Song of Solomon 4:8–5:1
The Garden of Earthly and Heavenly Delights
The Landscape of the Body
Commentary by Jennie Grillo
In the Song of Solomon, the Zionist illustrator Zeev Raban found the perfect voice for his devotion to the landscape of Palestine. The effort to develop a modern Jewish artistic idiom which could draw its inspiration from the soil was the project of the Bezalel School of Art, where Raban taught. His work conjures a biblical Israel idealized in the present, blending European Art Nouveau with Persian miniatures and a fascination for Yemenite faces.
Raban’s illustrated The Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim) exactly captures the twin longings of the biblical book itself. In these poems, the lovers’ yearning for the body of their beloved merges with an equally lyrical yearning for the land of Israel (Davis 1998: 539–41). In this passage, the beloved woman and the land infuse each other. She is many topographies in one: at first remote and wild, with a terrible beauty which ravishes the lover’s heart like the hungry lions and leopards on the mountains of Song 4:8.
Looking out ‘from the peak of Amana’, the contours of the woman’s figure merge into the lines of the scenery. The sweep of her yellow robe curves into the tawny skin of the leopard, and then opens out into the wide slope flecked with the gold of crocus flowers and every kind of spice (‘nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon’, 4:14). Here in the foothills, she morphs from a jagged peak into a bubbling garden (‘his garden’, she says, v.16). Behind, the snowy heights of the north send down ‘flowing streams from Lebanon’ (v.15), to irrigate her greenness.
The fruit tree and the date palm of the picture turn the charms of her limbs into the loveliest of cultivated trees (‘Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates, with all choicest fruits’, v.13), in an exchange of figuration which exactly echoes the mode of the poem (Alter 2011: 252–4). The milk and honey of the Promised Land are eaten in kissing her (v.11), and her love yields the wine and nectar of a fruitful harvest in a place of plenty (v.10).
Alter, Robert. 2011. ‘The Garden of Metaphor’ in The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books), pp. 231–54
Davis, Ellen. 1988. ‘Romance of the Land in the Song of Songs’, Anglican Theological Review, 80: 533–46
Goldman, Batsheva et al. 1982. Raban Remembered: Jerusalem’s Forgotten Master (New York: Yeshiva University Museum)
James, Elaine T. 2017. Landscapes of the Song of Songs: Poetry and Place (New York: OUP)
Commentary by Jennie Grillo
Like the Song of Solomon, the story of Susanna offers us a beautiful woman in a biblical garden—a figure whose story was attached to the book of Daniel in Jewish antiquity. As in many artistic responses to the Song, here too a fountain springs into a pool, birds sing, deer play; there are green trees, roses, a secret leafy bower. Susanna’s story in Daniel 13:19–21 even works like a midrash on the Song: Susanna/shoshanna means ‘lily’, and the rabbis liken Susanna to the ‘lily between thorns’ of Song 2:2, caught between two lecherous elders who spy on her and try to blackmail her (Fisch 1996: 35–41).
But the elders’ illicit viewpoint is relativized in Jacopo Tintoretto’s painting: they are awkwardly skewered by the trellis between them, like ugly bugs in paradise. The powerful perspective here is Susanna’s own, like the unbearably strong glance of the woman in Song 4:4. The woman of the Song saturates what she wears with her own self: the flash of her eyes radiates out from her jewels (4:9), her love vaporizes in the scent of her perfume (v.10), and the smell of her clothes is sweet like the taste of her mouth (v.11).
Just so, Susanna’s subjectivity seems to be the organizing consciousness within Tintoretto’s painting. The things within the sphere of her senses come into granular relief: curls of smoke drift up from her incense burner, her gems emit a dull gleam, her comb and lace resolve into acute detail. We are invited to feel the water and sunlight on Susanna’s body. When the woman of the Song eventually speaks (4:16), she commands the wind on her skin, drawing us inside her own sensations in the same way.
