Song of Solomon 3
Out on the Street
Commentary by John Handley
I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.
(Song of Solomon 3:2)
The world askew, unknown, unfathomable, was often the vision of the painter Giorgio de Chirico. His painting Melancholy of a Street (1914) is a prime example, and arguably his most ominous work. Created as part of his Metaphysical Town Squares series, beginning in 1910, it demonstrates his fascination with architecture, dramatic light, shadow, and mysterious subjects. The painting draws the viewer into the scene: what does it mean to wander the streets, to seek, and not to know what we might encounter?
Two great influences on the artist were his visit to Turin, Italy, in 1910, where he described the architecture as ‘metaphysical’, and also the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose world-view questioned the very reliability of how we represent reality. From these De Chirico was inspired to probe the depths of existence, being, and reality. His criticism of the Impressionists, for example, was that they were occupied only with the visible world, while dismissing the interior world of the imagination.
Melancholy of a Street presents us with a striking image in ochres, browns, a gradient sky in blues and greens, juxtaposed (in stark contrast) with the white building at left, and a curious wagon at right. Within the stillness of the scene, we see the silhouette of a girl chasing her hoop as she runs across the plaza, her legs in mid-stride, her hair flowing. She is running somewhere, wherever the rolling hoop leads, like the maiden in the Song of Solomon, who searches the streets.
The hoop, like the woman in the Song’s desire for her lover, is taking the girl on a wild chase.
The painting is one of the few works of the artist in this period to include motion, accented by the flag in the distance, flapping in the wind. And also in the distance is the ominous shadow of a person, long and stretched, by the raking light of the setting sun. Multiple and conflicting perspectives add to the sense that one is hovering above the picture ground, offering a view from a place that cannot possibly exist.
As with the shifting perspectives and locations of the Song of Solomon, we are left wondering where exactly we are; what is real and what isn’t.
‘I Sought him whom my Soul Loves’
Commentary by John Handley
Casper David Friedrich’s Woman at the Window (1822), is an image whose obscurity provokes puzzlement and wonder. Friedrich’s repeated decision to depict figures from behind leaves us speculating about their identity, their appearance, their feelings, and their intentions, just as the Song of Solomon leaves us with many questions about the identities of its two lovers.
When Friedrich’s lone figures are male, the landscapes they contemplate are often ominous or inhospitable (The Wanderer above the Mists, 1817–18). When the figures are female, the settings are frequently calm and hopeful (Woman before the Rising Sun, 1818–20). But almost always, as in this case, we are given only a little to go on. Friedrich’s artworks, like the mysterious Song, require us to use our imaginations, as we entertain various possibilities about their subjects.
Friedrich treated the window as a subject in itself, whether in representations of ruins, or when depicting his own studio window in Dresden. The open window, with its view to a world beyond, came to be a common theme in the German Romantic movement, a metaphor for ideas of escape, adventure, longing, and even loneliness, where the vision of a brighter life lay beyond one’s reach.
The woman of the Song expresses desire and hope: ‘I will seek him whom my soul loves’ (3:2). She also sounds a Friedrich-like note of loneliness and longing: ‘I sought him, but found him not’.
Friedrich’s model was the artist’s wife, Caroline. She has shifted her weight to one leg, resting her elbow on the sill, suggesting that she has stood for a long time. Patiently, quietly she waits, with a patience that can recall that of the Song’s Rose of Sharon (2:1). And what does she wait for, or more to the point, whom does she wait for?
We can only speculate. But perhaps she waits for her lover, longing for his return, so she might take him into the ‘chamber of her who conceived me’ (3:4).
Commentary by John Handley
Do not stir up nor awaken love until it pleases.
(Song of Solomon 3:5)
Johannes Vermeer presents a scene filled with mystery in his Mistress and Maid, painted around 1667. A master at painting light, he has shifted from his more typical scenes representing softly diffused daylight streaming through leaded glass windows, and given us instead a dramatically-shadowed space illuminated to reveal little more than the immediate exchange taking place.
Vermeer depicts the bare essentials of an implied story: a finely-dressed woman is seated at her desk, having just now been interrupted from her letter-writing by the arrival of her maid who emerges from the shadows. Although we cannot see more than her profile, the bemusement of the Mistress is apparent: while laying down her pen she raises her left hand to her chin, a sign of apprehension.
The maid’s face is clearly visible, her eyes lowered, lips parted, she appears to whisper something; a slight grin on her face suggesting she might know something about the author of the letter but dare not tell, echoing the suspense in Song of Solomon 3:1.
The unopened letter is offered in a gentle gesture, as if to negotiate the space between them: the letter, bright white, hovers at an equal distance between the faces of the women, creating a sense of mystery. To whom is the Mistress writing so late at night? And who has written to her? Why is she so finely dressed, adorned with pearls, her hair delicately fixed? Is she awaiting the arrival of someone? Or perhaps her guests have recently left? We do not know.
The tension of waiting, and of longing late into the night, are conveyed in both the Song of Solomon and Mistress and Maid. As such, the text can imbue our experience of viewing this painting, and vice versa.
Giorgio de Chirico :
Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914 , Oil on canvas
Caspar David Friedrich :
Woman at the Window, 1822 , Oil on canvas
Johannes Vermeer :
Mistress and Maid, 1666−67 , Oil on canvas
Hapless and Happy
Commentary by John Handley
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