Song of Songs 4:1–5:1, from The Song of Songs, published in Berlin by Hasefer [S. D. Saltzmann] by Zeev Raban

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, Rubenstein Library, Duke University, Courtesy of Rubenstein Library, Duke University

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The Landscape of the Body

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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).

 

References

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)


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