This past spring, my art history professor, Kathleen Maxwell, gave a presentation to the classics department on her research into Byzantine illuminated manuscripts. She mentioned something offhand that stuck with me: when studying these manuscripts, the art historians tend to only look at the art and the biblical scholars tend only to look at the text, mainly for text-critical purposes. The sad result of our disciplinary boundaries is that we often don’t understand these manuscripts, which were created as a unification of art and text.
I’ve since seen what she meant as I have been researching the Saint John’s Bible, trying to find biblical scholars engaging with art as visual exegesis of scripture. So I was pleased to find Judith Scheaffer’s book, Envisioning the Book of Judith: How Art Illuminates Minor Characters, which combines literary readings of minor characters in the book of Judith with analysis of Renaissance art depicting Judith. Each painting’s treatment of these minor characters serves as a springboard for the close literary readings she performs of these books. So in various chapters, she analyzes Achor, Judith’s maidservant, the Israelite crowd, Bagoas, and Holofernes. She digs deep to find how each of these characters moves the plot along and contributes to the central message of the text. I am impressed with how well she integrated the two modes of analysis, particularly since this book was based on a dissertation. (Let’s be honest: dissertation-books are often clunky and not much fun to read!)
Scheaffer left me with a series of questions to think about as I read up on Saint John’s Bible material. These are taken from page 9:
- How does the art enable us to ‘see’ something we may have ignored in the textual narrative
- How does the art illuminate or add to an aspect of the biblical character or text as a whole
- How does the art alert the viewer to something important that is glossed over in the text?
- Have artists ‘read’ the text in a different way from scholars or other readers and so present a different visual interpretation?
- Lastly, how does our encounter with the visual representation of a character influence the way we read the narrative?
Sheaffer also pointed me toward other scholarship combining art history and biblical scholarship. I may be biased since she earned her Ph.D. at my school and now works as Director of Admissions here (we emailed back and forth when I was applying!), but I found this book useful for opening new avenues of investigation. I’m adding it to my methodological toolkit.