web analytics
April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance
Sections
Sponsored Post
Spa 1.2 Combining Modern Living in Traditional Jerusalem

A unique and prestigious residential project in now being built in Mekor Haim Street in Jerusalem.



Home » Sections » Arts »

Janet Shafner’s Biblical Women

Share Button

By the Bible’s own admission, the laws and procedures pertaining to the red heifer constitute some of the greatest chukot, or mysteries, of the entire scriptures. PerNumbers 19, an unblemished, never-been-harnessed red heifer, if slaughtered by a priest outside of the camp in the proper way – which includes the following ingredients: a piece of cedar wood, hyssop and crimson wool – can purify someone who has touched something unholy. The great mystery of the red heifer, the para adumah, though, is that the very object that purifies the ritually unclean also makes all the priests who come in contact with it unclean. It is the original double-edged sword.


Although the red heifer ought to be a gold mine for artistic inspiration – Chagall could have found a way to render it green – it has been represented surprisingly few times. There is an illustration in a 15th century Bible in the collection of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague by the so-called Alexander Master (French) titled “Eleazar sprinkles the unclean with hyssop,” but other depictions of the scene are hard to come by. That’s one reason why Janet Shafner’s Hukkat is so special – simply because it exists. But it does more than just that.

 

 


Hukkat. Oil on cowhide parchment. 19″ x 27″. 2008

 


The rectangular painting, which appropriately is on cowhide parchment, is split in half, with each of the two central figures – Miriam and a red heifer – circumscribed in a triangle. Miriam’s triangle resembles a shower, as water pours over her, cascading like a waterfall over a platter she carries in her hands. While Miriam’s triangle is cold and wet, the cow’s triangle is aflame. In between the smoldering and freezing figures is a red serpent, which seems to be affixed to a pole of some sort.


According to the artist’s website, the work is based on the Torah portion by the same name, Chukat, which outlines not only the ritual of the red heifer, but also the death of Miriam and the subsequent disappearance of her well, which helped hydrate the Israelites in the desert. The biblical passage also explains the serpent, which, rather than being an Edenic reference, depicts the copper serpent Moshe placed on a stick to direct the eyes (and prayers) of the Israelites, who were bitten by snakes, heavenward.

 

 


“The Daughters of Zelophehad.” Oil on canvas.

Three panels, 48″ x 84″. 2006

 


Writing in the catalog for a memorial exhibit of Shafner’s work (the artist passed away Aug. 2 of this year) scheduled to open at the Hebrew Union College Museum on Sept. 14, Richard McBee notes that two other subjects of Shafner’s – Serach the daughter of Asher and the daughters of Tzelofchad – are often neglected subjects. “As far as I am aware, neither Serach nor the daughters have ever been seriously depicted in the history of Western Art,” McBee writes. “That is because for most artists, Christian and Jewish alike, many Biblical women are invisible even though they are textually present for all to see. Shafner’s work opens our eyes.”


Although the Alexander Master’s repertoire includes a miniature, “Moses is petitioned by the daughters of Zelophehad” (also at The Hague), McBee is definitely on to something. Shafner’s work focuses on the women of the Bible, whom McBee notes are alleged to be easy to miss, though in reality rabbinic commentaries actually prop them up as some of the most important figures in the Bible. “For the last 20 years, Janet Shafner’s paintings have critically explored the role of Biblical women, finding their stories to be at the very core of Biblical creativity,” McBee writes. “Under her scathing gaze and forceful brush they are revealed to be no less than the dynamic engines of Jewish history and destiny.”

 

 


The Wise Woman of Tekoa/The Death of Absalom.

