Biblical Archaeology Review 39:1, January/February 2013

First Person: Art as Bible Interpretation

By Hershel Shanks

To convey the meaning of Scripture, we commonly resort to words. That is how we explicate the text—with words. That’s also the case with those nonbiblical books denominated apocrypha, as in the Book of Judith, the subject of this column.

But the meaning and interpretation of the text can be conveyed also through art. We have customarily used art in this magazine simply to illustrate the words that convey the meaning. In this instance, however, the art is the primary focus—a portrait of Judith by the great early-20th-century artist Gustav Klimt.

Until the 20th century, most artists sought to portray their subjects realistically. The picture still had emotional meaning, but that meaning was conveyed by a painting that comported with outward reality.

That changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It may have had something to do with the invention of photography. It was no longer difficult to get a visual likeness of reality. Photographs were available for that purpose. Artists were now freed to express inner emotions in nonrepresentational or rather nonphotographic ways. As the famous impressionist painter Henri Matisse put it, “The invention of photography released painting from any need to copy nature,” allowing the artist to “present emotion as directly as possible.”

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