And like the woman of the Song, Tintoretto’s Susanna is in the garden of her lover—her husband Joakim. As she looks into the mirror, nested within her own sight of herself is another viewer, in her mind’s eye. This is the look of the husband for whom she prepares herself in this toilette scene (Apostolos-Cappadona 1998). That anticipated look is one both given and received (Exum 2005: 22): the domestic eroticism of Tintoretto’s painting is much more like the mutual gaze of lovers in the Song than it is like the voyeurism of the elders.
Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. 1998. ‘Toilet Scenes’, in Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography, ed. by Helene E. Roberts, vol. 2 (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn): 869–74
Exum, Cheryl. 2005. Song of Songs: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox).
Fisch, Harold. 1996. ‘Susanna as Parable’, in The Judgment of Susanna: Authority and Witness, ed. by Ellen Spolsky (Atlanta: Scholars Press), pp. 35–41
Blessed is the Fruit of thy Womb
Commentary by Jennie Grillo
The Song of Solomon encourages us to imagine a woman who is a landscape and who is in a landscape, both at the same time. That doubleness lies behind a scene which became a popular one in late medieval art, found here on an altarpiece from Colmar, France.
That scene is the Annunciation, imagined as taking place in an outdoor paradise. ‘A garden locked is my sister, my bride; a garden locked, a fountain sealed’ says the lover of the Song (4:12), and the hortus conclusus (closed garden) typical of Annunciation scenes, with a sealed fountain among its emblematic symbols, takes especial inspiration from this verse (Daley 1986: 253–78). The walled garden, with its tower and oak door, creates a hidden world like the lovers’ closed circle of two. Like theirs, it is an enchanted realm of natural beauty. The ground is a quiet riot of botanical charm, minutely variegated like the orchard of Song 4:13–14: here not spices but herbs, clover, grasses, wild flowers.
But the walls and gates of the garden on this altarpiece also speak of the woman at the heart of the garden. Here is Mary, the mother of Jesus: the turrets and bolts signal her virginity just as locks and seals speak of the exclusive fidelity of the beloved in the Song. At the centre of this garden grows a lily, a symbol for purity with a distant echo of Susanna; but the visitor who surprises the woman alone here is of a different kind to the spying elders. It is the angel Gabriel: suddenly, he is in the garden, a hunter blowing his horn.
A medieval hymn (the sequence Imperatrix gloriosa) finds here a reply to the woman’s command. ‘Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden’, she calls, and the answering breath is Gabriel’s, blowing like the gentle south wind and breathing word of the blossom and fruit she will bear.
Blume, Clemens S.J. 1915. ‘Imperatrix gloriosa’, in Analecta hymnica medii aevi 54 (Leipzig, O.R. Reisland), pp. 351–53
Daley, Brian E. 1986. ‘The “Closed Garden” and the “Sealed Fountain”: Song of Songs 4:12 in the Late Medieval Iconography of Mary’, in Medieval Gardens, ed. by Elizabeth B. MacDougall (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks), pp. 253–78
Wyss, Robert L. 1960. ‘Vier Hortus Conclusus-Darstellungen im Schweizerischen Landesmuseum’, Zeitschrift für Schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte, 20: 113–24
Zeev Raban :
Song of Songs 4:1–5:1, from The Song of Songs שיר השירים, published in Berlin by Hasefer [S. D. Saltzmann], 1923 , Bound print
Jacopo Tintoretto :
Susanna Bathing, c.1555–56 , Oil on canvas
Martin Schongauer :
Altarpiece of the Dominicans, c.1480 , Oil on pine
A Garden to the Ends of the Earth
Commentary by Jennie Grillo
The Song of Solomon (Hebrew: Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs) is like a pebble in a pool, from which ripples spread out in ever-widening circles. From early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism onwards, the love for a particular place and a particular woman which Zeev Raban catches in his early-twentieth-century work has been taken as speaking of God’s love for his own particular people, tracing over a pattern that repeats across the biblical canon. God’s love for his people is always taking the shape of human lovers. Israel pledges her spousal loyalty to God in Deuteronomy (6:4–25); prophets like Ezekiel (16:15–63) and Hosea (2:4–17) trace the agony of unfaithfulness and rupture; the restored marriage of the later chapters of Isaiah (49:14–23; 54:1–15; 60:1–18; 62:1–12) leads to the new Jerusalem as a bride in Revelation 21 (Carr 2001: 1–24).
