Old City Jewish Art Center presents ‘Painting the Poetry of the Bible’

Celebrating the bounty

The Bible continues to be a wellspring of inspiration. Its passages reflect the times and traditions of its authors, its psalms express universal emotions, and its parables remain cultural touchstones. These elements, in addition to the book’s deep spiritual significance, imbue the Bible with transcendent meaning, irrespective of what — or even whether — one believes. 

Detail from Rhoda Ryba's 'Tree of Life.' (Photo courtesy of Old City Jewish Art Center.)

For centuries, visual artists have mined the Bible. Painting the Poetry of the Bible, on view this month at Old City Jewish Art Center (OCJAC), brings together the religious and artistic traditions of the holy book in an exhibition organized around the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

Collages evoke scripture

The show is dominated by Rhoda Ryba’s mixed-media collages, which are all abstract interpretations of Biblical passages. Though the words are incorporated into Ryba’s designs, they don’t dominate, winding softly through her bold graphics.

Tree of Life illustrates a line from Proverbs 3: “Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who grasp her and whoever holds on to her is happy.” The tree represents the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism’s central text; it spreads across the right side of the canvas. Layered patterns of chocolate brown, white, and turquoise suggest the textures of home: lace, fabric, wallpaper.

Tears in a Flask comes from Psalm 56, possibly authored in captivity by King David: “Put my tears in a flask, are they not in your book?” Acknowledging that suffering is part of every life, believers take solace that God knows their sorrows and does not abandon them. Ryba’s lovely visual representation slits the canvas and weaves materials into a torrent of blues and silvers, forming a waterfall of tears cascading into a vessel.

Ilya Lerner's 'August Hit Parade.' (Photo courtesy of Old City Jewish Art Center.)
Ilya Lerner's 'August Hit Parade.' (Photo courtesy of Old City Jewish Art Center.)

A hopeful sentiment from Lamentations is depicted in Lifting Our Hearts: “Let us lift our hearts with our hands to Heaven.” The stratified landscape centers on the tree of life; in the background is a great mountain. At the bottom of the canvas, outstretched hands offer up red orbs, hearts as luscious as apples. The hands reach toward the mountaintop, where a gleaming alabaster city awaits.

Celebrating Shavuot

Shavuot, which occurs 50 days after Passover, is the overarching theme of the OCJAC exhibit. The holiday is rooted in the idea of spiritual and corporeal sustenance, recalling God’s gift of the Torah to the Jewish people and signaling the spring harvest. During Shavuot, Jews celebrate their ancestors’ reception of the holy word and the first fruits of the season.

To complement Ryba’s depiction of scriptural sustenance, the exhibition includes work by other artists, most notably Ilya Lerner, who vividly illuminates the nourishment nature provides. His August Hit Parade features a table filled with mouth-watering fruit, while Neighbors shows a garden overflowing with flowers. Lerner’s rich colors almost make it possible to taste the apple sitting on the table or smell the weighty lilac bending toward the lane.

Painting the Poetry of the Bible reminds us of the gifts we have been given without asking and asks us to appreciate the nourishment we draw from them. 

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