October 17, 2018
The Song of Songs or Song of Solomon: “For thy love is better than wine...”
THE BELOVED (‘THE BRIDE’)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Tate Britain, London
In order to clearly identify the subject of this painting, Rosetti inscribed a few words on its gilded frame: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (Song of Solomon 2:16) and “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine” (1:2) The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is one of the most beautiful love songs in world literature. It celebrates a couple who meet, lose, search for and finally find each other. It is the most ‘profane’ book of the Old Testament. The Songs are rooted in the oral tradition of Ancient Egypt; in both form and content, they are very close to the erotic poetry of the Middle Empire (around the 10th century BC). Some think that the verses made up part of a lost marriage tradition, and were brought to Israel during the reign of Solomon. The Songs were compiled and put into writing in the 6th century BC. They appeared among the Hebrew texts of the Library of Alexandria, translated into Greek and regrouped under the title of the Septuagint. Despite their beauty, the texts met with reticence from scholars charged with Biblical canon because of their manifest sensuality and profane origin. It was not until the 1st century AD that the Song of Songs was accepted as a canon Biblical text.
Marc Chagall, 1960 - Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France / 2
1/ For Gustav Moreau, drunkenness (and not love-drunkenness) is the predominant theme. He chose to illustrate a less well-known episode of the Song of Songs – that of the rape of the Shulammite maiden (an inhabitant of Sulam in Galilee) by drunken soldiers. Imprisoned in a harem, the Sulamite dreams of her beloved. When she tries to reach him under cover of darkness, she is attacked by drunken soldiers who tear off her clothes: "The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me" (Song of Solomon 5: 7).
2 and 3/ From 1955 to 1966, Chagall painted a series of five canvases which dealt with the ardent love of an engaged couple. He numbered the paintings clearly in order to show their visual and thematic evolution. The five canvases go further and further in their exploration of the mysteries of this love, whose origin is found in God. However, Chagall arranged for the canvases to be hung anticlockwise in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nice. This was intended to communicate the idea that love is not subject to linear time – it escapes from it and vanishes into eternity.
Bible text, Old Testament, Poetic Books, Song of Solomon
"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee. Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee (Song of Solomon 1: 2-4)... "He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love (2: 4)... "How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices! (4:10)... "I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved! " (5:1)... "Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies." (7: 2)... "This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes. I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples; And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak..." (7: 7-10).
In the Bible texts above, love is greater than wine, and the joy of sex goes far beyond the euphoria of drunkenness. The vine in the Song of Songs is a well-chosen metaphor for the ‘beloved’s’ sexuality. The vine is the source of wine, just as the body of one lover is a source of pleasure for the other. It is in a vineyard that the speaker wishes to give herself to her lover. If the vineyard is to produce fruit for its owner, it must – as the verse says – guard it well. The vineyard is encircled by a wall and all around it are watchtowers.