Readers reading from within this pattern have found in the Song a language for love’s exuberance; they speak in that language as they celebrate the love between God and his own. Allegorical readings, though much criticized, do capture something of love’s rapturous excess of signification in the Song. The Targum of the Song, a late antique interpretative translation of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic, reproduces the Song’s endless variegation of lovers’ talk. The nectar dripping from the woman’s lips is the prayer of Israel’s priests; the milk and honey of her tongue are the people’s songs of praise; the shoots of her pomegranate trees are the young men of Israel, vigorous as saplings and bursting with the promise of fruitfulness like a pomegranate bursting with seeds (Alexander 2003: 139–40, 142–43).
The Targumist voices the lovers’ infatuation with each detail of the beloved, just as Jacopo Tintoretto itemizes each ornament which attaches itself to Susanna’s beauty, with an intricate attentiveness equal to the Song’s own. Likewise in the Midrash on the Song, God’s particular love for Israel and her institutions is distilled from the love-language of the Song: ‘Said Rabbi Menahem … “I come to the garden” is not what is written, but rather, “I come to my garden”.’ Israel is God’s very own beloved garden. The myrrh and spice of the Song are here the handfuls of frankincense burnt on the altar of the Tabernacle, the honey is the burnt offering with its sweet smoke, and the milk and wine are libations poured out in worship (Neusner 1989: 2.57–94).
For Ambrose, transposing this typology to a Christian key in his treatise On Virgins in 377 CE, the walls of the garden become the walls of the Church. Like Tintoretto, Ambrose sees Susanna walking in this garden: its locks are her inviolable modesty. Inside, the garden is ‘redolent of the vine, emits the fragrance of an olive tree, and bursts with roses’—but the sensuous language speaks here of another kind of love, that of consecrated chastity. Ambrose is writing to vowed virgins, betrothed to Christ as lover. But here the speech of the Song still expresses passionate desire. The works and words of the virgin are honey and nectar, and when she calls for the winds, her lover will reply, as her fragrance is wafted abroad: ‘in every corner of the globe the fragrance of sacred religion has increased, where the members of the beloved virgin have emitted their aroma’ (On Virgins 7.38–8.50 in Ramsey 1997: 85–6).
Throughout its long history of interpretation, the imagery and characters of the Song merge and separate, identified and then teased apart again. A lover is like an apple tree (2:3); a lover sits under an apple tree (8:5). In the Colmar altarpiece, the woman is within a garden with its own well, and yet both garden and well externalize aspects of herself. Symbols crystallize into realities and then dissolve back into symbols again. The woman who is ‘a garden fountain, a well of living water’ (4:15) resolves into another real woman and another well in the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4. As this woman sits beside her well, Jesus speaks to her; and as he speaks, the hills of Roman Palestine become a garden once again. The salvation which is from the Jews, Jesus tells the woman, is now ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ in front of her (John 4:13, 22). God and his beloved once more voice the exchange of need and gift, asking and answering, as the living water flows like the streams of Lebanon: ‘you would have asked him, and he would have given you’ … ‘the water that I will give’ … ‘Sir, give me this water’ … ‘Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love’ (John 4:10, 14, 15; Song 5:1).
Alexander, Philip S. 2003. The Targum of Canticles, The Aramaic Bible 17A (Collegeville: Liturgical Press)
Carr, David. 2001. ‘Passion for God: A Center in Biblical Theology’, Horizons in Biblical Theology, 23: 1–24
Neusner, Jacob. 1989. Song of Songs Rabbah: An Analytical Translation, 2 vols (Atlanta: Scholars Press)
Ramsey, Boniface, O.P. 1997. Ambrose (London: Routledge)