The Bible and its modern methods: interpretation between art and text

Morse, Benjamin L. (2008) The Bible and its modern methods: interpretation between art and text. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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The dissertation pushes the boundaries of biblical interpretation by formulating relationships between passages of the Hebrew Bible and unrelated works of Modern art. While a growing field of criticism addresses the representation of scriptural stories in painting, sculpture and film, the artwork in this study does not look to the Bible for its subject matter. The intertextual/intermedia comparisons instead address five different genres of biblical literature and read them according to various dynamics found in Modern images. In forming these relationships I challenge traditional perceptions of characters and literary style by allowing an artistic representation or pictorial method to highlight issues of selfhood, gender and power and by revaluing narrative and poetry in nuanced aesthetic terms.

The comparative analysis derives its two-subject structure for each section from the undergraduate art history seminar, in which two slides are projected and the group encouraged to identify similarities between disparate works. My use of this heuristic method then appropriates secondary sources to forge a relationship in which art criticism ultimately speaks for the biblical text.

Chapter I juxtaposes the figure of Michal in 2 Samuel 6 against that of Queen Guenevere (1858) by William Morris in an essay that questions the portrait popular opinion has painted of the barren daughter of Saul. The Pre-Raphaelite painting and Morris’s related poetry help to build a defence for Michal against those who inflict her barrenness upon her as if it were a punishment from God. Morris’s sympathy for his adulterous heroine allows us to see the Deuteronomistic History’s maligned queen as one whose character and action in fact seem very in tune with the prophetic agenda of the greater work.

In Chapter II, a woodcut portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche (1905) by Erich Heckel provides a counterpart to Abraham’s representation in Genesis 23. The German Expressionist reduced his palette to a bold black on white to memorialise the Modern father of great men. The comparison frames Abraham as the embodiment of the Übermensch, as one who laid waste to his father’s heritage and followed his own God. His role as one who lives ‘over’ others casts the haste with which he gets up and buys Sarah’s plot as a sign of his will to possess. Luce Irigaray’s Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (1991) is then incorporated to create a dialogue between the dark space of the portrait (symbolic of Abraham’s masculine ego) and the white space caused by Sarah’s death. Sarah thus speaks to ‘Abraham the Overman’ as the ‘Marine Lover’, beckoning him down from his high place and resisting the force in him that wants to bury her out of his sight.

Chapter III turns to prophecy and reconsiders Isaiah 44 first as a collage made in exile and then as a performance piece conducted in diaspora. The Merzbild by Kurt Schwitters entitled Green Over Yellow (1947) takes a critical Modern step away from representation and forward to abstraction. Schwitters assembled his cut-up forms to give them new visual value and made conspicuous their arbitrary edges and artful overlapping—a compositional and structural ethos not unlike the collage of forms in the exilic prophecy. Schwitters’ relative ease as an exile and expatriate in Britain also fuels questions scholars have asked about the nature and scale of the biblical exile. Finding that the text does not fully orient itself towards Jerusalem, a second part to this comparison introduces an alternative analogue for Is. 44 by treating it as a record of performance and drawing upon the work of Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) to discuss the passage’s broad approach to land and identity.

The fourth chapter hangs an individual lament alongside Jackson Pollock’s Cathedral (1947), likening its parallelisms to streams of paint poured across the canvas and foregrounding the site of Psalm 13 as a field of/for abstract expression. Short though this hymn may be, its generalised language makes it accessible to a universal audience and lets emotion be splattered about in a personal protest against pain.

Finally, Chapter V envisions wisdom literature and the character of Qoheleth with an understanding for the genre’s ‘conceptual’ outlook and the speaker’s sense of irony. A readymade gambler’s bond by Marcel Duchamp is projected opposite the opening chapter of Qoheleth’s reflections to introduce the wise man as a dandy who entertains his admirers through pleasing words. The comparison thus establishes a context in which a book that scholars have attempted to classify as either the work of an optimist or a pessimist can be appreciated for the attitude of witty indifference its author appears to affect.

The project actively conceives of the biblical text as a ‘Modern’ phenomenon by emphasising areas in which it seems to invite abstract or metaphorical modes of understanding over literal interpretation. It utilizes an understanding of Modernism based not on the rejection of tradition but on the desire to rectify it. And it draws out the ways in which the Bible scandalizes the pious pictures critics have painted of it. Thinking not only of reading and visualising the Bible as an artistic process, the analysis aims to illustrate the legitimacy of viewing the text itself as a work of art.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: old testament, tanakh, biblical interpretation, bible and art, image and text, michal, 2 samuel 6, abraham, genesis 23, exile, isaiah 44, psalm 13, qoheleth, william morris, erich heckel, friedrich nietzsche, kurt schwitters, ana mendieta, jackson pollock, marcel duchamp
Subjects: N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BH Aesthetics
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BS The Bible
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > Theology and Religious Studies
Supervisor's Name: Sherwood, Dr. Yvonne
Date of Award: 2008
Depositing User: Dr Benjamin L Morse
Unique ID: glathesis:2008-498
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 11 May 2009
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:19

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