By Sheila Wickouski

Tintoretto’s “The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon”; Courtesy of The Bible Museum

Picture Books of the Past: Reading an Old Master Painting at the Museum of the Bible offers a look at what is behind the art. This stunning collection of 64  European masterworks from between the 14th and 19th centuries were created in a time when few were literate. The exhibit unfolds in a series of steps how the artists used a shared visual language of icons or “image writing.”

A detailed wall text gives the key clues to understanding the images, colors, and figures. An eagle representing “soaring inspiration” and an assortment of books, inkwell, and quill are tools of St. John the Evangelist. A dragon lurking under the sleeve of another saint is the devil. The significance of color also permeates throughout with red for love, blue for the heavens, white for purity and innocence, and green representing spring and the triumph of life.

Entering the Character’s World takes the viewer through fantastic locations, dramatic lighting, and character grouping to reveal both stories and meaning in these religious themed works. The exhibit then folds into Exploring Symbols, Allegories, and Allusions.  

Details of objects and placement of figures allow for viewing these works on several levels. A notable example is Gherardo delle Notti’s The Holy Family in the Carpenter Shop, in which light shines on the figures in the darkness. In this story, which is not in the Bible, the holy family is represented without halos or symbols, but as ordinary people at work. Here, the symbol of light, created by painterly technique, represents the holiness of the figures.

For those who want more of what was recently an exhibit at the National Gallery on Tintoretto, there is The Visit to the Queen of Sheba to Solomon. Idea of Wisdom, a rare work byTintoretto’s daughter, Tintoretta, is also on display. Filled with symbols, Tintoretta’s piece shows the head of Wisdom with the wings of Mercury, the messenger of the Roman gods, and a miter, the official headdress of Jewish high priests and Western bishops, at her feet. Her hand subdues a serpent representing the devil while books represent the pursuit of knowledge.  

These Old Master Paintings are on loan from the Museum & Gallery at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolinauntil Sept. 30 of next year. The experience, however, is a permanent take away.

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