Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Rising Stock of Visual Exegesis

Byzantine Job manuscript, c. 1200
Theological interpretation (an old concern 'round these parts) is here to stay not because it is new, but because it is normal.  One of the testimonies to its normality is the abundant evidence for the method in art history.  A hot-headed art historian might even go so far to say that theological interpretation of the Bible is primarily a visual phenomenon, in the sense that it constitutes the earliest form of Christian art, and that art is a remarkably more immediate and effective way of "spiritually" reading the Bible.  Consider, for example, Jesus appearing to Job on the right.

Herman's visual typology
This is less known than it should be, but one sees the marks of a rising academic stock worth investing in now.  An intriguing session at the Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago this year thoroughly scratched the surface of this enormous topic.  There, one contributor wisely suggested that "visual criticism" should be added to the more familiar repertoire of redaction, comparative, or canonic criticism of the Bible.  Though some scholars consider this kind of thing "Bible criticism on holiday," such scholars themselves seem to have been on holiday, failing to notice that the De Gruyter's Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception includes a visual arts section (to which I've contributed), and Blackwell's "through the centuries" commentary series is incorporating visual art as well, not to mention a growing number of studies, and an Emory University postdoc to boot.  So let me throw down here:  Criticize historical criticism all you want, but if your interpretive method still unthinkingly limits itself to text, you're still beholden to the historical critical paradigm.

There is little discussion of visual exegesis in evangelical circles, despite the exciting talk surrounding theological interpretation (so well introduced by Dan Treier).  However, one could suggest that the phenomenon first happened visually in the evangelical arena as well, as evidenced by Bruce Herman's typological paintings made in collaboration with the Old Testament scholar Gordon Hugenberger, on offer long before theological interpretation caught on more widely.

All this is by way of bringing up the current issue of Comment, edited by Peter Leithart (who has written in this area himself).  Therein your humble scribe has penned an introductory article to the phenomenon of visual exegesis, concluding with a meditation on what is probably the most interesting Byzantine fresco I've ever seen.  To poke fun at the Anchor Bible commentary series (that bastion of historical criticism), the article is entitled "Anchors Aweigh!  The Neglected Art of Theological Interpretation."  If that's not enough of a motivation to purchase the issue, consider the lineup of contributors, including Marilynne Robinson, my colleague Lynn Cohick, Matthew Lee Anderson, Dan Siedell, Mako Fujimura, and other worthies.  It's more like a book than a magazine actually, and definitely worth ordering (but I'm biased).

update: I've put up the full article at


AKMA said...

To which paper at SBL are you referring?

millinerd said...

A.K.M. Adam, I presume? You're one of the few scholars who has consistently called for this kind of thing, and I cite your work enthusiastically in said article.

The paper I'm referring to, which deftly charted a visual transition from typological to literal exegesis in the face of historical criticism, was by Sara Kipfer from the University of Bern: "Three Warriors bringing David Water form the Well of Bethlehem: The interpretation of 2 Sam 23:13-17 in Visual Art from the Late Middle Ages to Early Modern Time," in The Bible and Visual Art: Biblical themes in the City Art Collections in Chicago.

AKMA said...

Well, bless your heart! Yes, it is I. I will make a pint of tracking your article down. And if my approach to these questions interests you, stay tuned for coming attractions — my next few essays (including one that Mark Elliott read on my behalf last Monday) articulates a way of thinking about these matters, points out some significant benefits, and exorcises a few annoying phantoms which have haunted biblical interpretation for too long.

Sean said...

Bk of Revelation anyone?

James K.A. Smith said...

Very much enjoyed your article. Wondered: have you see Markus Bockmuehl's opening chapter in Seeing the Word? Does exactly the kind of "visual exegesis" you commend, "reading" Simon Marmion's Saint Luke Painting the Virgin Mary.

Frederick Froth said...

In the traditional setting, especially in India, sacred art is undertaken as a comprehensive Spiritual discipline, not merely a technical or a cultural endeavor in the conventional institutionalized sense. There are many profound requirements. Not only artistic requirements, but also comprehensive requirements related to right life and Spiritual life altogether.

There are esoteric profundities associated with sacred art. Profound training, profound readiness, a profound life that has to be lived before you ever do anything to show, or in the case of musuc play to, anybody else.

Sacred art is not just a kind of insitutionalized subject matter. To be an artist in the sacred sense is a profoundly different matter than being an artist in either the secular or merely conventional religious sense. Therefore to be even qualified to show or perform sacred art requires a lifetime of work.

Such sacred art can really only be produced within the crucible of a fully lived sacred culture. And furthermore sacred art can really only be shown/performed and appreciated in the context/crucible of a defined Sacred Culture. Otherwise it inevitably becomes bastardized and degraded.

From another perspective all visual art (in particular) is a self-portrait of the artist, regardless of the seeming subject including what is conventionally called religious.

Can a Christian who is by self-definition and always dramatized action a sinner, and therefore entirely God-less, even begin to produce sacred art.

millinerd said...

Thanks for the good word and for the Markus Bockmuehl reference Jamie - I will check it out.

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