Archive Peter Escalante Philosophy

Visual Eisegesis

Dr Matthew Milliner offers some interesting reflections here on the increasing currency of visual exegesis, by which he seems to mean pictorial art derivative from Biblical themes.

Frequenters of this forum will know that one of our special concerns is clarity of expression and would therefore be able to predict that we would want to ask a few questions about what exactly exegesis means here. Exegesis quite literally means interpretation of a text, and before anyone starts yelping about feeling too chafed by the iron constraints of conventional signification, let me say that of course this might admit of analogous or metaphorical extension. But we’d have to be clear about what precisely that means too, and how it works.

The obvious question of how depiction of objects known only by textual report- “artist’s rendering”, as they say, whether the tympanum of Vezelay or a page from a Sunday School book showing the boy Jesus in the Temple- differs from the profoundly Biblical but not directly depictive work of William Blake or Lucas Cranach is not directly my concern here, though it bears indirectly upon it. What is my concern is the meaning of that word exegesis. Clearly, an artist’s rendition is adding things, rather as one’s imagination necessarily adds things, as it attempts to portray the events told of in the text. But by far, the greater number of those things it is adding are not derived from the text, no matter how plausible (say, sandals on the feet of Jesus, or a beard on his face), and thus are not so much a visual exegesis but rather a visual eisegesis, but primarily in points of indifferent detail where nothing central is being added or modified.

With the work of a man like Blake, one is in the realm of an illuminated apocryphon inspired (take that how you will) by exegesis of the text, however idiosyncratic or possibly heretical that exegesis might be. But are the images themselves, or their production, or  their viewing, itself “exegesis”?

It has long since been shown that carryover, the metaphor, of linguistic concepts and terms is generally a failed enterprise; it doesn’t work in anthropology or sociology, pace Levi-Strauss, and it doesn’t work in architecture, pace any number of modern writers (there is no “grammar” or “pattern language” of architecture). Likewise with visual art, whether the art itself is regarded as textlike (though more about that in a moment), or whether the pictorial art is itself regarded as “exegetical” of the text.

It is curious to note that like many terms in academic vogue, it is rarely defined and when it is, it is defined so variously that a number of them are contradictory. One wonders what proponents of “visual exegesis” would say if challenged to directly define how exactly what they’re talking about is “exegesis”. Is it an artist’s take on a Biblical text (Dr Milliner seems to fall here)? Is it a a viewer’s take on such a take, or indeed on any pictorial artwork? If a take on the Biblical text, does it substitute for the text? Clarify the text? And if so, how? By way of being useful or even indispensable supplement for anyone? Or merely as “text” for the unlearned, as Gregory the the Great’s famous equivocation would have it?

It has become fashionable, in the long and dreary “retreat to commitment”, for Christian scholars and philosophers to resolve to the imagination rather than the intellect, and to even disparage reason and reason’s preeminent imaginative medium, words, in favor of pictorial imagination and art. This comports with the “retreat to commitment” because it brackets altogether the question of truth. Often enough mere misinformation adds to this. For instance, Mr Milliner says:

Criticize historical criticism all you want, but if your interpretive method still unthinkingly limits itself to text, you’re still beholden to the historical critical paradigm.

But the historical-grammatical is not the same as the historical-critical, and our primary task as readers of the Word is not to take the historical-critical method as given and then  build some privileged redoubt of private “meaning” apart from its public dominance. Of course the historical-critical method is largely barren, but pictorial art is not its interpretative opposite in any meaningful sense, because the kind of “interpretation” going on there is not an interpretation of text as text;  the artist’s “interpretation” and the exegete’s “interpretation” are equivocal terms. In fact, the historical-grammatical hermeneutic is the only sane method, even for typology, and the products of historical-critical “interpretation” and the “interpretation” of “visual exegesis” are in fact neither of them exegesis at all.

In a way, this interest in art as a vehicle of sacred meaning over and above the surrendered territory of objective event and its textual narration is partly, in certain Protestant circles, a reaction against an unintelligent anti-imaginalism (as opposed to an intelligent iconoclasm) and, in certain Papalist circles, against the Thomistic doctrine of poetry as infima doctrina.

And certainly, the living Word is not to be equated with the image-weak (not image-bare, as Aristotle and Thomas would remind us, for we cannot think without the phantasm) and abstract discursive understanding. He is productive of life itself, and indirectly productive of images of art in the broadest sense, though whether this is to be taken in the sense of the so-called Second Nicene Council is a matter of debate (and our answer, of course, is negative).

But to call these remote poetic effects of the Word “exegesis” is not only catachresis, it is also altogether too timid. One should be a little bolder and accord it, as the ancients or Dante did, the name of inspiration; though in a sense so analogous and derivative as to constitute a difference in kind from the inspiration of the holy penmen of the sacred books.

What is at stake here is the question of where we find God’s promise and how we find it. As noted above, a great deal of what some want to call “visual exegesis” is mostly visual eisegesis. In fact it is often a site of “Tradition” in the peculiarly Papalist sense: something not strictly derived from the Word, but regarded as somehow sharing in its authority– for if art can be “exegesis”, then so can Tradition by Newman’s principle of development of doctrine, and, at that point, we have “lying poets” invested with magisterial authority, Plato’s ghost aghast at the inappropriate apotheosis. This of course is not limited to the pictorial; there is a vast textual legendarium too which in its turn, being often more picturesque than the Bible, gives rise to a great deal of pictorial art (eg, paintings of the Assumption, or Lucy with her eyeballs on a plate).

And from an art-historical point of view, the concept of visual exegesis presents a number of problems. Even if visual exegesis is taken to mean itinerarial or curricular understandings of a painting, as Reindert Falkenburg has shown, this works very often because the painting is modeled loosely on certain kinds of late medieval devotional texts, and, like those, through a kind of system of directive commonplaces aims at leading the viewer toward a given conclusion; thus text (or, one might argue, oratory; in any case, word) retains a sort of primacy.

Given that expressions like “visual exegesis” are inherently confused, and given too that genuine historical-grammatical method and the Word itself is increasingly abandoned or under attack, let’s let exegesis mean what it means: regular philological and discursive apprehension of the sense of the only authoritative Word of God.

By Peter Escalante

Peter Escalante is a founder and editor of The Calvinist International. He holds a MA in Philosophy.