Interpreting the Song of Songs:


The Paradox of Spiritual and Sensual Love


Carl W. Ernst



            One of the most sensuous and beautiful love poems ever written in Western Literature appears in the Old Testament of the Bible. Hidden between the pronouncements of Ecclesiastes and the visions of  Isaiah, the Song of Songs tells us in powerfully seductive images of the passionate longing of young lovers:  "You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; you have ravished my heart with one of your glances, with one chain of your necklace. How fair is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the smell of your ointment than all spices!” In first-century Palestine the Song of Songs was sung in taverns. Yet in the Middle Ages, the love poetry of the text held a deep fascination for monks and nuns. This erotic masterpiece has always carried with it something more than merely a sensual attraction. Christian mystics used its language to express their longing for God. Monks in the Middle Ages made it the most copied book of the Bible. In fact, even to think of Jewish spirituality without the Song of Songs is not possible. It is deeply embedded in our Judeo-Christian literary tradition. The Song of Songs has inspired more common quotations in English for its length than any other book of the Bible. Today in wedding ceremonies it is often quoted. The character of this short text, however, has been much debated for at least two thousand years. Is it simply an erotic love poem that somehow found its way into the text of the Old Testament? Is it an allegory, to be interpreted by one of various theological approaches? How has this text been visualized?  To understand the richness of the Song of Songs, it is necessary to consider the controversies over the relation between physical and spiritual love, the role of eroticism in the Bible, and the way in which the Song of Songs has been depicted artistically.


The Paradox of Spiritual and Sensual Love

The problem of love is as old as humanity. Those who don't have it want it, and those who have it complain about it. Is love just a function of sexual desire? Is it something spiritual that transcends the body? Or is it somehow caught in between body and soul? In modern thought, the philosopher DesCartes often gets the credit (or blame) for separating the human being into a rational soul and a machine-like animal body. But the difficulty goes back to the earliest recorded stories, from the Biblical Garden of Eden to the myths of the Greeks. Plato in his Symposium and Phaedrus created powerful visions of the origin of love, as something that exists on both earthly and heavenly planes. In his view, true eros begins in love of the body, but it ends in a philosophical attraction to the transcendent essence. So-called "Platonic love" has become the phrase for relationships that avoid bodily entanglements.

For readers of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the situation is complicated by the wish to understand how God defines the role of erotic love. Religious codes of behavior have tended to regulate sexuality in the bounds of marriage, and in many cases the statements of patriarchal authority have taken a misogynous turn. Was it Eve's fault that Adam sinned? Were women the cause of temptation that men were unable to resist? Even marriage was not always viewed in a positive light. When St. Paul observed that "It is better to marry than to burn" (1 Corinthians 7:9), he did not give the impression that married love was a wonderful thing, conceding only that it was a little better than suffering eternal punishment for adultery. In early Christianity, one of the most extraordinary developments was the growth of the monastic ideal, with monks and nuns sworn to chastity as a renunciation of earthly temptation. Sexual love, for theologians like St. Augustine (who knew its charms quite well), was inextricably tied up with the doctrine of original sin and the concept of the body as somehow evil. For well over a thousand years, the ideals of virginity and chastity have continued to play a major role for the Catholic priesthood and the monastic life. For Protestants, puritanical morality has kept discussions of sexuality out of bounds in most religious forums. In the Victorian age and later, "immorality" could often be a code word for sexual misconduct.

From a modern perspective, especially after Freud, it might seem that something was left out of the picture. Did medieval Christians suffer from a misguided alienation from the body? Did the combination of Greek philosophy and monastic isolation create an unbalanced hatred for the physical expression of love? Such a reading is tempting to the enlightened modernist, but it would probably be going too far. How are we to explain the fact that the most frequently copied book in the Latin Christian Bible is the one beginning, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth . . ."? What were those nuns and monks thinking when they read these lines, and why was this text so popular? The use of erotic texts by celibates raises larger questions about the experience of becoming the "bride of Christ," reported by many women Christian mystics. It may be that it was the very forbidden character of erotic love that made it so appealing to those who had renounced it. Erotic and bridal symbolism may have provided a transcendental motivating power, enabling Christian monks and nuns to seek the love of God. In a similar way, Muslim Sufis used the symbolism of forbidden wine drinking as the metaphor for intoxication with divine love.

