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)
8Come with me from Lebanon, my bride;
come with me from Lebanon.
Depart from the peak of Amaʹna,
from the peak of Senir and Hermon,
from the dens of lions,
from the mountains of leopards.
9You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.
10How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
how much better is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
11Your lips distil nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon.
12A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
13Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard,
14nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
with all chief spices—
15a garden fountain, a well of living water,
and flowing streams from Lebanon.
16Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden,
let its fragrance be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
and eat its choicest fruits.
5I come to my garden, my sister, my bride,
I gather my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
I drink my wine with my milk.
Eat, O friends, and drink:
drink deeply, O lovers!