Seeing is believing?

An illustrated biblical commentary, although insightful, draws too heavily on kabbalistic symbolism.

January 26, 2010 20:38


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Between Heaven and Earth
By Ilene Winn-Lederer
Pomegranate Communications
190 pages, $45

The Tower of Babel with the...

The Tower of Babel with the illustrator's signature cat's cradle motif.
Photo: Ilene Winn-Lederer

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In the beginning there was a mask, and a woman, and they created the heaven and the earth. At least, that's the way Genesis takes shape in the opening pages of Ilene Winn-Lederer's new illustrated commentary, a bold, sensual reimagining of the Jewish people's foundational myth in color-laden scenes from the Pentateuch.

Given the daunting obstacles and the certainty that any treatment of such volatile subject matter is bound to offend, Winn-Lederer's ambitious undertaking is commendable, and her art - incorporating a wide range of symbolic orders - although hard to unravel, is more often than not insightful and beautiful. Take the opening image, for example. The representation of God as a mask, with the Shechina (the feminine aspect of the divine) as a flesh and blood woman behind him, is provocative and masterfully done, as is the image of the sixth day of God's creation on the facing page; the wealth of animal life surrounding Adam and Eve, the unicorn, the eyes in the navels of Adam and Eve.

You get the picture. The image is striking, laden with symbolic meaning, but some elements don't quite add up in the context of a "Torah commentary." Winn-Lederer herself draws attention to this contradiction in the "Afterimages" section at the end of the book, stating that the "unique navels" were meant "to raise more questions than answers."


One could perhaps surmise that the eyes in the navel represent the prelapsarian state, where the sexual faculty of Adam's and Eve's being, yet untarnished by sin, is as translucent as their sense of sight. More probable, however, is the possibility that the eyes are meant to represent God's all-seeing presence, which, missing from the mask, is yet extant in the pre-fallen proto-parents, who, having been created rather than born, really have no need for conventional bellybuttons. The use of multiple eyes to indicate a ubiquitous divinity occurs again in the image of the revelation at Mount Sinai.

As for the unicorn, Winn-Lederer admits that its presence is more whimsical - a nod to "legend" - than textual, although it does match the King James Bible's translation of re'em, the Hebrew word for oryx.

But I do not wish to quibble over such fanciful departures from the text. Indeed, these are to be expected in a work of art and, one could even argue, what designates a work as such. Rather let us return for a moment to the representation of God as a mask. This symbol, which at once expresses an absolute presence and connotes a yawning absence, is intriguing and an elegant away of skirting the sticky issue of the graven image, but it nevertheless forges an unhealthy, almost vulgar, literal affinity between creator and creature.

There would have been no need to raise this point had it not been for Winn-Lederer first taking issue herself with those artists, heirs to a grand tradition in the history of art, who had erred in "interpret[ing] the texts literally... or obscured content altogether." She also tacitly acknowledges that, while she wanted them to "raise more questions than [they] answered" (remember the eyes in the navel), her illustrations were nevertheless meant to join those "brilliant works... complying with (or cleverly circumventing) the Second Commandment prohibition against graven images."

Indeed, Winn-Lederer or, for that matter, anyone attempting to grapple with such a daunting task, must tread a very narrow bridge. Reading new insights into the most heavily interpreted text of all time without throwing off the mantle of traditional exegesis is hard enough when done with the written word, and even more difficult if one employs the visual medium. Here one constantly runs the risk of yielding a pile of constituent images that reveal the artist's private visual language but overlook the text's manifold inherences.

And the work does create a rich visual tapestry. Take, for example, the image of the Tower of Babel, where four men are seen escaping to the four winds, driven away from the Escherian edifice by probing tongues lewdly extended from the windows. Reaching up from the top of the tower is the hand of Nimrod, the legendary rebel who according to midrash instigated the project in the hope of toppling the kingdom of heaven, in a one-sided game of cat's cradle. The motif is picked up again, this time in a reciprocal fashion, in the illustration of Jacob's dream, where Jacob's hair becomes the ladder, suspended from God's hand. It also recurs elsewhere as an image of the sefirot, the divine attributes, linking heaven and earth. Other truly illuminating visual rhymes occur throughout, often providing surprising, subtle insights and encouraging a second and third perusal. Therein lies the book's strength.

Ultimately, however, one cannot escape the impression that Winn-Lederer's conscious
attempt to infuse her illustrations with mystical meaning while still adhering, in her way, to the prohibition against graven images is not wholly successful. Besides the recurring problematic images of God as eyes or as a series of masks, the book is rife with small kabbalistic "hints" in the shape of letters and mystical symbols. These letters, each of which is meant to refer to a sefira that comes into play in the depicted scene, would have been sufficient markers of a divine "mood" on their own (although one can perhaps question whether a work of art that stands on its own merit should reference another body of work so extensively and systematically). But, when coupled with the visual conjurations, often in the same scene, the kabbalistic symbols only serve to conflate.

In the end, the mask, although clever as a circumvention, is ultimately an "expression," a face, which in its finality and totality cannot truly refer to anything beyond itself. The use of these very corporeal representations alongside the kabbalistic markers therefore confuses the symbolic order. This, in turn, instead of illuminating, effaces the very world that the symbols are meant to hark back to. If one may be allowed the liberty of borrowing from the artist's own visual and textual lexicon, the misuse of mystical signs is a one-handed game of cat's cradle which at once "obscures the content" and "leav[es] little to the imagination."

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