Latest update: November 21st, 2011
One of the most iconic works of art I have ever seen is Japanese painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai’s c. 1831-1834 Cresting Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa. The woodcut—which has held up remarkably well even as it has become an object of kitsch, plastered all over t-shirts, mugs, and posters—depicts an enormous wave (a tsunami perhaps) about to engulf a boat. The wave and foam are rendered in such a stylized manner that they resemble snow and icicles. And in the background, one can just make out the mountain.
A short essay on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (under the banner, “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History”), which refers to the print’s “sheer graphic beauty,” notes the unusual perspective, where the wave dwarfs the mountain. “Hokusai characteristically cast a traditional theme in a novel interpretation,” the timeline states. “In the traditional meisho-e (scene of a famous place), Mount Fuji was always the focus of the composition. Hokusai inventively inverted this formula and positioned a small Mount Fuji within the midst of a thundering seascape.”
Hokusai’s print often pops up in my mind around the holiday of Sukkot, when the prayer over rain (Tefilat Geshem) is recited at the end of the holiday. The prayer, which addresses the angel Af-Bri, who is appointed over the rainclouds, comes to a crescendo in the statements: “For a blessing and not for a curse! For life and not death! For plenty and not dearth!” Therein lies the dual nature of water. It is simultaneously the bearer of all life, and a force that can—and recently has—destroyed in unprecedented ways.
Perhaps the greatest biblical example of the destructive power of water is from the original Flood. English painter John Martin’s Noah Giving Thanks After the Flood shows Noah’s sacrifice in front of a rainbow – the symbol that divine retribution would never again take the form of a flood – that emanates from the ark and calm waters. A waterfall, the symbol of the receding floodwaters, dominates the foreground, while in the background, receding storm clouds dissipate. Martin’s decision to juxtapose the stormy and calm waters underscores how quickly peaceful water can become a nightmare, and how, with Divine help, it can again become harmless.
The Schoken Bible, published in Germany in the 14th century, also juxtaposes good and bad waters. On the bottom of the frontpiece for the book of Genesis, depictions of the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning Egyptians appear on the end of a row of illustrations and the beginning of the next row respectively. As Moshe waves his staff at the Red Sea, two other men—stand-ins for the rest of the Israelites—follow behind him with their hands on his shoulders, hora style. In the next circular frame, the Jews have safely passed through the dry path in the ocean, and the waters have come crashing in on the Egyptians. The Egyptian soldiers drown in the ocean with their feet up in the air. The same waters which proved saviors to some were the undoing of others.
The role of water in Jewish art might be most controversial in the 1740 illustration of Yosef ben David in the so-called Leipnik Haggadah. On the page devoted to the humbling passage about the idolatrous past of the Jewish people, the artist, a Moravian scribe and artist who worked in Hamburg, shows a man bearing an axe (Avraham perhaps?) destroying idols. The idols that lie ruined in the foreground look almost like human carcasses, which is perhaps why some of the idolaters in the background sacrifice to other idols, which they confuse for powerful forces. (There might even be a pope posing on an altar.) But the most provocative element of the work is a bearded man wearing a crown, carrying a trident, and pouring water from a jar that feeds into a series of waterfalls.
Here is a reference to a river god, a visual element that surfaces in countless paintings by both secular and Christian artists, who often clung to pagan iconography and embedded it into religious contexts. At first blush, the river god might be part of the larger group of idols, but upon further inspection, the idols in the foreground are being decimated, while all the idols on the horizon are being worshipped by prostrated figures. The river god stands alone. He doesn’t seem to be destined for destruction, as he appears to be a real figure and not just a stone sculpture.
How this sacrilegious figure found his way into the section devoted to the stain of an idolatrous past is mysterious, but perhaps it has to do with the Prayer for Dew, offered on Pesach. Water plays such an important role in yetziyas Mitzrayim—the central episode of the Pesach narrative—but it also surfaces in the prayer offered for dew, which runs parallel to the rain prayer offered on Sukkot. Perhaps the crowned man who serves as the source of the river is no man at all, but the angel Afh-Bri.
Even with the holiday of Sukkot—with its Simchat Beit HaShoeivah and Prayer for Rain—behind us, it’s still worth pondering the dual nature of water, which can flood or can grow. If examined from the right perspective, even pagan river gods can start looking like angels. And besides, soon enough Pesach will be upon us, so why not get a head start considering the Prayer for Dew, the Red Sea, and the Nile.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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