Is there some way to reconsider the nature of love and sexuality today, which fits the modern situation while still connecting with religious tradition? With the 20th century finally over, we look back on the legacy of modernity with many questions. Science promised the triumph of reason over nature, but we saw instead the use of technology for appalling wars, genocide, and the pollution of the environment. The artificial separation of soul from body, so attractive to philosophers and the inhabitants of monasteries, does not seem to offer a solution to our current dilemmas. Many seek instead a holistic solution, one that treats the human being — man and woman — as a whole, in which emotion, passion, and reason are all parts of a single unity. Likewise, authoritarian moralities are running up against the demand for compassion and the need for legitimate and respectful expression of love. Many are turning to alternate sources of spirituality, or try to reinterpret traditional texts. These efforts seek to allow room for the genuine growth that has taken place in human societies, particularly the increased recognition of the feminine perspective, which too often has been left out in the past. When such a mood of re-evaluation predominates, it is time to rediscover an incredibly powerful resource on human and divine love. Concealed in the open like Poe's "Purloined Letter," the Song of Songs is one of the shortest and least-known parts of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. This classic has now been re-presented for a modern and international audience by Judith Ernst.[1] This new vision of the Song of Songs poses the question: what is longing? And it shows that this longing permeates our being, uniting the highest degree of erotic tension with the ultimate spiritual love.




The Song of Songs and Biblical Eroticism

In the Hebrew Bible, the short book known as the Song of Songs follows the Book of Job and precedes the Book of Ruth. In the Old Testament of the Protestant and Catholic Bibles, it falls between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, and it is usually entitled as the Song of Solomon or the Canticles of Wisdom. Many aspects of this book are mysterious. No one can say who the author was. Although Solomon is mentioned twice in the text, it is clearly a reference in the third person rather than a declaration of authorship. It is unlike any other book in the Bible. Nowhere is God mentioned. There are no morals drawn, nor any preachings or prophecies. This book has no theology — it is devoted instead to a single subject, the love and passion between woman and man. It gives more emphasis to the perspective of the woman than it does for the man, so that some have even assumed that the author may have been a woman.

From a strictly literary and historical perspective, scholars agree that the Song of Songs probably dates to around the first century CE, though it may contain material that is much older. It was accepted into the Jewish scriptures by that time, though the contemporary remark of Rabbi Akiva is so emphatic that it assumes there was some opposition to its inclusion. He stated, "No one in Israel disputes that the Song of Songs is a divine book. All the world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies." At the same time, there are indications that the Song of Songs may have been recited in secular entertainments, for Akiva also condemns those who sing it in banquet halls. The dilemma of secular or spiritual interpretation of this love song is thus present at its very beginning.

The very form and structure of the Song of Songs is subject to dispute. This difficulty would not be apparent to most modern readers of the Bible, because the familiar numbered divisions into chapter and verse give an authoritative impression that the book has been arranged just so. Although it has been described as a collection of love poems in the form of stanzas, there are so many shifts of person, mood, and scene that it is not at all clear how it should be divided; the present Biblical division of the text may be fairly described as arbitrary. In terms of subject matter, the Song of Songs primarily describes the different attitudes and experiences of lovers who meet, are separated, and describe one another's beauty. The setting is ancient Palestine, with rich use of striking natural images, like grapes, pomegranates, gazelles, and flowers.

Over the years, some scholars attempted to interpret the Song of Songs as a drama, in which the male character was identified with Solomon, and the female lead was thought to be the mysterious Shulamite mentioned in 7:1 (and nowhere else in the Bible). As an alternative form of this pastoral interpretation, a three-person drama theory was also introduced, in which a humble shepherd and King Solomon vied for the favors of a country maid, but few found this convincing. In the last century, efforts were made to connect the Song of Songs to the modern Arabic wedding poems found among Syrians and Palestinians, but this too proved to be hard to demonstrate. Recent interpretations have sought to link the Song of Songs to ancient Egyptian love songs. Many contemporary scholars incline to a literal interpretation of the text as a dialogue between lovers, and they assume that it is to be taken at face value as a straightforward series of erotic love poems.

But for most of its history, the Song of Songs has been the subject of allegorical interpretation. This is so foreign to contemporary habits of thought that it calls for some discussion. Many modern interpreters of the Bible, especially in Protestant evangelical and fundamentalist circles, like to insist that the Bible must only be understood in a "literal" sense. There is in fact a very complicated and formalized series of interpretive moves that make up this "literal" form of exegesis, although this is not always obvious to those who have been taught it. Medieval Christian interpreters commonly recognized four parallel senses of scripture: the obvious outward sense, the historical, the moral, and the symbolic. Both Jews and Christians approached the Word of God as a mystery to be deciphered only with great difficulty. Each verse could contain worlds of meaning. The most obvious reading was the easiest; hidden depths awaited those who could penetrate beyond the superficial. Although it would be easy for many today to dismiss the allegorical approach as convoluted and fanciful, it was an important method for linking ancient texts with the key issues of theology, philosophy, and mysticism.

One of the chief Jewish approaches to the Song of Songs was to see it as an allegory for the loving relationship of God to Israel, in which God was the lover and the people of Israel were the bride. The intensity and passion of the Song of Songs conveyed, in the view of many, the ultimate importance of the relationship of the Jewish people and their God. The emphatic insistence of early authorities such as Akiva is convincing proof of the importance of this approach in early Judaism, and it has continued unchallenged until quite recently. Jewish authorities included the Song of Songs in the small class of scriptures that are so difficult to interpret that they should only by read by those over forty years of age, lest passion and youth overwhelm wisdom.

Christian theologians quickly adopted the allegorical interpretations of the Bible found in early Judaism, and then they added new layers. For them, the love of God for Israel as found in the Song of Songs signified the more universal and intimate love of Christ for his church, and also the love of Jesus for each individual soul. The third-century Christian scholar Origen wrote three commentaries on the Song of Songs in Greek, the most important of which was in 10 volumes, totaling about 20,000 lines (only part of this survives via quotations in later authors). He attempted to establish the sense of the story underlying the poem; he then applied allegorical interpretation, seeing the entire poem as an expression of the love of God for the church and the perfect human soul. This forms the basis for all subsequent Christian interpretations, and it is the classic demonstration of the allegorical method. The prologue to Origen's commentary has an extensive discussion of the difference between spiritual and carnal love. Another important early Christian authority, Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), argued that the goal of the Song of Songs is the union of the soul with God. This is to be attained by detaching the senses from matter, by knowledge of God, and by contemplation. Similar mystical interpretations are found all the way through the Middle Ages. Richard of St. Victor gave a detailed commentary on chapters 3 to 5 of the Song of Songs, which he treats as a description of the path of the soul seeking God, up to the very vision of paradise. For him this text must be understood in terms of mystical experience and the humility that is necessary for its growth.

Beyond this purely mystical interpretation, the Song of Songs perhaps inevitably was understood in terms of the main figures of Catholic devotion, as an expression of the sublime feelings of Jesus Christ for his holy mother Mary. The allegorical method, which turned the obvious sense of words into symbols of enigmatic meaning, was well suited to recasting the erotic tone of the text into something purely spiritual. The woman, or “bride” in the poem was imagined as the human nature assumed by God in the Incarnation of the Word as Christ: she was partly the Church, the future mother of Christians, and partly a collective being, representing under the symbol of woman a sinner transformed by the blood of Christ into a pure virgin. The "black madonnas" of medieval Europe may have come from the description of the beloved as "dark, but beautiful" (1:5). Other expressions from the poem, including "the rose of Sharon" (2:1), "the garden enclosed" (4:12), and "garden fountain" (4:15), were also applied to the Virgin Mary.

Countless Christian writers expanded on the spiritual significance of the Song of Songs. Bernard of Clairvaux compiled an extensive series of sermons on the text. The English mystic Richard Rolle (d. 1349) wrote an intensely lyrical commentary on the three first verses of the Song. The Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross is directly inspired by the Song of Songs.

