Biblical Reception, 5

Biblical Women and the Arts

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J. Cheryl Exum, David J. A. Clines, Diane Apostolos-Cappadona
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , June
     218 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Biblical Reception is one of a handful of recently-founded journals showcasing studies of the reception history of the Bible. Since the journal seems not to be indexed online, this fifth volume—focusing on the theme of “biblical women and the arts”—functions as an edited volume. In her introduction, editor Diane Apostolos-Cappadona promises that the volume reveals a wide range of approaches. Indeed, the biographies of the contributors show not only biblical scholars, but scholars of literature, music, and visual art. Here I review four of this volume’s variations on the theme of biblical women and the arts; these variations reveal the diverse options available for reception-oriented exegetes.

First, the volume includes a diversity of media in which biblical women are represented—though the volume is skewed toward visual art, given its partial paternity in the Society of Biblical Literature’s “Bible and the Visual Arts” section. Analyzed here are visual representations of Mary, Eve, Sarah and Esther, Salomé, Judith, the Johannine Samaritan woman at the well, and the woman giving birth in Revelation 12. Only one article focuses on textual reception: John Nassichuk’s study of 15th century Italian Marian elegies, hindered by the fact that he hides the English translations of his Latin poems in the endnotes. In terms of diversity of media covered, perhaps most ambitious is Kelley Harness’s study of Florentine grand duchess Maria Magdalena’s devotion to her namesake saint in the 1620s—as expressed in a program of patronage in several cultural forms. For nearly a decade, Magdalena sponsored annual celebrations of her namesake: theatrical performances including an actor playing the role of the Magdalene, accompanied by musical pieces singing the virtues of the Magdalene, performed in her chapel lined with art of the Magdalene, adjacent to her collection of relics of the Magdalene. Harness skillfully shows how music, theatre, art, and object emphasize this saint’s virtues and preaching authority in this festival sponsored by a woman of temporal power. Harness’s essay drives home the point—and the difficulty—that scholars of reception must engage the connections between different forms of cultural expression.

A second variation is that of religious traditions. Although most of the articles focus on Western Christian art, section 2 focus on Jewish and Islamic visual representations. Zohar Hadromi-Allouche’s contribution focuses on 16th and 17th century Iranian and Turkish manuscript miniatures of Eve. Reading these in juxtaposition with various textual sources on Eve, she shows how the visual representations build on the textual, even adding new elements. I appreciated this essay: Islamic art is underrepresented in discussions of visual representations of biblical figures, and biblical scholars need the expertise of specialists in Islam to engage Islamic textual sources frequently untranslated. Ori Soltes, a specialist in Jewish art, brings both Jewish and Christian visual representations of Sarah and Esther into dialogue, ranging from Renaissance Christian artists to Leonard Baskin. Both contributions demonstrate the ability of reception history to contribute to interreligious understanding—as Jews, Christians, and Muslims gaze upon the same figures together.

Third, these contributions vary in their uses of feminist and gender analysis; some celebrate, others critique, and women’s agency as interpreters is brought out in various ways. We have already seen Harness’s dual depiction of women’s agency in the Bible (Mary Magdalene) and in interpreting the Bible (the duchess as patron). Other authors take issue with art that poses biblical women in unflattering positions or stereotypes them as flat canvases rather than three-dimensional humans. Andrea Sheaffer, for example, shows how various male painters, including Lucas Cranach the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, conflate Judith with Salomé and Delilah, framing Judith as a femme fatale rather than a Hebraic hero. Likewise, Ela Nutu focuses on how the relatively minor and definitely villainous Salomé grew, in visual and literary depictions, into the archetypal femme fatale alongside an increasingly masculine, muscular John the Baptist. I especially appreciated Christine Joynes’s discussion of the diversity of feminist perspectives on the Bible and biblical art (92–94).

A fourth variation lies in scope of analysis, and what that can reveal. Several contributions hold a magnifying glass to one specific reception and what it can reveal. Heidi Hornik’s essay on Guercino’s Christ and the Woman of Samaria, which situates his treatment of the different levels of the woman’s conversion in this painting in Guercino’s career, the Council of Trent, and the exegesis of Cornelius à Lapide. Hornik, a specialist in Italian Renaissance and Baroque art, provides a level of historical context and familiarity with Italian sources that I suspect most biblical scholars could not—though I would have liked more clarification as to how those details relate to the painting’s exegesis. By contrast, Natasha O’Hear’s article on vastly different portrayals of the woman in Revelation 12 encompasses the Bamberg Apocalypse, Albrecht Dürer, William Blake, and Yolanda Lopez, among others. Although this broad-stroke comparison necessitates less depth for each work, it paints the sheer range of possibilities presented by the text and the types of choices an artist makes in their visual interpretation. Both Hornik’s and O’Hear’s approaches are valuable for studies of biblical reception when deployed well.

Above, I mentioned that the diversity of contributors is both the strength and the weakness of this volume. I appreciated how many contributors from different islands of the humanities crossed the bridge into biblical studies. But as a consequence, I felt there could have been more work done to integrate reception history with traditional concerns of exegesis. The endnotes for most of the chapters cited little biblical scholarship, though many connections could have been made, especially to narrative criticism. Although reception history, as a newer approach, poses new questions for and shifts the foci of extant scholarship, it should also show its potential to integrate with more established methods.

But this is less a flaw than an opportunity for future work. Overall, I appreciate this volume, which is well illustrated and entirely in color. For biblical scholars, especially feminist readers, it provides a new vantage point; for specialists in art, literature, or music, it invites further dialogue with the Bible and those who study it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Homrighausen is a doctoral student inn Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
April 3, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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

David Clines is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies in the University of Sheffield.

Diane Apostolos-Cappadona is Professor Emerita of Religious Art and Cultural History and Haub Director in the Catholic Studies Program, Georgetown University.


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