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Giorgio de Chirico

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914, Oil on canvas, 87 x 71 cm, Private Collection, Private Collection / De Agostini Picture Library / G. Nimatallah / Bridgeman Images

Caspar David Friedrich

Woman at the Window, 1822, Oil on canvas, 44 x 37 cm, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, AI 918, bpk Bildagentur / Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany / Joerg P. Anders / Art Resource, NY

Johannes Vermeer

Mistress and Maid, 1666−67, Oil on canvas, 90.2 x 78.7 cm, The Frick Collection, New York; Henry Clay Frick Bequest, 1919.1.126, Frick Collection, New York, USA / Bridgeman Images

Hapless and Happy

Comparative Commentary by

The Song of Solomon has delighted and puzzled readers for centuries. Many have questioned its inclusion in the canon, as it never mentions God, biblical history, or the Law of Moses. Yet it is one of the most beloved books in Jewish tradition, read each year at Passover.

When trying to categorize the Song, troubles immediately emerge. As Wisdom literature, one asks of it: what kind of wisdom is being offered here? Is it a poem, a collection of poems, or an actual song? Is it metaphorical or allegorical?

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) understood this biblical book as both a song and an allegory of God’s love: for Bernard, ‘let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth’ (Song of Solomon 1:2) represented the intimacy that one could have with God. Yet he also warned of its carnality:

The novices, the immature, those but recently converted … do not normally sing this song or hear it sung. (Geary 2016: 306)

Approached in the company of these artists, Song of Solomon 3 can open itself up freshly and differently to our hearts and minds. Our three paintings may help us both to imagine and to navigate the sentiments of the chapter, not just in a sequential way—line by line—but as a whole.

The opening lines set the stage. It is night, and the woman finds herself unable to sleep. She exclaims, ‘Upon my bed by night, I sought him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not’ (3:1). This has the hallmarks of a dream-like state of passion, in which she is not fully asleep, not fully awake. In the lover’s absence, it seems also to be a state of torment.

Johannes Vermeer tempts us to speculations: is the woman in his painting seeking the one she loves—in this case, in the form of a letter? If so, she is interrupted by her maid, who instead delivers a letter to her. The scene is filled with suspense and mystery—and longing. Who is this lover sending messages so late into the night? The painting makes concrete a quality of suspense that also haunts the biblical text.

Meanwhile, Caspar David Friedrich offers us what may be the agony of a separated lover, hoping for the return of the object of her desire. We may imagine her as sick with longing, her mind lingering over the memory of him as her eyes search expectantly for his appearance. Does she see him?:

What is that coming up from the wilderness,
   like a column of smoke,
perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
   with all the fragrant powders of the merchant?
Behold, it is the litter of Solomon!
About it are sixty mighty men
   of the mighty men of Israel. (3:6–7)

The bridegroom in the Song—whether in actuality or in fantasy—appears as a king. Who does Friedrich’s woman see, or imagine, from the window through which she sees so much more than we do? What must we imagine if we are even to come close to sharing the object of her gaze—whether of our physical or of her mind’s eye? It is a question we might ask, too, in relation to the woman in the Song.

In Song 3:2–3, disoriented and panicked, the woman leaves the security of her home to roam the streets, to seek her missing lover.

Have you seen him whom my soul loves? (v.3)

Yet those she meets seem unable—or unwilling—to help her. The watchmen in the street, rather than helping, abuse her (as we learn in Song 5). Giorgio de Chirico’s unfamiliar, skewed, barren townscape sharpens the biblical text’s suggestion of isolation, inhospitality, and even threat.

Did she really wander the streets as she believes, or was it all in the similitude of a dream? Love poetry as allegory for the human yearning for God, and vice versa, is found throughout Christian tradition. St John of the Cross (1542–91), for example, penned similarly passionate poetry:

In an obscure night
Fevered with love's anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be.
(‘The Obscure Night of the Soul’)

His writings were some of the most beloved of the monastic tradition, and reinforce the idea of the allegorical nature of such works.

In the Song, the woman implores the daughters to help her. She eventually finds her lover in his garden.

Like John of the Cross, her search is not without travail. But—also like John of the Cross—the end is consummation.



Geary, Patrick J. 2016. Readings in Medieval History, Fifth edition (Ontario: University of Toronto Press)

John of the Cross. ‘The Obscure Night of the Soul’. 1920. Trans. by Arthur Symons, in Hispanic Anthology: Poems Translated from the Spanish by English and North American Poets, ed. by Thomas Walsh (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons), pp. 224–47

Next exhibition: Song of Solomon 4:8–16