Qohelet: Searching for a Life Worth Living
First-Ever Illuminated Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes at the Heller Museum in New York
August 14, 2023 – December 11, 2024
Opening Reception: October 4, 2023 at 5-7 pm
Artist’s Talk and Performance: 6 pm
Where can wisdom be found in our world “under the sun,” when God’s intent is hidden from humankind? Artist Debra Band collaborated with philosopher Menachem Fisch to develop a groundbreaking philosophical and visual interpretation of Qohelet, better known as the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes.
The 61 illuminations in this exhibition offer the first ever visual interpretation of this entire poetic account by an unnamed narrator of the “words of Qohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” ascribed to the elderly King Solomon, but whose Persian and Aramaic language may indicate a later authorship. Band’s renderings are based on Fisch’s insightful reading, which restores the literal meaning of vapor to Qohelet’s key Hebrew word hevel, traditionally translated metaphorically as vanity or futility. This translation reveals the tormented thinker’s path to serenity.
Employing the richness of an illuminated manuscript with intricate calligraphy, micrography, and painting in ink, gouache, gold, and palladium on vellum, Band imagines Qohelet’s teachings by employing the grandest of ancient palaces, the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, as the central metaphor for the beauty and transience of human life and accomplishments. She interprets the text by populating its halls and gardens with surprising and exquisite imagery, symbolism, and related poetry.
Band teases out Qohelet’s relationship to other biblical texts and Jewish lore and its reverberations across the centuries and cultures of western civilization, from ancient Israel to today’s America. From Pete Seeger’s song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to Edith Wharton’s title for The House of Mirth and Shakespeare’s reference in Sonnet 59, “If there bee nothing new, but that which is, hath been before…,” many of his words remain familiar today. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” “for everything there is a season,” “there is nothing new under the sun,” and “the sun also rises” are all phrases that originated with Qohelet, which endures as a source of wisdom and inspiration.
The publication Qohelet: Searching for a Life Worth Living, presenting illuminations and commentary by Debra Band, philosophical commentary by Menachem Fish, foreword by Ellen F. Davis, and preface by Moshe Halbertal, is available from Baylor University Press.
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