This review was originally published in the spring 2019 print edition of FORMA Journal.
I suppose that most bookish people share a love for “bedside books,” variously defined. Right next to my side of the bed, there’s poetry (Shakti Chattopadhyay’s Very Close to Pleasure There’s a Sick Cat, for instance, translated from the Bengali and published gorgeously by Seagull Books), collections of short stories by Chekhov, and well-worn paperbacks by John Buchan, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Elizabeth Ferrars, and Andrew Garve, among others. Not to mention a neat stack of the newly translated Maigrets from Penguin Classics (in order of their release) and another stack of Philip K. Dick reissues. There are many more, higgledy-piggledy: Erin Cosgrove’s The Baader-Meinhof Affair cheek-by-jowl with an ancient paperback of Arthur Waley’s biography of the Chinese poet Yuan Mei. But I also have close at hand a different category of bedside reading: books that demand to be read slowly, in small installments—a couple by the philosopher Gillian Rose, for instance. Some books in this category are oversized and can’t be accommodated literally at the bedside but are still easily accessible when I’m ready to settle down for nighttime reading. One that has kept me company of late (and kept me thinking) is David Lyle Jeffrey’s In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western Culture (available now from Eerdmans).
Jeffrey is a scholar who could easily intimidate readers with his erudition: master of many languages, ancient and modern; equally knowledgeable about literature and the visual arts; and intimately familiar, above all, with Scripture. Open his book at random and read a few pages: You’ll be stunned by the sheer range of his learning. And yet, unlike many of his academic peers, he doesn’t employ a style designed to exclude all but a handful of readers fluent in this or that jargon.
His project in this book is of course deeply unfashionable. “Holiness” is in bad odor, even in Christian circles. You may protest. Just the other day, your pastor quoted from A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy. And so on. Well, yes, talk about “holiness” hasn’t entirely disappeared. But since the 1950s, when I was first going to church as a boy, there has been a steady decline in emphasis, especially marked in recent decades. In part, I think, that has to do with the odious, blustering way in which many preachers, evangelists, and popular theologians talked about holiness and the holy. But this can’t be the only explanation.
By contrast, Jeffrey’s sense of holiness is winsome: “A biblical imagination,” he writes, “is tutored to receive all beauty as a gift, a gift with a Giver, and thus to refer it, in forms that are themselves beautiful, back to the source.” In this giving back, “beauty is not lost but magnified, or to use the biblical term, ‘glorified.’ Eventually the whole creation is to share in this metamorphosis: ‘Behold,’ the Master Artist says, ‘I make all things new’ (Rev. 21:5).” Hence this book: “the story of the arts of the holy in Western Christian biblical tradition, and the evolution of ideas and representation of holy beauty over time.” Not at all a general history of art, then, but a sustained meditation on beauty and holiness in this particular tradition. (And three cheers to Eerdmans for giving us a book that is itself beautifully made in every respect, as befits its subject.)
Chapter eight, “Beauty and the Eye of the Beholder,” exemplifies the subtlety of Jeffrey’s reading of the tradition. Here he considers various artists’ depictions of the biblical account of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel, along with commentary on this episode both in Jewish and Christian sources. He notes how the commentators offer “various forms of exculpation of David rather than Bathsheba,” driven in part (among Christian interpreters) by typological readings associating David with Christ but also, we must conclude, by sheer indifference toward Bathsheba. (Jeffrey drily notes that John Calvin “is neither indulgent of David’s sin nor much interested in Bathsheba’s predicament one way or another. For him, distinctively, the illicit liaison is just one more indication that the sovereign purposes of God in salvation history are not dependent on the virtues or vices of any human protagonist.”)
Nevertheless, Jeffrey observes, whereas Catholic artists of the period tended toward “more frankly erotic treatment” of Bathsheba (of which several examples are supplied), “Protestant artistic treatment of this story over the next few decades” was increasingly characterized by “psychological realism,” culminating in Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath (1654). Rembrandt had painted another version of this episode in 1643, but the later rendering, Jeffrey persuasively argues, was a breakthrough:
Rembrandt shows himself to be as uninterested as Rubens in the typical didacticism of Protestant catechisms or the patristic and medieval allegory that served primarily to exculpate David, but for different reasons. . . . Rembrandt considers this story from the viewpoint of the character who in most other treatments is in fact simply a “fair object” or occasion of temptation, and reflects on her as one who suffers indignity, alienation, and loss.
Jeffrey then continues with an extended reading of the painting (including contrasts with Rembrandt’s earlier depiction of the same subject) that is one of the most impressive passages in this impressive book, fleshing out his sense of “the beauty of holiness.” If you want to browse in the book before making a commitment, I suggest that you turn to this chapter.
There are many such treasures in this volume. Most readers will have bones to pick with the author here and there, but I can’t imagine many finishing it and wishing that they’d spent their time otherwise. A particular treat for me came in chapter twelve, “Return of the Transcendentals.” Along with Rouault and Chagall, this chapter takes up a third artist, Arcabas (1926-2018), born Jean-Marie Pirot. (In a footnote, Jeffrey writes, “I am indebted to my daughter, Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, for introducing me to the work of Arcabas during a visit to her and her husband at their home near St. Hughes, France, in 2007.”) I’m sure I won’t be the only reader of In the Beauty of Holiness who closes the book wishing for an invitation to France, where Wendy and I could see firsthand the work of this mysterious yet blessedly ordinary painter, whose story (as briefly recounted here) reads like a fragment from a novel.
The last image in this chapter, “Disappearance,” from a cycle painted by Arcabas in 1992-1994, shows “the open door and starry night right after the communion at Emmaus,” kindling the yearning for holiness that is at the heart of this book:
In his disappearance panel, Arcabas achieves something that neither Caravaggio nor Rembrandt was able to do, simultaneously making the miracle tangible and the mystery participatory. The viewer sees—and feels—the presence as real, all the more so because of Christ’s sudden absence and the scrambled exit of the disciples to look for him in the magnificent starry night.
John Wilson is Contributing Editor for the Englewood Review of Books. His essays and reviews have appeared in Books & Culture, Christianity Today, First Things, Commonweal, The Christian Century, The Weekly Standard, the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and other publications. He and his wife, Wendy, live in Wheaton, Illinois, where they are members of Faith Evangelical Covenant Church.