The love relationship described in the Song of Songs is of such intensity that it also led to controversy. It is not surprising that the erotic power of the text brought about patriarchal anxiety, particularly when women dared to interpret the text. About 1573, St. Teresa of Avila wrote a little book on "Concepts of the Love of God" based upon the Song of Songs, which was fortunately saved from the flames to which it had been condemned. In it she criticizes the cowardice of those souls who are afraid to read the text because they don't understand it. Likewise the French mystic Madame Guyon published an important interpretation of the text in 1685. In her autobiography, she states that she completed this in a day and a half, writing so fast that she injured her arm. This was one of the books condemned by the archbishop of Paris in 1694, as one of the chief examples of the mystical heresy of Quietism. As a result of this condemnation, there was little written about the Song of Songs in the eighteenth century.

Some modern writers have dismissed the long tradition of allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs. They believe that allegory is either a deliberate twisting of the clear erotic meaning of the text, or that the monks and nuns who spent so much time on it were victims of psychological suppression. This attitude is a convenient way to assume the superiority of the present day. Admittedly the medieval period furnishes examples of the suppression of erotic elements in the text. One can find printed adaptations of the Latin text of the Song of Songs in which "May your breasts [ubera] be as clusters of the vine" (7:9) mysteriously turned into "May your words [verba] be as clusters of the vine." On the other hand, there are also places where the Latin of the Vulgate enhances the erotic tone of the text, such as in the very first verse, where the phrase "your love is sweeter than wine" somehow became "your breasts are sweeter than wine."

The long and complicated history of the text indicates, however, that the Song of Songs has lived primarily as a sacred text. Although some scholars have tried to show that it derives from secular love songs of Egypt or Mesopotamia, the fact remains that nothing like it from first-century Palestine survives outside the sacred traditions of Judaism and Christianity. To suddenly "discover" that it is a secular erotic text, and to strip it of centuries of mystical and allegorical significance, is to express an arrogance that is uniquely modern. There is a timeless tension between physical and spiritual love, and the sheer exuberance and passion of the Song of Songs carry it beyond the limits of ordinary sensual enjoyment without dispensing with the body. Overwhelming longing for God overlaps with the shock of physical eroticism. The Spanish monk Fray Luis de Leon was imprisoned in 1562 by the Inquisition for composing an original translation of the Song of Songs directly from Hebrew, and for treating the text as if it were a non-allegorical pastoral poem. But as he observed in the introduction to his translation, "Nothing is more proper to God than love, and there is nothing more natural for love than to turn the lover to the conditions and character of the beloved."[2] The Song of Songs accomplishes this task. Here, there is no fixed line separating sensual from spiritual love.


Artistic Portrayals of the Song of Songs

As mentioned before, the Song of Songs was the most copied book of the Bible in the Christian Middle Ages. It should not be surprising, therefore, that miniature illustrations of the text were fairly common. Themes selected for illustration focused on allegory, such as Solomon reclining on a litter (3:7), interpreted as a symbol of Jesus. Likewise the wedding day of Solomon was depicted as a feast in parallel with the Last Supper and with the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. In all these cases the allegory treats love as the relation between Christ and the church. Alternatively, the female beloved appeared as the Virgin Mary, accompanied by monks and the daughters of Jerusalem. All these visual representations practiced the allegorical technique of connecting the Song of Songs to theological themes and writings outside the text itself.

Musical settings of the Song of Songs were fairly common as well, again, mostly perpetuating religious allegory. Compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries were frequently performed in Catholic liturgical ceremonies dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Composers of this music included King Henry VIII of England and the Italian composer Monteverdi.[3] Protestant composers then employed the text in wedding songs, like the church cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, which depict Christ as the king searching for the individual believer.[4] There have also been modern musical compositions on themes from the Song of Songs, by composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Virgil Thompson. Among Jews, the Hebrew text is included in the liturgy of Passover, and it is recited by Sephardic Jews during regular Friday evening services. In modern Israel, folk songs for couples have been created using verses from the Song of Songs. It is worth noting, too, that many authors have attempted to produce literary translations of the text into modern languages, including figures such as Goethe and Victor Hugo.

