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Unknown artists

Booklet with Scenes of the Passion, c.1300–20, Elephant ivory, polychromy, and gilding, Overall (opened): 7.2 x 8.1 x 1.2 cm; overall (closed): 7.2 x 4 x 2.2 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982, 1982.60.399, www.metmuseum.org

Julia Rooney

IMG_0320, 2020, Oil on linen, 5.08 x 5.08 cm, Collection of the artist, © Julia Rooney, Image courtesy of Julia Rooney Studio

Mary Roberts

Hester Middleton, c.1752–58, Watercolour on ivory, 3.8 x 2.5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Purchase, Dale T. Johnson Fund and Jan and Warren Adelson Gift, 2007, 2007.64, www.metmuseum.org

Intimacy and Idolatry

Comparative Commentary by

The installation of the tabernacle marked a new phase in the relationship between God and the Israelites. Formerly, Moses alone spoke with God among the cloud-covered peaks of Mount Sinai, while the rest of the congregation remained encamped below. Through Moses, God communicated his laws and promises to Israel.

Over time, however, the people seemed to yearn for more intimate signs of God’s commitment and constancy, and for more active roles in this divine-human relationship. Perhaps looking to the examples of other kingdoms, the Israelites appeared to long for sturdier structures and greater communal involvement as they struggled to feel like a legitimate nation in the formless wilds of the desert. Their fervent singing and dancing around the golden calf (which they pressured Aaron to sculpt) may have been an expression of their urgent need to relate to the divine in more immediate, embodied, and concrete ways. They wanted to feel nearer to God.

God’s instructions for building the tabernacle answered to this desire. While God supplied the structure’s pattern, all the raw materials used for constructing the sanctuary came from the people’s personal belongings. The making of the tabernacle’s furnishings and utensils required the skill and labour of numerous artisans and craftspeople. In short, the Israelites’ time, talents, and possessions were integrated into this communal structure—the offering of parts of themselves made the structure possible.

The names of the twelve tribes were engraved on the stones set within the priestly breastplates (39:14), ensuring that each time the priests entered the sanctuary, the whole people would be represented upon their chests. The tiny gold bells attached to the hems of the sacred garments tinkled whenever the priests walked, enabling the congregants to hear their movement within the sanctuary. The cloud that hovered over the tabernacle during the day and the fire that lit it up through the night made God’s abiding presence visible throughout the camp. In all these material, sensory, and embodied ways, God ensured that the Israelites felt perpetually connected and engaged in this divine-human relationship.

The three works in this exhibition convey the human desire not only for objects to represent relationships, but also for personal participation in shaping those bonds through embodied ritual or practice. Assurance that one is a meaningful part of a relationship, and that that relationship is substantive and real, seems to require more than spoken promises or symbolic thought—it needs material expression, physical involvement, and creative investment.

The young Middleton cousins probably never met each other—never heard each other’s voices or spent time playing in each other’s company. By commissioning a set of portrait miniatures of the cousins, their parents equipped their children with objects that solicited visual and tactile expressions of attachment and sentiment.

For its owner, the medieval ivory booklet concretized relationship in a slightly different way. Rather than a family member, the relationship offered here was to a communal story, still ongoing, and to a sacred community into which one could be folded through one’s prayers.

Both of these artworks have particular virtues—virtues which the eighth-century monk and defender of icons John of Damascus might have recognized. They draw us into relationship with, rather than being substitutes for, their subjects. Holy images can be useful, John argued, for although they are not divine in themselves, they help people recollect and bring honour to the divine.

This, though, requires discernment. ‘We know what may be imaged and what may not’, wrote John of Damascus (On Holy Images).

Perhaps Julia Rooney was undertaking a comparable sifting in @SomeHighTide. Real and virtual versions of her exhibition coexisted. Both of them offered modes of closeness and connection (the often whimsical locations of the tiny paintings in the gallery space—some nestled above electrical wall outlets near ground level, for example—encouraged visitors to scrutinize them up close). But there seemed a substantial loss in the Instagram version, as the app’s grid format and the strict frontality of the photographs flattened and diminished the paintings’ material bulkiness and organic character.

‘We have passed the stage of infancy’, John of Damascus proclaimed to his eighth-century readers (On Holy Images). We know the difference between what is divine and what is simply a representation of the divine. But the Israelites who had newly arrived in the Sinai Peninsula did not seem to have passed that stage of infancy. And God—having witnessed the people’s worship of the golden calf—knew it. Although Moses had already received the tabernacle plans prior to Aaron’s creation of the golden calf, that tragic incident may have underscored for both God and Moses the importance of the Israelites’ material and physical engagement in constructing the tabernacle. The process would be an object lesson in idolatry, a way to help the Israelites discern the difference between deity and image.

 

References

Brubaker, Leslie. 2012. Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (London: Bristol Classical Press)

John of Damascus. 1898. St John Damascene on Holy Images, trans. by Mary H. Allies (London: Thomas Baker), pp. 8, 19

 

Next exhibition: Exodus 36 Next exhibition: Exodus 37 Next exhibition: Exodus 38 Next exhibition: Exodus 39 Next exhibition: Exodus 40 Next exhibition: Leviticus 15–18