.’

In their Preface, the authors consider Tono Stanto’s photograph, Sense (1992)Sense as illustrative of Barthes’ idea that the body can be represented as a gap produced through the frame of clothing. They argue that, in the photograph, ‘the body is portrayed as a fluid boundary glimmering between two edges of apparent nothingness. Yet it is that nothingness that defines it: the body is an optical effect accomplished by clothing.’ They move onto speak of the relation between body and dress as an interplay between presence and absence and remind us that, in the face of a clothed body, we respond to a presence based on absence. They also suggest that, both the body and dress are symbolic and linguistic structures inconceivable outside the domain of representation.

The unfixable character of dress as both a personal and a communal phenomenon is largely due to its ability to quiz conventional understandings of the relationship between surface and depth. The conventional reading of dress as a superficial form to be penetrated in order to gain access to a deep content, obviously based on the primary notions of depth and content over those of surface and form, is radically challenged by a reading whereby the superficial forms of people and objects are seen to possess their own kind of depth. (xxii)

Considered in a Lacanian framework whereby the depth of a thing can be manifested on the surface by a system of signs, dress can be seen as an example of the unconscious at work. Like a symbolic language, the authors claim that clothing can speak volumes about submerged dimensions of experience. As such, they regard it as a deep surface, a facet of existence which cannot be regulated to the psyche’s innermost hidden depths but which actually expresses itself through apparently superficial activities.

After considering clothing as the incarnation of the Kristevan ‘abject’ and as an example of Lacan’s concept of the ‘rim’ (serving as the interface between the inside and the outside of the physical body), the author’s deal with the idea of ‘shielding and sprawling garments.’ They consider clothing as a shield or a surface and consequently look at the problematic ideas of corporeality. Their ideas of mask wearing are particularly interesting and worth reading.

In Chapter 5, ‘Clothes in Art– Painting In and Out of the Frame’, I was especially interested in the author’s interpretation of Waterhouse’s painting ‘Penelope and the Suitors’ (1912).Waterhouse The painting represents weaving as an ambiguous activity in that whilst women are traditionally associated with sewing and weaving as a domestic activity, they are also associated with the activity in the symbolic sense whereby weaving is connected to deceitful plotting. Warwick and Cavallaro claim that the in Waterhouse’s work, ‘the making of materials is a metaphorical equivalent for the making of the self.’ Indeed, the legend of Penelope emphasises the idea that the act of undoing is also vital to the making of the self. Looking at the painting and considering their arguments, I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s intriguing re–telling of the legend in ‘The Penelopied’ (2005).

To conclude, a central emphasis of the book is on the making and the unmaking of the self through fabric and fashion. However, as I have already discussed, the underlying theme is that of the exteriority of clothing existing as a ‘deep surface.’ The author’s have certainly made me think more about the relationship between surface and depth and have also challenged me to re–consider my pre–conceived notions about clothing or masks being devices of concealment more than aspects through which the self is revealed.

June 21, 2006

From Aestheticism to Modernism and back again, an article by Elizabeth Prettejohn

Writing about web page

Although Prettlejohn points out that her move to recognise the ‘concealed continuities’ between Victorianism and modernism is by no means new, her recognition of the similarities between different paintings so rarely considered in parallel, as well as her integration of the overlap between Aestheticism and Modernism, is very revealing. For instance, she draws a link between Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850) and Vincent Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Aries(1888), on the basis of their shared perception of ‘perspective construction.’ Her approach, she suggests, is ‘revisionist’ in the sense that she is more like the historian who rescues the maiden (that is, Victorian art) ‘from the evil modernist dragon or sea monster’ rather than the modernist historian who writes of heroes vanquishing over ‘the reactionary Victorian past.’

Her very illuminating article is worth reading for an insight into the not so very decisive cut between ‘Victorianism’ and ‘proto–modernism’ in art as well as literature. In addition to looking at the similarities in the form and structure of the paintings that are categorised as belonging to the two eras, she also considers questions of ‘aesthetic emotion’ and ‘effeminacy’ as well as outlining the origins of representational arts in early portraiture. The artists she considers include Whister, Picasso, Klimt, Burne–Jones, and Leighton. An unusual combination but not one as irregular as it at first appears.

Is the ‘long–nineteenth century’ over yet? she concludes. Her arguments have certainly convinced me to think hard about how to answer this pertinent question.

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.

March 2023

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