But when we turn to modern visual portrayal of the Song of Songs, what is most striking about them is their complete abandonment of the allegorical method. Instead of connecting the Song of Songs to external theological doctrines, painters of the 19th century began to bring their own psychological concerns to the representation of the text. Edward Burne-Jones, the well-known artist of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, designed a stained glass window for an English church illustrating the Song of Songs. In this complex 12-panel work, he stressed his favorite theme of romantic yearning for an impossible and unrequited love.[5] In a different vein, a Jewish member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Simeon Solomon, produced paintings of the Song of Songs characterized by a lush and overripe sensuality. More recently, a series of five paintings on the theme by Marc Chagall in the 1950s combined a Blake-like angelic intensity and playfulness with strong hints of sensuality, enhanced by a glowing rosy background.[6] The absence of doctrine and allegory in these paintings may seem to the modern reader a development long overdue. Now, for the first time, the element of sensuality has come to the fore.

What is the significance of these 19th- and 20th-century depictions of the Song of Songs? First of all, their departure from allegory indicated a crumbling of the overarching worldview that had once so effortlessly supplied systematic explanations for everything. When enlightenment and revolution shattered the massive edifice of orthodoxy (whether Jewish or Christian), imagination and sentiment were free to deal even with scripture as they wished. At the same time, however, the new approaches of these painters subtly point to a different conclusion: the enigmatic structure of the Song of Songs, like many other texts, must be interpreted through some kind of deliberately chosen external lens. Although the sensual interpretation may seem natural to many today, it is nevertheless in some ways as dogmatic as the rarified theological speculations of medieval scholars.

It would be a shame to throw away the sense of sacredness that inspired so many centuries of reflection on this enchanting text. In the anonymous 19th-century Russian Orthodox classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, one of the most dramatic moments comes at the beginning, when the author is overwhelmed by hearing a verse from the Song of Songs ("I sleep but my heart wakes"), so that he cannot stop thinking about it day or night. His quandary is only solved when he meets a monk who informs him that this verse is pointing him to the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner"), which is the basis of one of the most profound meditative techniques of the Eastern Church. It would be easy to dismiss this mystical interpretation as irrelevant to the "original" meaning of the Song of Songs in its ancient Near Eastern context. But, as I have argued above, there has never been a purely secular interpretation of the Song of Songs before the modern period; its first appearance in history is as one of the holiest portions of scripture. I think it is incumbent on all modern interpreters of the Song of Songs to respect the history of its many different guises, and to make clear on what basis they themselves offer to piece together meaning and coherence in the text. Because of that long history of sacred reading, I think we do violence to the Song of Songs if we attempt to tear it out from that spiritual perspective entirely. The challenge, then, is to do justice to the profundity of meaning that seems to echo in the call and refrain of these lovers' songs, but without invoking a single doctrinal worldview, and with devoted attention to the physical beauty that is the hallmark of the poem. This is the task that has been undertaken by Judith Ernst in this book.


The Nature of this Edition

The version of the Song of Songs presented here builds upon the extraordinarily influential King James translation of the Bible. In this respect, Judith Ernst is following in the footsteps of the King James translators themselves, who incorporated many of the most successful turns of phrase from earlier English translations into their own version. Despite its brevity, the Song of Songs in the King James translation is one of the most frequently cited biblical texts in English literature; Shakespeare quotes it in four different plays, and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations contains over two dozen references to it. Nevertheless, the King James Version suffers from a number of inaccuracies and obscurities, many of which have been clarified by modern scholarship. Probably the most famous such mistake is the lovely but surprising phrase, "the voice of the turtle" (2:12), which in reality should be "the voice of the turtle-dove." To the extent possible, the present version incorporates the most authoritative scholarly corrections, thanks to the generous comments of Professor Jack Sasson of Vanderbilt University. In order to make the text as accessible as possible to contemporary readers, Judith Ernst has also modernized the language so that archaic words present no obstacles to understanding. The text itself has been lifted out of the numbered chapter and verse format and treated as a continuous prose recitation, divided into twelve sections that form natural units (for the correspondence with traditional verse numbering, see the Appendix). The result is a smoothly flowing outpouring of powerful emotion and intense visual imagery, fueled by some of the most beautiful phrases in the English language. The erotic shock of the original is not muffled either by Elizabethan obscurity or by the breezy informality of contemporary biblical paraphrases.

