The first book I ever published was an illustrated edition of the erotic biblical poem, Song of Solomon. At the time, it seemed like such a random thing for me to do, especially because I don’t consider myself to be at all religious. In hindsight, however, I realize it was the perfect transition from artist to author for me.
First of all, I had become accustomed to telling stories with visual imagery and was all but tongue-tied when it came to expressing myself verbally. Leave it to art school! But, as I designed illustrations for the ancient love song, I was forced to make sense of difficult language, sift through centuries of history and criticism, and finally tease out my own understanding of the text.
Secondly, I felt compelled to complete the project. Honestly, I felt called to do it, as strange as that seemed. So, even though I had never published anything in my life and I often felt stymied by technological minutia, I just stuck it out.
And in the end, I learned that I could actually publish a book. I created LayerCake Productions through that experience. From there, the sky was the limit.
What follows is the Foreword for the short book. Forgive me–it’s rather dry and scholarly, even though Song of Solomon itself is pretty smokin’. Faced with writing about sex and the bible, though, I guess I just felt safer to stay on the prudish side.
If you’re interested in checking out the eBook, you can find it on Amazon for $0.99 by clicking here. Each image will click through to Fine Art America, where you can purchase prints.
Song of Songs of Solomon, also known as simply Song of Songs in Jewish tradition, and Song of Solomon or Canticle of Canticles to Christians, is one of the shortest and most thrilling books of The Old Testament. Believed by many to have been written by Solomon himself around 900 BCE, this beautiful poem portrays the relationship between a woman and a man, from courtship to consummation. Mostly a dialogue between two lovers, “Beloved” is the female protagonist and “Lover,” the male, with commentary from a chorus, sometimes known as Daughters of Israel, referred to as “Friends” in this World English Bible translation.
Filled with surprisingly sensual and erotic language, the song has often been interpreted by many as a parable to the relationship between God and Israel, or between Christ and the Church, or Christ and the human soul, for Christians. This ancient text is one of the most overtly mystical books of the Kabbalah, having no parallel in the whole of Hebrew literature, and many Jewish scholars have interpreted the language to be metaphorically anthropomorphic. It has also been suggested that the song is a messianic text, the lover being interpreted as the Messiah. Historically, Christian mystagogues insisted the sexual language in the song was an allegory to the soul and Christ, believing it should be reserved for only the spiritually mature and that studying it may be harmful for the novice. More recently in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI referred to Song of Songs of Solomon in terms of its apparent literal meaning, stating that erotic love and self-donating love is shown therein as two halves of true love, both giving and receiving.
The authorship and origin of Song of Songs of Solomon has been as widely researched and debated as has its content. The first clause of the title, “which is of Solomon,” can be construed to mean that the song was either written by Solomon, or for Solomon, and evidence for both meanings exists. Most scholars note that the poem shows similarities to various forms of Ancient Near Eastern love poetry, particularly certain Sumerian erotic passages of the period. Some even suggest that the song is not a single work, but rather a collection of folk love songs from northern Palestine, the references to royalty accounted for by a wedding custom called “The King’s Week,” kept up among the Syrian peasants to the present day.
Differing interpretations and mistranslations of the original Ancient Hebrew text have abounded for centuries, and have provided a fascinating framework for religious legends and romantic myths. One of the most famous and loved mistranslations from 2:1, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys,” helped form a major character in John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath, “Rose of Sharon” (often called “Rosasharn”), who is depicted as fragile throughout the novel, because of her pregnancy. More recent studies have concluded that the original Ancient Hebrew phrase actually refers to the Sharon Plain on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and a flower that blooms there in late summer, not the flowering plant commonly referred to as the Rose of Sharon today.
