Art As Biblical Commentary

Visual Criticism from Hagar the Wife of Abraham to Mary the Mother of Jesus

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J. Cheryl Exum
The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsberry Publishing, Inc.
    , May
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


J. Cheryl Exum is a leading biblical scholar treating the hermeneutical relationship between the biblical text and the many artworks that have made attempts at interpreting that text in visual form. As one of the preeminent scholars to have advanced reception historical scholarship in this area of the Bible and the arts, her volume Art as Biblical Commentary has been eagerly anticipated, rightly so, and duly delights the reader in its immense breadth and depth through three parts.

The monograph opens in part 1, with two chapters exploring Exum’s key proposal that art depicting biblical narratives be treated as a distinct form of commentary on the biblical text, rather than simply as illustration or interesting, decorative addendum, as has been normative in the field of academic biblical studies thus far. Many biblical paintings, including those featured here, deal with complex literary narratives, whilst offering visual narratives in and of themselves. Exum begins with two very different paintings and texts in chapter 2; insight gleaned from her encounter with Lovis Corinth’s The Blinded Samson modified her own readings of that character, and likewise, Gustave Moreau’s Scene from the Song of Songs led her to make new connections and consider that text differently.

The visual offers a specific expression of understanding, a uniquely formed interpretation, and as such this difference vis-à-vis verbal commentary brings fresh questions and insights to the text. The visual offers a particular hermeneutical approach to the text and Exum desires to see this brought alongside other accepted forms of criticism: historical, literary, form, and rhetorical. Emphasizing that she offers an approach and not a method, in scholarly technical terms, Exum presents fifteen questions to the reader as an initial guide in “pursuing connections between image and word” (10), before demonstrating this at work.

Part 2, consisting of three chapters, addresses the character of Hagar, from the Genesis narratives involving Abraham and Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac. The chapters, forming the heart of the book, and respectively titled: “The Abjection of Hagar,” “The Rape of Hagar,” and “The Theophanies of Hagar” provide a profoundly rich interrogation of the treatment of Hagar in art and biblical exegesis from many different perspectives and aspects of the text. Throughout, Exum makes recourse to the philosophical work of theorists of the late 20th century and early 21st century including Mieke Bal and Julia Kristeva, amongst others. Moving helpfully beyond the lives of the artists and their intentions, Exum deploys an approach that echoes Hans Georg  Gadamer as she insists on the artwork’s own value for viewer’s interpretations independently of what the artist may personally have believed or wished to communicate at the time of creating.

In the third and final section, “From Eve to Mary,” Exum continues her feminist-critical tour de force. In the first chapter, “Erotic Look and Voyeuristic Gaze: Looking at the Body in the Bible and Art,” she returns to a theme she has covered at length, the “voyeuristic gaze” and the naked, female, biblical character; Bathsheba and Susanna are her two examples here. The following chapters, each typically memorable, explore the roles of Jael, Deborah, and Barak in the work of Salomon de Bray, and then Eve and Delilah in the Manchester Pre-Raphaelite collections.

Having made one’s way through these enriching chapters, the reader has been prepared for the final short chapter, the most challenging in some aspects, bringing together most deftly textual and visual treatments of the Levite’s wife and Mary, the mother of Jesus; an unusual foray in the New Testament, and a juxtaposition perhaps only Exum could accomplish so successfully. My only small criticism here would be that the book seems to end rather abruptly; this does not detract from what has gone before and the sign of a great book is indeed that the reader is left wanting more.

It is the large-canvas, oil-paintings of two particular art movements, both of which are strongly narrative in style, that receive the greatest treatment from Exum here: the Dutch Masters  (17th and 18th century) and the Pre-Raphaelites (mid-19th century) although a number of Italian artists are featured throughout—as well as Marc Chagall (20th century) and contemporary Israeli artist Lika Tov. These are her chosen and important exegetical conversation partners and provide great depths of riches when the text is read with and against these images. In some instances, the paintings may be more familiar to the reader and the general public than the biblical texts themselves. Indeed, the Bible would have been far better known to artists, viewers and patrons, in both of these historical and cultural contexts. Exum’s thesis is partly related to this, maintaining, for instance, that the sexism prevalent in biblical paintings serves to reinforce that found in the text, cementing prejudicial interpretations in the popular imagination. In other instances, the artist seems to be at pains to expose the gender based violence in the text.

This volume contains over seventy color reproductions of the paintings discussed and mentioned, printed close to where they appear in the text—a wonderful development and new benchmark in this field—greatly facilitating the reader’s appreciation of the points being made about the artworks rather than having to flip through to center plates, for example.

Whether you already have a great knowledge of the Bible and/or art history, or neither of these subjects, you could not fail to be instantly drawn into the brilliance of Exum’s work such is the skill of her writing in presenting absorbing, challenging arguments about what is actually happening in the relationship in and between a biblical text and the greater and lesser known “masterpieces” of Western-European art that have attempted to interpret and depict these narratives over the past four or five centuries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amanda Dillon is assistant professor of Biblical Studies (New Testament) at Dublin City University.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J. Cheryl Exum is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Sheffield University.


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