But the primary goal of this new presentation of the Song of Songs is to provide an interpretation of its eroticism that balances the physical with the spiritual, without indulging in allegory. In order to achieve this, Judith Ernst has adopted two revolutionary strategies; first, she turned to the comparative approach as a key to the meaning of the text, and second, as an artist she recognized the overriding importance of the visual factor in the language of the Song of Songs.

It is perhaps surprising that comparative perspectives have been so little utilized by interpreters of the Song of Songs. Among modern scholars at least, there seems to have been an overriding concern with historical connections that might possibly explain the text by way of influence. This may have been a reaction to the old tradition of allegorical explanation, which read against the text by seeking correspondences with the dominant theologies of the time. In this way, contemporary scholars have sought to explain the Song of Songs in relation to ancient Egyptian love songs, or even to modern Syrian wedding songs, on the theory that somehow a precedent or sequel would provide a definitive key to the meaning of the text. But only rarely have interpreters sought clues outside of the most obvious connections to ancient Near Eastern literature. It is astonishing, to say the least, that no one has undertaken comparison between the Song of Songs and the great odes of pre-Islamic Arabia. These sophisticated and complex poems have been neglected in part because of the extraordinarily bad translations committed by disdainful Orientalists of the colonial period. To be sure, one occasionally finds mention of the bodily description (wasf) of the beloved as a standard category derived from Arabic literature. Where else should one look for parallels to verses such as "How much better is your love than wine, and the smell of your ointment than all spices! Your lips, my bride, drop as the honeycomb; honey and milk are under your tongue, and the scent of your garment is like the fragrance of Lebanon"? There are wonderful examples of this sensuous exaggeration in the Arabic tradition, as in the ode of `Alqama in Michael Sells' translation:

Before the senses even now

her fragrance lingers,

The folds of her hair

redolent of musk when the pod is open.

Reaching out to touch it

even the stuff-nosed is overcome.[7]

Or consider the rich sensuality of the opening lines of the Song of Songs: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth — for your love is better than wine. Because of the sweet fragrance of your ointment your name is as ointment poured forth." The intense evocation of the smell and taste of a kiss finds its equal in the poem of `Antara:

She takes your heart

            with the flash edge of her smile,

her mouth sweet to the kiss,

sweet to the taste,

As if a draft of musk

from a spiceman's pouch

announced the wet gleam

of her inner teeth.[8]

These comparisons are not made to suggest any kind of historical correlation, but they do suggest that there are aesthetic continuities that are not limited to the category of literary influence. And it is possible to go even farther afield to find powerful analogs to the Song of Songs.

In approaching this biblical text, Judith Ernst has taken inspiration from the important tradition of Indian religious and aesthetic thought found in the erotic narratives of the soul that cluster around the figure of Krishna. Conservative biblical scholars may be surprised at this connection, since there is no obvious historical link. But the point of this comparison is to find themes that evoke longing on both the physical and the spiritual planes. This is a deliberately chosen interpretive scheme. For over a thousand years, devotees of Krishna have visualized him as a cowherd who is the ideal beloved, surrounded by the milkmaids who typify the impassioned souls of humanity. Not only does the pastoral setting of the Krishna romance provide an interesting counterpoint to the vineyards of Palestine, but also the language of erotic passion has served for centuries in both cases to express the longing for the divine beloved. Juxtaposing the loves of Krishna with those of Solomon may at first sight seem surprising to those accustomed to the circumscribed rhetoric of conventional pulpits. Yet both were semi-divine kings celebrated in legend, whose stories were the settings of intense romantic fantasy. To the reader whose experience has been formed by the cosmopolitan perspective of today, the choice of such figures will seem only natural as a way to locate the intersection of the human with the divine.

