Paul tells the people of Corinth that they are living letters, ‘written’ by Christ, embodiments of his gospel (2 Corinthians 3:1–5). ‘Letter’ here is from the Greek epistolé, meaning correspondence. Paul goes on to contrast ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’, explaining that as living epistles, the Corinthians are to be ministers ‘not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (v.6 NRSV). Here, ‘letter’ is from the Greek gramma, meaning writing. The letter and spirit distinction is explained in the following verses: the letter of the Law of Moses is contrasted with the spirit of Christ (vv.7–11). Paul’s critique is not of Mosaic Law itself, but of its legalistic application that focuses on condemning sin, rather than on its broader principles. As Jesus explained when asked about the greatest commandment, the Law hangs on the commandments to love God and love your neighbour (Matthew 36:40).
Blake inscribes ‘The Letter Killeth The Spirit giveth Life’ (v.6, KJV) together with another phrase from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, ‘It is Spiritually Discerned’ (2:14), on an altar in the margin of the opening plate of the series Illustrations to the Book of Job. Here, letter and spirit are presented as alternative means of engagement with the divine: Blake casts Job as a figure who follows the ‘letter’ of organized religion, but who lacks genuine spiritual (or in Blake’s own vocabulary, imaginative) discernment.
The final plate in the series echoes the first in many details, including the visual elements of the marginal design. Thus, the altar on which Paul’s words are inscribed at the start of the series reappears at the end of the sequence; there, it is inscribed with another phrase from Paul: ‘In burnt Offerings for Sin thou hast no Pleasure’ (Hebrews 10:6 KJV). Through his trials, Blake’s Job learns to engage with the divine not through legalistic rules and rituals, but rather through imagination, as represented in the final plate by Job and his family making music: the spirit that is more glorious than the letter (vv.7–11).
Blake’s combination of image and text in the Job series is indebted to medieval illuminated manuscripts like that of Nicholas of Lyra’s biblical commentary shown here. In Blake’s ‘illuminations’ and their medieval predecessors, the visual motifs interact with the text that they accompany in a variety of ways: sometimes illustrating, at other times in tension with, and elsewhere apparently unrelated to the text. In the example seen here, the portrait of Paul illustrates the author of the text. Although the page is the beginning of 2 Corinthians (the leaf for 2 Corinthians 3 is sparely illuminated), when readers come to the commentary on chapter 3, they might well think back to the image of Paul when he refers to himself along with the Corinthians as a living letter of Christ (vv.1–3). Paul is the living letter and so his portrait gives life to the manuscript. By contrast, the foliage bears no obvious relation to the content of the Epistle; as in almost every manuscript in the Middle Ages, such motifs appear throughout, thus creating a unified visual scheme. This apparent disjuncture between text and image is particularly striking in this manuscript because Nicholas’s commentary focuses on the plain meaning of the biblical text. The illuminations work in a different way, giving ‘spirit’ to the ‘letter’.
Fertile disruption is created in a different way in the Rothko Chapel, where both letter and (iconographic) image are eschewed. As Robert Rosenblum put it, the chapel was created to ‘inspire the kind of meditation which was elicited less and less in the twentieth century by conventional religious imagery and rites’ (1975: 215). The abstract aesthetic marks the space apart from the ‘letter’ of any single religion, instead creating a place for reflection that might lead the pilgrim to a deeper or renewed understanding of the essential ‘spirit’ of the divine—analogous to the trials of Blake’s Job transforming his engagement with God from the ‘letter’ of rote religion to the ‘spirit’ of imagination.
Thus, in the three different media of a manuscript illumination, a reimagining of the book of Job in print, and a modern chapel, we see how works of art can act as spirit to the letter of religion and its texts.
Camille, Michael. 2018. Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art. New edn (London: Reakton)
Rosenblum, Robert. 1975. Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (London: Thames and Hudson)
3 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; 3 and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.
7 Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, 8 will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor? 9 For if there was splendor in the dispensation of condemnation, the dispensation of righteousness must far exceed it in splendor. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had splendor has come to have no splendor at all, because of the splendor that surpasses it. 11 For if what faded away came with splendor, what is permanent must have much more splendor.