These tales of Deborah, Ruth and Hannah are wonderful stories, full of vivid characters and human drama — a pleasure for all of us to read them and for me to make (and share with you) pictures expressing them. But these are more than great stories; they embody our national mores, and those mores are why they were included in our great record of our folk history, beliefs and laws, the Hebrew Bible. The challenge of expressing these mores is my motivation in composing the pictures. So, how do I go about expressing these ideas in my art?
Throughout our history, we have sought to find the roots of our values, laws and lifestyle in our biblical texts, the stories of the creation and growth of the nation of Israel. Centuries of rabbinic efforts at deriving rationales for Jewish life and law from Biblical text resulted in the bodies of law called the Mishnah (by about 220 CE) and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds (about 500 CE). But all this analytic energy resulted in kinds of thought and writings other than straight legal codes alone. Interspersed among the legal writing, the halakhah, the Talmud includes aggadah, storytelling expansions upon biblical text or other related tales meant to elucidate points of law and other related Jewish customs and values. These story-telling portions of the Talmud, which by the 11th century were compiled in collections of such aggadah, along with a host of other kinds rabbinic legends developed over centuries before and ever since, comprise the vast body of midrash. Much of the midrashic literature was either designed for, or eventually used to inspire homiletics (synagogue sermons), and so midrash became the source for many of our best-loved folktales.
Now, as I said above, one of the really wonderful challenges in my visual interpretations of biblical texts (or couples’ relationships in ketubot, for that matter) is to dig out and express the larger complexes of values that we have derived from, or read into these stories. As you can guess, the midrash provides a splendid source of ideas and images (the latter often utilizing archaeology of the era I’m working with) to express these constellations of ideas. Arise! Arise! draws upon many different kinds of midrash to express the religious moral and legal, and national values embedded in these very human stories. But I like my paintings to make some kind of narrative sense, not just assemblages of disembodied, out-of-context “symbols.” In my own method of composing scenes that both make sense and express higher ideas, my teachers have been the masters of late medieval Flemish painting – I explain this in my introduction to the book. Now, since I’m drawing upon sources that are often unfamiliar to the generally educated reader and I want you to be able to understand the paintings, I include commentary for each painting. I’ll talk more about the complex of values expressed in Arise! Arise! in my next post. And so, my work is often described as “visual midrash.” Continue reading