In seeking a specific visual genre to give form to this divine longing, Judith Ernst seized upon the tradition of the "twelve month" (barahmasa) paintings, which are strongly associated with the cult of Krishna but are also found in other Indian religions. These paintings typically portray a woman in the various moods of love and longing, depicted with all of the seasonal details of each successive month of the year. In India, the most intense of these periods is the overpowering heat that occurs just before the rainy season. Then, as countless poets and painters showed (including Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Sufis), the woman is overwhelmed by raw passion as she feels the loss of her absent lover, who may be God. This theme turns out to be quite appropriate for portraying the mood of the Song of Songs. The focus of the Indian poems, and their accompanying paintings, is on the emotions of the woman, and the interpretive tradition for the most part has channeled this imagery into spiritual love. In the artistic realization of this book, the seasonal cycle of twelve months and the Indian environment have no further relevance. Instead, the setting is a timeless Palestine where women's costumes, like their passions, could be from any century.

Beyond this comparative dimension, what is most striking about this version is the way in which the visual imagination serves not just to illustrate the text but even to shape it. In the absence of a single overriding master narrative that would support allegory, this visual imagination has an extraordinary power to establish authenticity for an age without orthodoxy. There could be no greater contrast with the allegorical method, which in its essence must go outside the text in order to reveal its meaning. Origen, the father of Christian allegorical interpretation, maintained that "all the things in the visible category can be related to the invisible, the corporeal to the incorporeal, and the manifest to those that are hidden." Thus in his view "it undoubtedly follows that the visible hart and roe mentioned in the Song of Songs are related to some patterns of incorporeal realities, in accordance with the character borne of their bodily nature." What were these bodiless realities symbolized by the fawn and the deer? Origen concludes, on the basis of his memorization and internalization of parallel biblical texts, that harts stand for the saints, and the roe or fawn stands for Christ.[9] In the allegorical relationship, the invisible spiritual reality actually replaces the visible form.

As an artist, Judith Ernst takes a diametrically opposed route, privileging the visual image itself as the medium for meaning. When the text says, "Your breasts are like two young fawns, twins of a doe, which feed among the lilies," she does not find it necessary to search for hidden meanings unrelated to the body. The visual image is in fact quite clear: the bare female breast viewed in profile looks very much like the pointed nose and face of a young fawn. But in her view, the sharp erotic stimulus of this description has a spiritual significance that goes beyond the purely physical without becoming an abstract substitution. This spirituality is doubtless a legacy of two thousand years of interpretation, but more importantly, it arises from the intensity of longing that this text still provokes.

The Song of Songs has served for centuries as a focus for the religious imagination, connecting bodily passions with the most powerful of spiritual aspirations. In this new version, with its striking visualization, it provides a fresh glimpse of the flow of longing, and it stakes out new territory for the encounter of body and soul.






[1] Judith Ernst, Song of Songs: Erotic Love Poetry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).                 

[2] Fray Luis de Leon, Obras Completas Castellanas (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1957), vol. 1, p. 70.

[3] Examples of musical compositions using the text of the Song of Songs from the 15th - 17th centuries can be heard on a

  cassette recording, "A Celebration of Sensuality: Baroque and Renaissance Vocal Settings of the Song of Songs," by the Sine

  Nomine Singers, conducted by Harry Salzman; this recording (NC 30013) is available from Newport Classic, 106 Benefit

  St., Providence, RI 02903.

[4] John W. Rogerson, "The Use of the Song of Songs in J. S. Bach's Church Cantatas," in Biblical Studies/Cultural Studies: The

  Third  Sheffield Colloquium, ed. J. Cheryl Exxum and Stephen D. Moore, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement

  Series 266/Gender, Culture, Theory 7 (1998), pp. 343-351.

[5] Fiona C. Black and J. Cheryl Exum, "Semiotics in Stained Glass: Edward Burne-Jones's Song of Songs," in Biblical

  Studies/Cultural Studies, pp. 315-342.

[6] Le Message Biblique de Marc Chagall (Paris: Musée du Louvre Galerie Mollien, 1967), figures 13-17.

[7] Michael Sells, Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), p.

[8] Ibid., p.

[9] Origen, The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, trans. R. P. Lawson, Ancient Christian Writers, 26 (New York: Newman

  Press, 1956), pp. 223-228.