The Bible as Floral Pattern

Bijbelsmuseum by Vera Bartels

By John Boy. The Bijbels Museum, a museum dedicated to the Bible founded in 1852, is located along the Herengracht in the center of Amsterdam. Finding myself with a few free hours one afternoon during a recent stay in the Dutch capital, I decided to tour the museum, notebook in hand. Wikipedia encumbered me with the knowledge that the museum’s public funding was subject to debate several years ago because “it has not done enough to attract a more diverse (i.e., non-denominational) audience”—and by non-denominational, this Wikipedia author evidently means people with no denominational affiliation. How does the museum present the Bible in a city known for its museums, especially its splendid art museums? And, more importantly, how does it cater to an audience that may not hold the Bible in special esteem?

The answer apparently is to display lots of flowers, or at least it was at the time of my visit. The main exhibit on display in the Bijbels Museum was “Belief in Nature: Flowers with a Message.” We are in the land of tulips and hothouses, after all. So while the publisher of the postwar British publication The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature broadened the appeal of the Bible by presenting it as beautifully typeset literature, the Bijbels Museum seeks to do so by presenting the Bible as floral pattern. That’s a very unfair characterization, but a worthwhile comparison. As Talal Asad writes, “the way people engage with such complex and multifaceted texts [such as the Bible], translating their sense and relevance, is a complicated business involving disciplines and traditions of reading, personal habit, and temperament, as well as the perceived demands of particular social situations.” In the case of “the Bible as literature,” that complicated business had to do with the emergence of literature qua imaginative writing in the long eighteenth century. What complicated business is going on in the Bijbels Museum? How does it manage to translate the “sense and relevance” of the Bible in the pluralistic, secular-liberal setting of Holland?

What’s the story, morning glory?

The first room of the Belief in Nature exhibition I walked through was presented in collaboration with the photography museum Foam. I should point out that, despite a short video introduction in the entry hall, at this point it is still not clear to the first-time visitor why there is an exhibition about flowers in a museum dedicated to the Bible. But if they’ve come this far and paid ten euros to do so, of course they’ll want to find out. The contemporary photographers whose work is featured in this room have an interesting take on the classical still-life form, popular among Dutch and other European painters since the Renaissance. In one of the photographs, the one most striking to me, the photographer used pantyhose to keep the composition of fruits in place. As the audio guide told me, the thin layer of pantyhose could look like mold covering the fruit, calling attention to the fact that it will eventually decay. Thus, although the material was introduced into the composition to fix things in place, it actually makes apparent an ineluctable process taking place in time. Alternately, the audio guide offers an art critic’s view that the material gives the work an erotic dimension (I believe the word “horny” was used). Not a wayward opinion, given how both fruit and undergarments are coded.

The photography room fulfills at least two important didactic functions. It introduces the museum visitor to the idea of hidden symbolism in the still-life genre, suggesting that the artwork on display stands in a semiotic relationship to the Bible. The visitor is implicitly instructed to start searching for signs, and for the purposes of their interpretation, a handy guide is provided. The instructions in the little booklet read: “Use this alphabetical list of flowers to find the symbolic meaning of many of the flowers and creatures featured in this exhibition.” The room also introduces the topic of transience, which is alluded to in commentary throughout the exhibit.

Up the creaking stairs, the exhibition featured more still-lifes, now classical ones in tempera or oil paint. Interestingly, the guest curator for the exhibition is a biologist who, in an impressive interdisciplinary undertaking, has catalogued many thousands of still-lifes, and the selection of paintings on display, thirteen in number, all feature some kind of biblical symbolism.

The first painting I looked at more closely shows a laid table, the objects on which allude to various biblical passages. An apple evokes the Garden of Eden; wine and bread stand for the last supper. A butterfly that appears to have just landed on the table introduces a lively element to the composition, and the audio guide says it’s also there to mark the importance of “spiritual values.” The guide also points out that a broken glass on the table calls to mind the transience of life. I started noticing an underlying pedagogy that seems to have informed the curation, instructing the visitor to make sense of material in a certain way. Perhaps we can call it secular exegesis. It is not a heavy-handed or even fully formed, but even so, it is evident enough. In a way, then, the exhibition is not unlike the emblem books featured in another section of the exhibition. These little books, produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, combine depictions of plants and other things found in nature with instructional or devotional texts, often taken from the Bible. In place of such passages, the exhibition provides the booklet explaining flower symbolism, the audio guide, and various explanatory texts affixed to walls or printed on cards. If the exhibition is about flowers with a message, an awful lot of the message is not being conveyed by the flowers themselves, but by these curatorial interventions.