Oil on canvas. 60″ x 56″

 


McBee doesn’t address the work in his essay, but though Avshalom dangles from a tree by his hair in The Wise Woman of Tekoa/The Death of Absalom, he and his donkey blend into the background, whereas the wise woman stands out as the most arresting visual element.
Strictly speaking, 2 Samuel 14 refers to simply a woman of Tekoa (not a wise one) who outsmarts David with a parable, but unlike Natan, who accomplishes the same feat, the Tekoan woman is fed her narrative by Yoav. In the literal sense, the woman of Tekoa plays the same role as Bilaam does when God puts a bit in his mouth and turns his curses into blessings. To Shafner, though, the woman is not only wise, she also seems to drive the narrative. With a cloak over her head, the wise woman looks down on the tragic scene below. The tree covered with Avshalom’s blood also evokes a burning bush – in which case the wise woman is playing the divine role – as well as a body, with the tree branches becoming nerves and the wise woman cast as the brain.


The content of the work, which shows Avshalom after Yoav has assassinated him (seeming poetic justice for the rebel, who has narcissistically let his hair grow long and now suffers the consequence of that vanity), is grim, aided by the inscription Shafner painted into the background, but the wise woman resists pigeonholing as an agent of evil. One cannot deny Shafner’s vision wherein this woman has played a major role in the development of the plot – the woman gets the better part of a chapter in 2 Samuel, far more than the daughters of Tzelofchad receive – but she also looks like she is mourning the very eventuality she helped orchestrate.

 

 


Detail of “‘May You Live Forever’: The Assumption of Serach Bat Asher.”

Oil on canvas. 50″ x 50″. 2010

 


The wise woman is also frozen in just the right pose to complicate whether she is in the process of shielding herself and covering herself up with her cloak, or whether she is removing the cloak to reveal herself. At the risk of being reductionist, that’s not a bad pose for depicting biblical women, who might not have been the kinds of public heroes that Pinchas and Yehoshua were when they led the Israelites in battle, but who acted privately to help shape the unfolding of history. (Think Yael and Sisra.)


McBee put it best: “It is as if we had never really understood their role in our understanding of Jewish texts, but now we can’t take our eyes and minds away from their determination, courage and creativity.”

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Share Button

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

No Responses to “Janet Shafner’s Biblical Women”

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
The interior of the El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba, Tunisia, in 2009.
Tunisian Jew Stabbed in Djerba
Latest Sections Stories
Tali Hill, a beneficiary of the Max Factor Family Foundation.

The plan’s goal is to provide supportive housing to 200 individuals with disabilities by the year 2020.

Yeshiva Day School of Las Vegas’s deans, Rabbi Moshe Katz and Rabbi Zev Goldman, present award to Educator of the Year, Rabbi Michoel Paris.

Despite being one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in the U.S. – the estimated Jewish population is 70-80,000 – Las Vegas has long been overlooked by much of the Torah world.

She was followed by the shadows of the Six Million, by the ever so subtle awareness of their vanished presence.

Pesach is so liberating (if you excuse the expression). It’s the only time I can eat anywhere in the house, guilt free! Matzah in bed!

Now all the pain, fear and struggle were over and they were home. Yuli was safe and free, a hero returned to his land and people.

While it would seem from his question that he is being chuzpadik and dismissive, I wonder if its possible, if just maybe, he is a struggling, confused neshama who actually wants to come back to the fold.

I agree with the letter writer that a shadchan should respectfully and graciously accept a negative response to a shidduch offer.

Alternative assessments are an extremely important part of understanding what students know beyond the scope of tests and quizzes.

Your husband seems to have experienced what we have described as the Ambivalent Attachment.

The goal of the crusade is to demonize and hurt Israel.

The JUMP program at Hebrew Academy was generously sponsored by Evelyn and Dr. Shmuel Katz.

More Articles from Menachem Wecker
Menachem Wecker

The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”

Weck-051812

It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)

Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.

The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?

Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.

    Latest Poll

    Now that Kerry's "Peace Talks" are apparently over, are you...?







    View Results

    Loading ... Loading ...

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/janet-shafners-biblical-women-2/2011/08/24/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: