Sunday, February 5, 2012

Nothing new under the sun and moon

William Blake, Job's Evil Dreams
Plate 11, Illustrations to the Book of Job
British, Watercolor, 1805-1810
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
Job spoke, saying:
Is not man's life on earth a drudgery?
Are not his days those of hirelings?
He is a slave who longs for the shade,
a hireling who waits for his wages.
So I have been assigned months of misery,
and troubled nights have been allotted to me.
If in bed I say, "When shall I arise?"
then the night drags on;
I am filled with restlessness until the dawn.
My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle;
they come to an end without hope.
Remember that my life is like the wind;
I shall not see happiness again.
Job 7:1-4, 6-7  (First Reading, Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

The first reading from the Mass for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B should remind us that illness, job stress and nighttime worry is nothing new. And don’t our days frequently feel like this?

This passage also brings to mind an image, taken from some verses further on in the same chapter of Job (Job 7:13-15), from William Blake’s  Illustrations to the Book of Job, issued first as a series of watercolors for his patron, Thomas Butts.  They were later engraved  and published in 1826. Called "Job's Evil Dreams" it well illustrates the sometimes terrifying world of the nightmare. Job lies on his bed, surrounded by flames and tormented by Satan (identified by his cloven foot) and other demons. They press upon him from above and reach up to bind him in chains from below. Truly, they are visions that terrify.

When I say, "My bed shall comfort me,my couch shall ease my complaint,"
Then you affright me with dreams and with visions terrify me,
So that I should prefer choking and death rather than my pains.
Job 7:13-15

William Blake, Job's Evil Dreams
from Illustrations of the Book of Job
British, 1826
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

However, Blake’s image and our own reactions are not the only responses possible to Job’s situation. Indeed, they come very late in the history of Christian interpretations of the Book of Job.

Story of Job from Gerard des Moulins, Bible historiale
France, St. Omer, mid 14th century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 152, fol. 234
Here we can see the entire story (more or less), from the intial conversation between God and Satan, to the destruction of Job's flocks to the death of his children, his harrassing friends and his final restoration.

The Old or Jewish Testament was embraced by Christians from the very beginning. St. Paul’s letters are filled with references from the Jewish Scriptures, and the slightly later canonical Gospels make constant references to them, in quotes used by Jesus, in subtle allusions to situations and events that reflect back to the Scriptures.

 In the Middle Ages and subsequent periods artists had what might be called an external vision of Job’s trials. Images detailed the destruction of his possessions and his family, his torments (often personifying Satan as the agent of them), his conversations with his “friends”.
Job Admonished By His Friends and His Wife
from Gerard des Moulins, Bible historiale
France, Paris, early 15th century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 3, fol. 255
An interesting feature of the images I located in my search is that, in the main, they come not from Latin language texts (i.e., from illustrations of the Vulgate, works of the Fathers [for instance the Moralia in Job of St. Gregory the Great] or from Books of Hours), but from books written in the vernacular languages of Europe or popular picture books such as illustrated Bibles or the Speculum humanae salvationis, that is from books available to and read by literate lay persons.

Job Tormented By Satan, By His Wife and By Boils
from Speculum humanae salvationis
France, mid-15th century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 188, fol. 25

Georges de la Tour, Job Mocked By His Wife
French, 1630s
Epinal, Musee departmentale des Vosges

A favorite image was of Job being nagged by his wife. This last is from the same strain of “comic relief” that saw other Biblical nagging wives feature in medieval mystery and morality plays. Mrs. Noah, Mrs. Lot and Mrs. Job were popular characters, their assaults on their husbands moments of fun for the audience.

For these time periods Job was the symbol of patience, of trials patiently endured. He became the model for Everyman.

Maitre de Lucon and Collaborators, Allegory of Patience
from Jacques Legrand, Livre des bons meurs
France, Paris, ca. 1410
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 1023, fol. 15v
In this image a harried mother or nursemaid receives inspiration from the patience of Job as he lies on his dunghill.  (The obviously wriggling children are another reminder that not much actually changes in everyday human life.)
It was only later, during the Romantic period, with its emphasis on the interior emotions and the self, that such a work as Blake’s could have appeared. Although the words of the Biblical text were always there and always available for illustration, they were only looked at when such emotions became attractive to artists and to the public.

© M. Duffy, 2012