Chapel Hill Artist Rediscovers the Song of Songs

By Samia Serageldin

For the Chapel Hill News

Sunday  Edition, September 14, 2003


“Song of  Songs: Erotic Love Poetry”

adapted and illustrated by Judith Ernst

Eerdmans, 2003, 96 pages.


Occasionally, a book has the potential to do for a classic what Coleman Barks’ interpretation did for the poetry of Rumi: introduce a great text to an entirely new, mass readership that would not have thought to read, for example, a medieval Sufi poet in the original. The recent popularization of the Persian poet Rumi in the States is such that stars from Madonna to Maya Angelou record the mystic love poetry in its English translation, and Rumi festivals proliferate as far and wide as Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill artist Judith Ernst found her inspiration in sacred/profane poetry of a different sort: the Song of Songs, the shortest book of the Old Testament. Once one of the most quoted chapters of the Bible, the Song of Songs is rarely heard on the pulpit today.  Its interpretation has always been problematic; do the verses exalt divine love or earthly, mystical or erotic?

“Its language is seductive, intimate, and intoxicating, describing the voluptuous beauty of young lovers and their passionate longing for one another. Its mood and origins are enigmatic, and it is not known why it was included in the Bible. God is never mentioned in the Song,” Ernst points out. “Though I had heard it referred to and quoted many times, I never actually read the Song until about six or seven years ago.”

The history of the Song intrigued Ernst. “Its authorship is unknown. Was it written by one person or by many? Was it put together from a compilation of love songs taken from an oral tradition or was it written by a single author? Was the poet (or poets) a man or a woman?”

She came to it circuitously, mostly through Indian and Middle Eastern literature and art. “For many years I’ve been interested in the use of the relationship of lover and beloved as a metaphor for the mystical dynamic between the soul and God. You see this a bit in medieval Christian mysticism, for example in the bridal imagery in the Spanish poetry of St. John of the Cross. It is especially evident in the Hindu literature and art focusing on the love play of Radha and Krishna, and also in the mystical poetry and romances of the Sufis.”

Ernst’s approach was that of an artist first and foremost. “I wanted to paint a series using the image of a woman longing for her beloved, and instill in the paintings the kind of sensuality and beauty that implies the worldly but hints also at the transcendent. When I finally read the Song of Songs I was struck by the similarity of its mood, if not its content, to some of this other mystical literature. I determined to paint it, emphasizing what I perceive as this common thread of what one could call mystical sensuality.”

The illustrations, influenced by the precious Persian miniaturist style, depict exotic, dark-haired women in various indoor and outdoor settings. “In the midst of the Old Testament that we so associate with the male character of the Patriarchs, the Song is told with a predominately feminine voice,” Ernst notes.

“Although not the first book to offer illustrations of the Song of Song, my book was entirely generated out of my creative visual imagination of the Biblical text.” In fact, she hadn’t originally intended to provide any commentary on the text except for “artists notes” at the end. “My short commentary, which is interspersed throughout between sections of the text and their accompanying paintings, is not a scholarly attempt to historically understand the Song of Songs, but is simply my creative understanding of it as an artist and as a modern woman.”

Her approach to the book stands out in other ways. “I worked with the text, taking it out of chapter and verse and dividing it in the places that made logical and visual sense to me. While its language is very close to that of the King James Bible, nevertheless it is strikingly different in its overall effect and readability.”

So where does Ernst stand on the controversial interpretation of the Song of Songs? “With my paintings and my commentary I assert that the sensual longing so vividly evoked in the Song of Songs is a metaphor for the longing of the soul for union with God. But that sensual longing is also more than metaphor. There is a continuum between human love and longing, with all of its emotional complexity, and that love and longing for the Divine that is more sublime…As David James Duncan says in the introduction to Song of Songs, “To seek and cherish our beloved, as the Song of Songs has it, is to seek and cherish, via our bodies, the art and Artist that give us bodies. . .This is. . .the undying beauty of these poems.”



© Chapel Hill News, 2003