Another flower species mentioned in the above verse, Lily of the Valley, is a sweetly scented, yet highly poisonous, flowering plant. If ingested, even in small amounts, this deadly plant can induce abdominal pain, vomiting, and a reduced heart rate. Ironically, laboratory studies have shown the odor of the flower to attract mammal sperm in a dramatic manner, and even to imitate the role of progesterone in stimulating sperm to swim, a reaction known as the Lily of the Valley phenomenon. Even more interestingly, Christian legend also names this plant as “Our Lady’s Tears” or “Mary’s Tears,” in reference to the story that it sprang from the weeping of the Virgin Mary during the crucifixion of Jesus. The Lily of the Valley is used as a symbol of humility in religious paintings, as a sign foreshadowing Christ’s second coming and also as a reminder of the power of men to envision a better world. Scholars now believe that the original Ancient Hebrew text in Song of Songs of Solomon does not, in fact, refer to this flower; however, the mistranslation of the biblical phrase may have had influenced the development of the modern plant name. Certainly, scientific fact and religious legend are now woven together to encourage a captivating reading of the song!
Whatever debates may rage over Song of Songs of Solomon, the beauty of the poetry and rapturous character of the dialogue is undeniable. A stunning change of pace within the larger biblical narrative, the luscious imagery drips with charisma and begs to be enjoyed on its own terms. However flawed or imprecise a translation from Ancient Hebrew to Modern English may be, I believe the spirit of the story survives, and as an artist, I allowed the poetry itself to speak to me and encourage visual form. Some passages all but scream for visual illustration, for example:
5:10 My beloved is white and ruddy.
The best among ten thousand.
5:11 His head is like the purest gold.
His hair is bushy, black as a raven.
5:12 His eyes are like doves beside the water brooks,
washed with milk, mounted like jewels.
5:13 His cheeks are like a bed of spices with towers of perfumes.
His lips are like lilies, dropping liquid myrrh.
Also consider the plentitude of flora and fauna imagery, with their allusion to the glorious circle of life, which is of course the ultimate purpose of the act for which the urgent lovers yearn. Is it difficult to find divinity in a fragile, shivering newborn fawn, or blush at the inherent sexuality in the fleshiness of fat, juicy grapes and the flowing of milk and honey?
7:8 I said, “I will climb up into the palm tree.
I will take hold of its fruit.”
Let your breasts be like clusters of the vine
the smell of your breath like apples,
4:5 Your two breasts are like two fawns
that are twins of a roe,
which feed among the lilies.
The passion is obvious, the language as dripping and sweet as a lover’s words…and therein lies an illustrator’s hidden challenge—to avoid cartoonish pictures too like the effusive, flowery declarations from a cajoling, hopeful lover, giddy with lust, yet instead, uncover the authentic desire within our human hearts that make such language valid for all of us.
5:1 I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride.
I have gathered my myrrh with my spice;
I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey;
I have drunk my wine with my milk.
I relied partially on my knowledge of historical religious imagery, practiced in artful visual representations of difficult language. For example, I found the perfect model for Beloved’s surely orgasmic expression, which I felt must have occurred during certain passages in the song, in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy. No dime store pop-romance imagery, this work in marble, stucco and paint is generally considered to be one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque period. The sculpture illustrates a moment where divinity intrudes on an earthly body, Saint Teresa’s most famous vision being of a seraph driving the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing a transcendent spiritual-bodily pain. Bernini is often said to have carved Saint Teresa’s heavenly expression after the moment one is overcome by orgasmic climax. Reciprocally, I borrowed that scandalous legend surrounding this famous work to clarify my own perception of Beloved’s face, and I hope to encourage further insight into to the complicated nature of our understanding of Song of Songs of Solomon, in drowning her in the duplicitous Lily of the Valley, in Illustration #6.
My notes here only hint at the vast literature available to aid in understanding Song of Songs of Solomon, and I encourage readers to form his or her own interpretation on both the text and my illustrations, and to seek further knowledge, through research and contemplation, into this fascinating work of literature. I have added but a taste of the broad analysis in existence, in an excerpt from Expositor’s Bible, following this illustrated edition of Song of Songs of Solomon. Special thanks goes to Project Gutenberg, for providing this public domain literature, The World English Bible version of Song of Songs of Solomon, and Expositor’s Bible, free of charge for all. Please consider donating to Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org, for their important work in service to our cultural literary heritage.
Sarah Lange Wathen
Illustrator & Editor
Purchase my illustrated edition of Song of Songs of Solomon on Amazon, by clicking here.