Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Pictorial Allegories of the Love of God Inspired by the Song of Songs - Part 1

How do you paint the love of God? Love is not something we will ever see directly, and so this creates difficulties for artists who work in a purely visual medium. The answer for many who wish to represent the greatest virtue has been to look for inspiration in the allegorical account of God's love in the Song of Songs.

This is the first of three personal reflections on the nature of love as described in the Song of Songs, and how it has inspired artists:
Part 1 - The beloved is in the garden, the beloved is the garden: this is a reflection on the implications of the symbolism of the garden as a place of fertility and beauty.
Next week, Part 2 - The beloved is the lover, and the lover is the beloved - a Christian response, inspired by the Song of Songs, to the evils of Marxism, critical theory, and radical feminism.
Finally, Part 3 - A Garden enclosed and a Sealed Fountain - Mary the great lover, and most beloved of God.

The beloved is in the garden, the beloved is the garden

Fair in every part, my true love, no fault in all thy fashioning!
Venture forth from Lebanon, and come to me, my bride, my queen that shall be! Leave Amana behind thee, Sanir and Hermon heights, where the lairs of lions are, where the leopards roam the hills.
What a wound thou hast made, my bride, my true love, what a wound thou hast made in this heart of mine! And all with one glance of an eye, all with one ringlet straying on thy neck!
Sweet, sweet are thy caresses, my bride, my true love; wine cannot ravish the senses like that embrace, nor any spices match the perfume that breathes from thee.
Sweet are thy lips, my bride, as honey dripping from its comb; honey-sweet thy tongue, and soft as milk; the perfume of thy garments is very incense.
My bride, my true love, a garden enclosed; hedged all about, a fountain shut in and sealed! What wealth of grace is here! Well-ordered rows of pomegranates, tree of cypress and tuft of nard; no lack there whether of spikenard or saffron, of calamus, cinnamon, or incense-tree, of myrrh, aloes or any rarest perfume.
A stream bordered with garden; water so fresh never came tumbling down from Lebanon.
North wind, awake; wind of the south, awake and come; blow through this garden of mine, and set its fragrance all astir.

Song of Songs 4, 7-16
Tradition tells us that the eight chapters of this Biblical book describe the love of Solomon and one of his wives for each other in lyrical-dramatic scenes and reciprocal songs, each addressing the other in turn. The scenes depicted are set before, during and after the wedding day itself. The love and friendship between them are described in vivid, intense and at times passionate language.

Commentators have seen the account of romantic love between Solomon and his beloved as an allegory that reveals some of the mystery of the nature of God’s love as multifaceted and superabundant. It has been interpreted, for example, as a symbol of the love of God for his chosen people, Israel; of Christ for his Church; of Christ for each of us, as members of the Church; of God for all humanity; of the Father for the Son; and of the Father for the Mother of God.

The variety of loves that it represents tell us of the multi-faceted nature of God’s Love. We might say that God’s love is a simple single utterance that is, paradoxically, infinitely faceted and deep. Human love, therefore, for all the intense passion we read in this book, is but a pale imitation of a tiny part of the greater love that it points to.

God’s love, this chapter is telling me, has aspects of romantic love in it, but it is not romantic. God’s love is simultaneously paternal, spousal, fraternal, sororal, maternal, filial, even properly superficial on occasion (yes, superficiality has its place from time to time). But in trying to grasp its nature, I must be careful not to bring my conception of God’s love down to the level of the loves that I know and experience through my human relationships. God’s love is so much more than any one of them, more even of the sum of all these inferior human loves. It contains all of them in some way, but it is greater and richer than any of them in a way that is beyond imagination. It is ineffable.

The setting for this love poem is a garden. In scripture, gardens are depicted as places of seclusion, beauty, and peace. A garden is a sanctuary for quiet reflection, prayer, and contemplation, be it Eden, Gethsemane, or the gardens of the Heavenly City in the Book of Revelation. A garden is also a place of fertility in which life is nourished by springs and cultivated by a gardener to grow food and flowers. The garden, then, can be seen as a symbol of both spiritual and physical rejuvenation and nourishment.

It would seem natural to place these romantic interchanges in such a secluded and private environment - the passage quoted above is from Chapter 4. The first interchange of love takes place in this idyll, but then the imagery blurs the distinction between protagonists and their setting so that the people are likened to the beautiful and fruitful plants and animals within the garden. Then, most powerfully, as in the passage quoted above, the beloved becomes the garden itself. This emphasizes for me that the beauty of all creation, and the fruitfulness and fertility that we see in it, are all perceptible signs of God’s immense love. God’s love is always fertile and bears fruit superabundantly - so that the whole overflows and is greater than the sum of the constituent parts. Human love, which is only authentic to the degree that it participates in God’s love, is superabundantly fruitful too. Children, for example, are the great and most obvious fruit of love between men and women.

All creatures are in relation with each other in harmony and beauty and it is God’s love that sustains them and binds them to each other and causes them to bear fruit. When observed through the prism of the idea of love, the whole cosmos, in all its immensity and grandeur is a sign of something unimaginably more immense, grand, and beautiful, the love of God. And here is the greater fact: we are all invited to be transformed and raised up so as to be fitting lovers and beloveds of that greatest of lovers, God, entering into the mystery of the Trinity, and partaking of the divine nature. He comes down to us and raises us up to Him. This is an extraordinary privilege and to assent to participate in it is the source of our Christian joy.

To illustrate the idea of love itself as a garden I have chosen the Song of Solomon by the Italian artist, Domenico Morelli, which was painted in the 19th century. I like this painting because the division between the lovers and the garden is blurred, just as the text itself blurs the distinction. However, Morelli’s handling of the subject, as I see it, ensures that the two lovers are still distinct entities placed prominently in the composition reflecting the hierarchy of being, in which mankind is the greatest of all God’s creatures. Nevertheless, neither of these figures is the primary focus of the painting, rather it is for me the love between them.

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