In the next section of the exhibition I lingered in front of an eighteenth-century painting by Jan van Huysum, Flowers in a Terracotta Vase Showing the Sermon on the Mount. The vase depicted in the painting features a passage of the gospel that always reminds me of Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy:

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28-29, NRSV)

An explanation for the visitor is right at hand, this time not from the audio guide, but a card placed beneath the picture: “The message is that there is no point in acquiring worldly riches; they all perish in the end. Far better to acquire treasure in Heaven, the treasures of the heart. God gives nature and mankind everything necessary, let man be like the lilies of the field, in their simplicity and unquestioning trust. Those who search for the kingdom of God and desire his justice [having looked at fruit for over an hour at this point, I read ‘juices’] will receive whatever they need (St Matthew 6:19-34).” Something about this gave me pause. Not just the strange translation of “treasure in Heaven” as “treasures of the heart” or the anthropomorphizing characterization of naively trusting lilies or the sexist language. The whole way the passage is set up as a bummer from a this-worldly perspective seemed strange: “they all perish in the end.” Here I was, enjoying the marvelous fruits of this-worldly inspiration, the mystical qualities of an art that appreciates nature and the material world in all its glory as a vessel of the divine, and all the exhibition wants me to see are signs that all of this will pass, that in the last instance all this is oblivion. Secular exegesis, in trying to find an adequate translation of biblical material, returns to a schema that appears to derive from an austere, dualistic theology.

Suddenly, as I was considering the lilies and had all these thoughts running through my mind, for the first time since I first read them years ago in Hegel’s preface to his Philosophy of Right, these strange words made sense to me:

Hic rhodus, hic saltus—Here is the rose, dance here!

Perhaps Hegel should have taken even more license in his translation: Here are the lilies, dwell among them! The line proves that even the “mature” Hegel of the Philosophy of Right still had a bit of the mystic in him, something of the author of the youthful “theological” writings and the Phenomenology. Dance here!, the philosopher exclaims, don’t keep making promises of eventual gratification in the beyond. Realize the fecundity of creation, the immanent divinity unfolding in the world around you.

Flipping through the guest book, I realized I wasn’t the only one with this kind of reaction. Some of the entries were quite moving: “Thinking about my mother, who loved flowers when she was still with us.” There was also a sketch of a pizza slice, and one visitor implored us: “Find the flower power within you!” “Opium is my addiction to survival. I am oblivious to transience,” read another.

Then I came across an entry that asked point blank: “Why are all flowers representatives of the transience of the human condition? maybe they just pretty? LOLZ.” Here is the rose, get your lulz here. (For my part, I added Hegel’s sage words to the guest book.)

The only girl I’ve ever loved / Was born with roses in her eyes

In between stations of the Belief in Nature exhibit, I came across several pieces that are part of another exhibition on Abraham. This exhibition stresses that, “as the first man to believe in one single God, he transcends religious differences.” This reminded me again of the debate on the government subsidy the Bijbels Museum at least used to receive, and the criticism that the museum wasn’t doing enough to broaden its appeal. This exhibition on Abraham seemed to want to counteract the impression of the museum’s being overly Christocentric by setting out to find commonalities between three big faith traditions represented in Amsterdam: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the latter’s presence greatly diminished under the German occupation.

To the extent that Belief in Nature formulates values to hold and live by in common, they seem simply to mirror the broken value system of endgame capitalism. For an exhibition about nature, it has curiously little to say about ecology or the toll that science and technology have taken on our planet. In fact, the exhibition forecloses a more enchanted reading of the relationship between the realms of nature and religion, and instead separates them into distinct spheres, where nature only ever is a resource for values yet to be realized, not a value in itself. The curators offer a representation of the Bible that, because it is secular, appears neutral and universal, but is itself value-laden. In fact, in their secular exegesis, a certain form of Protestant theology—the kind that has what Max Weber called an “elective affinity” with capitalism—seeps back in.

John D. Boy is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is currently working on his dissertation on the church-planting movement and its impact on the religious landscape of the European metropolis. John is also a contributing editor to The Immanent Frame and an associate editor of Frequencies. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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