Story of Job inspires artists for centuries

Exhibit: About 50 representations of Job have been gathered for `The Sweet Uses of Adversity: Images of the Biblical Job' at the Mitchell Gallery.


August 22, 2002|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In his best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner called the Book of Job "the greatest, fullest, most profound discussion of the subject of good people suffering ever written."

For 2,500 years, this story of the man whose unshakable faith was tested by a frightful succession of undeserved evils has provoked much commentary, as well as hundreds of novels, poems and plays.

Artists, too, have been inspired by the story, which is the idea behind The Sweet Uses of Adversity: Images of the Biblical Job, an exhibit at the Mitchell Gallery on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis that includes some 50 representations of the protagonist culled from 10 museums and two private collections.

Curated by Lucinda Edinberg, the Mitchell's creative art teacher-in-residence, and Stephen Vicchio, a philosophy professor at Baltimore's College of Notre Dame, the exhibit features prints, drawings, paintings and sculptures ranging from a 13th-century Byzantine Psalter to paintings by 20th-century social realist Ben Shahn.

Also included are works by the likes of Augustin Hirschvogel, Maerten van Heemskerck, Giuseppe Mitelli, Lucas Vorsterman, William Blake and Fritz Eichenberg.

What becomes clear in this unique exhibit is that the story of Job became something of an inkblot to artists and thinkers of different eras.

Job clearly resonated with medieval man, whose short life-span and exposure to violent political despotism made physical and emotional suffering a way of life.

When the Black Death - the bubonic plague - clobbered Europe with astounding force in the 14th century, people related even more to Job's afflictions, as boils, sores and the deaths of children became part of everyone's experience.

An illumination from the Book of Hours of 1400 hints at the association early Renaissance artists made between Job and Jesus, the pre-eminent soul without blemish who also knew suffering not of his own making.

To Renaissance artists who sought to celebrate man's rational side, Job sometimes became a metaphor for patience under duress, as in an etched image by Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574) that shows Job mounted on a turtle.

Jumping ahead to the 20th century, the post-World War II existentialists, who saw life as an exercise in solitary suffering, had no trouble crafting a Job to confirm their depressing vision of the futility of it all.

Perhaps the most provocative piece of all is Michael Whelan's evocation of the Job story as a "Comedy of Justice" in which the human figure is surrounded by a whirling vortex of contemporary gadgets and knick-knacks. Modern suffering, perhaps, is as likely to emanate from too much as from too little.

Unifying the exhibit is the theme that the Book of Job inspired such great and varied art. "There is nothing written in the Bible or out of it of equal literary merit," wrote Thomas Carlyle.

To that proposition, the pieces of this fascinating exhibit respond in chorus with a deeply felt "Amen."

A reception and family program for The Sweet Uses of Adversity will be held from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 22. Edinberg, co-curator of the exhibit, will lead a 30-minute tour of the collection followed by a workshop for children. All Mitchell Gallery enrichment activities are free and open to the public, though reservations are suggested. Call the gallery at 410- 626-2556.

"The Sweet Uses of Adversity: Images of the Biblical Job" will be on display at the Mitchell Gallery, 60 College Ave. on the campus of St. John's College, through Nov. 2. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. and Friday 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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