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The Bible in the Arts

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Aslan from Narnia: Representing Jesus - Sam Stearman

Stories, images, morals, parables and history from the Holy Bible have long inspired artists of every description to portray the great sweep of our fallible human life.

Because so much of the Bible is made up of narrative, solid story-telling, it is natural that its influences will find their ways into a range of literature down the years. On one level they are moral tales, history recorded, parables for living; on another they are the spoken word of the creator God and his plans for redemption. This is the stuff of fiction writing, too.

The Bible in Literature

CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are a version of the message at the heart of the Christian story. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan the Lion is Jesus who dies in order that another (Edmund) may live and escape punishment. This one has made it onto the stage as a play, several TV versions and a film, proving that good yarns with unusual features of adventure, secret worlds and great battles, still appeal widely.

The Hobbit and Lords of the Ring works by JRR Tolkien are steeped in the effect of Roman Catholicism on him. It is not possible to separate the man, his faith, his writings and his dealing of issues like virtue, free will, creation and sacrifice.

However, while there are Christian novels that put Biblical chapters into different contexts, others use Biblical themes without acknowledging the debt to the Bible. Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Jeffery Archer’s Kane and Abel are not the only novels to use the Cain-Abel and/or prodigal son stories.

From the Herculean tasks of building Soloman’s temple or the Ark; the battle of the small David against the mighty Goliath; to the stories of men’s and women’s betrayals are common themes in literature. Eve’s seducing Adam to eat of the Tree of Knowledge; Delilah cutting the hair that symbolises Samson’s strength while he slept; Salome and John the Baptist’s head; Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son; to the trials of Moses in the desert for forty years after escaping from Egypt, all are inspirational themes strongly bound up in human life, human frailty, human treachery.

There is a genre of fiction that uses Christian-themes and quasi-religion as inspiration, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003) and The Lost Symbol (2009) that is appealing and commercially successful, especially when translated into movies.

Sometimes the Bible can be such a magnet, that writers from other genres are drawn to it. Orson Scott Card, a successful science fiction author, has also written Women of Genesis, telling the Biblical accounts of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah as if they are novels. His mastery of storylining and plot bring the ancient women and their lives to a new reality.

The Bible in Art Works

Giotto’s Judas Betrays Christ, or The Pact of Judas, painted in the Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy between 1304-06, is from Mark’s Gospel 14:10. For thirty pieces of silver, Judas betrays Christ. Judas is in yellow, the colour of jealousy in those days.

Hieronymous Bosch, medieval Dutch painter lived in times when fear of the plague stalked Europe, so his work echoes death fear, horror, the power of sin and the devil and catastrophe. He was a devout man, and his work (25 paintings and 8 drawings) is entirely based on Biblical symbolism.

Ecce Homo (John 19:5); Garden of Earthly Delight, fountain, creation, Hell (Genesis 6:2, 1:10, 2:25, 3.6; Numbers 16:33; Revelation 19:21) and The Adoration of the Magi (Matthew 2:11) are famous masterpieces unashamedly illustrating the teachings of the Bible.

The Bible in the Theatre

In the book and the play, The Hiding Place, the Ten Boom family’s heroic hiding of Jews in their clock shop during the Nazi occupation of Holland, truth shines out alongside passion, Christian compassion, love and family values. This play is layered with praising God in all circumstances, despite it being “evil’s hour”, and for the woman after all she had suffered to be able to embrace a former guard from a concentration camp at the finale and say: “I forgive you with all my heart”, is moving and gets the (Christian) message across.

The Passion Play performed in Oberammergau once every ten years by villagers, began in 1633 and has become an enduring expression of Christian faith and a unique theatrical experience, drawing thousands from around the world. Medieval mystery plays did the same thing, and are occasionally revived, including one in Zulu and English telling the story of the death of Jesus.

Whether a story is sung, painted, written as a book or acted on stage or made into a movie, it’s the Bible that still ranks as the greatest source of inspiration of all time, because it is the story of mankind.

First published on Suite 101, 26 March 2010.

Photo: Aslan from Narnia: Representing Jesus – Sam Stearman

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