Ear­li­er this week, Debra Band shared the back sto­ry behind Arise! Arise! She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

These tales of Deb­o­rah, Ruth and Han­nah are won­der­ful sto­ries, full of vivid char­ac­ters and human dra­ma — a plea­sure for all of us to read them and for me to make (and share with you) pic­tures express­ing them. But these are more than great sto­ries; they embody our nation­al mores, and those mores are why they were includ­ed in our great record of our folk his­to­ry, beliefs and laws, the Hebrew Bible. The chal­lenge of express­ing these mores is my moti­va­tion in com­pos­ing the pic­tures. So, how do I go about express­ing these ideas in my art?

Through­out our his­to­ry, we have sought to find the roots of our val­ues, laws and lifestyle in our bib­li­cal texts, the sto­ries of the cre­ation and growth of the nation of Israel. Cen­turies of rab­binic efforts at deriv­ing ratio­nales for Jew­ish life and law from Bib­li­cal text result­ed in the bod­ies of law called the Mish­nah (by about 220 CE) and the Baby­lon­ian and Jerusalem Tal­muds (about 500 CE). But all this ana­lyt­ic ener­gy result­ed in kinds of thought and writ­ings oth­er than straight legal codes alone. Inter­spersed among the legal writ­ing, the halakhah, the Tal­mud includes aggadah, sto­ry­telling expan­sions upon bib­li­cal text or oth­er relat­ed tales meant to elu­ci­date points of law and oth­er relat­ed Jew­ish cus­toms and val­ues. These sto­ry-telling por­tions of the Tal­mud, which by the 11th cen­tu­ry were com­piled in col­lec­tions of such aggadah, along with a host of oth­er kinds rab­binic leg­ends devel­oped over cen­turies before and ever since, com­prise the vast body of midrash. Much of the midrashic lit­er­a­ture was either designed for, or even­tu­al­ly used to inspire homilet­ics (syn­a­gogue ser­mons), and so midrash became the source for many of our best-loved folk­tales.

Now, as I said above, one of the real­ly won­der­ful chal­lenges in my visu­al inter­pre­ta­tions of bib­li­cal texts (or cou­ples’ rela­tion­ships in ketubot, for that mat­ter) is to dig out and express the larg­er com­plex­es of val­ues that we have derived from, or read into these sto­ries. As you can guess, the midrash pro­vides a splen­did source of ideas and images (the lat­ter often uti­liz­ing archae­ol­o­gy of the era I’m work­ing with) to express these con­stel­la­tions of ideas. Arise! Arise! draws upon many dif­fer­ent kinds of midrash to express the reli­gious moral and legal, and nation­al val­ues embed­ded in these very human sto­ries. But I like my paint­ings to make some kind of nar­ra­tive sense, not just assem­blages of dis­em­bod­ied, out-of-con­text sym­bols.” In my own method of com­pos­ing scenes that both make sense and express high­er ideas, my teach­ers have been the mas­ters of late medieval Flem­ish paint­ing – I explain this in my intro­duc­tion to the book. Now, since I’m draw­ing upon sources that are often unfa­mil­iar to the gen­er­al­ly edu­cat­ed read­er and I want you to be able to under­stand the paint­ings, I include com­men­tary for each paint­ing. I’ll talk more about the com­plex of val­ues expressed in Arise! Arise! in my next post. And so, my work is often described as visu­al midrash.”

Let’s look at just a few ele­ments of the visu­al midrash in the first paint­ing of the Han­nah sto­ry. Samuel I begins with this sto­ry of a beau­ti­ful, grace­ful woman who is deeply loved by her hus­band, but who feels humil­i­at­ed and depressed by her inabil­i­ty to give birth; the baby who answers her prayers grows up to be the prophet, Samuel. Here you see Han­nah locked in a bub­ble of her own acidic depres­sion, unable to per­ceive her husband’s lov­ing atten­tion, unable to par­tic­i­pate in the flour­ish­ing house­hold filled with the pres­ence of her husband’s sec­ond wife’s chil­dren. Through­out Arise! Arise! I employ the kab­bal­is­tic idea of the pri­mor­dial ves­sel, here shown as the clay stor­age jars that were plas­tic bags of the era, to act as some­thing of a barom­e­ter for the community’s sense of well-being. Out­side of Hannah’s green bub­ble, the upright, brim­ming jars sym­bol­ize the whole­ness and health of her husband’s sec­ond wife’s fam­i­ly; pierc­ing her depres­sion, bro­ken clay pot­sherds express her pain. You’ll see two olive trees in the illu­mi­na­tion here. Now, midrash has Penin­nah, the junior wife, com­par­ing her­self and her chil­dren to a full, leafy, fruit-filled olive tree, Han­nah to a dry, leaf­less, fruit­less one, while midrash on Psalm 128 com­pares chil­dren to the shoots that spring from an olive trees roots; I use both of these midrashim to express Hannah’s sit­u­a­tion. The eagle feath­ers sur­round­ing the paint­ing draw upon midrash from Exo­dus that com­pares God to the eagle, the per­fect par­ent of the avian king­dom, to remind us divine prov­i­dence will come to Hannah’s aid. The com­men­tary mate­ri­als in the book lay out the sym­bol­ism with­in this, and every oth­er paint­ing in the book.

Next, we’ll talk about the val­ues embod­ied in these sto­ries, which have shaped the Jew­ish nation­al char­ac­ter ever after.

Vis­it Deb­o­rah Band’s offi­cial web­site here.

Debra Band draws upon her love of both the man­u­script arts and Jew­ish text and tra­di­tion in her Hebrew illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts. She is the author and illu­mi­na­tor of many beloved books com­bin­ing art and schol­ar­ship, each a col­lab­o­ra­tion with cel­e­brat­ed schol­ars. Debra’s work is col­lect­ed and exhib­it­ed across the world. She lives in Potomac, Mary­land sur­round­ed by fam­i­ly and menagerie.