On Understanding

By Mary Elliot

Orazio Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1621-24, PD-1923

Judith takes her place among women who are remembered not just for their beauty, but for their ability to lead others in the way of understanding. This is important because beauty, as the “rising stairs” towards wisdom, may be our last hope out of the ever-pervasive technological and economical corner that we have trapped ourselves in—one that has put our communal, political, and environmental existence at risk.

The continuing of a world amidst the threat of a certain conquering attitude is of no news to Judith and her people, and it is central to what the story as a whole means in our time. But in order to understand what exactly she means to us, perhaps we ought to intertwine Judith’s story with that of another who holds similar qualities, albeit in a very different time and place.

Let us begin, then, with Diotima, the woman whom Socrates claims as his teacher in Plato’s Symposium. Socrates’ re-telling of Diotima’s story begins by noting that it was not just in the art of love and beauty that Diotima was well-versed; she was “a woman who was wise about many things besides this: once she even put off the plague for ten years by telling the Athenians what sacrifices to make.”1 Diotima’s piety, we soon find out, is rooted in the recognition that a true love of wisdom places itself in the “in-between,” in knowing that we do not yet know. It is in this in-between that Diotima teaches Socrates that judgment about the purposes of the gods only comes by such admission of uncertainty. “It is not the part of anyone to do this,” Socrates tells us in another dialogue, “but of one who is far advanced in wisdom.”2

For Diotima, the art of love, including such a love of the gods, “belongs to anyone who has given birth to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he.”3 In Diotima’s story, physical beauty is the beginning of the long road of virtue—a road that is named the love (eros) of wisdom for its primary recognition that we do not yet know. And so we find here the eternal things hidden in Judith’s story: a recognition of not knowing as the road to understanding, a desire for piety that is fulfilled by following that recognition in the footsteps of beauty, and the intertwining of such a life with how the story is remembered and retold.

We turn now to Judith. Her tale begins with a king who, having achieved success without the support he desired, seeks revenge. He sends his general, Holofernes, to travel the earth demolishing all that is sacred to other peoples, destroying the “local gods” and subsuming those of other languages and nationalities.

When the Israelites hear this, they prepare themselves in the hills, closing off the mountain passages, and call out to God. They drape the altar itself in sackcloth.

But, soon after, they move and plan too quickly, not giving understanding its due. Enter Judith, who begins by reprimanding the “teachers” of the town for their willingness to agree with the crowd in surrender to Holofernes if God remains silent within the days they have numbered.

“You do not understand anything,” Judith reminds the leaders and the people. “If you cannot sound the depths of the human heart or unravel the arguments of the human mind, how can you fathom the God who made all things, or sound his mind or unravel his purposes?”4

With this, Judith finds her life, once devoted to solitude and piety, pushed into the world where she must adorn herself in beauty. Unlike Diotima, who sees physical beauty as the beginning of the road of virtue, Judith’s story begins with virtue and descends to physical beauty. And while Judith is praised for her wisdom and eloquence,5 it is her beauty that conquers in the enemy’s camp as she sits with Holofernes, whom she praises for his cunning knowledge in battle. It is her beauty that ultimately disarms and takes his soul as captive.6 And, as Diotima might have foretold, in the face of such beauty even Holofernes, in all his methodical knowledge, is seized, if just for a moment, by the spirit of understanding.

But in Judith’s story, such understanding does not take place as an idealized love story; Holofernes’ admission of Judith’s beauty comes to him through Judith’s particularity, in her identity as part of a community. “Sublime beauty is of the granite hard,”7 and Judith exhibits this most clearly as she remains faithful to her tradition.8 She carries with her into Holofernes’ tent her own food and drink, that which serve as symbols of her loyalty to God, community and past. It is, terrifyingly, in that same symbol that she brings down Holofernes, as she kills him and carries his head back in her food sack to her people.9 In such a moment Judith stands as a frightening beauty—a horror religiosus—reminding us “that the world to which we belong,” in the words of philosopher J. Glenn Gray, “is not there for us, but we for it.” Judith’s beauty, quite unlike Diotima’s which leads to birth and immortality, leads to death and mortality. “If anything can,” Gray continues, “sublime beauty gives to man his measure.”10

And as Holofernes’ pride is broken in the hands of a woman, so certainty falls short to beauty and understanding.11 The contrived measures of man, put forth in Holofernes’ desire for universal conquest, cannot stand up to the measure given to him by the limits of time, place, and tradition. Unlike such certainty, understanding is reached in the face of the incomprehensible, the One who breathes into being “the past, and what is happening now, and what will follow.”12

What might Judith’s story mean, then, for us and our time? How might it help us understand the weight—and subsequent risks—we have placed upon humanity in our attempt to conquer it? Perhaps the best answer resides not here, but in a whole retelling of what has happened, one that embodies itself in the beauty of dramatic music that so well preserves the tradition of Judith’s own beauty. For before we can ever understand, our cultures and traditions stand-under us, serving as reminders—and invitations—that we do not yet know.13 And when such a story of the past comes to its end? May we, like Judith and those who listened to her, find a way to praise until the town echoes.14

Mary Elliot is a Lonergan Graduate Fellow at Boston College and a research assistant at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good.

1  Plato, Symposium, trans. Nehamas and Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), 201D.
2  Plato, “Euthyphro,” in Five Dialogues, 2nd ed., trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), 4B.
3  Plato, Symposium, 212A–B.
4  Judith 8:13–14 (New Jerusalem Bible).
5  Among her own people, Uzziah and others praised her understanding: “Not that today is the first time your wisdom has been displayed” (8:29). And across the battle lines, Holofernes and all his adjudicates, too, praised her: “There is no woman like her from one end of the earth to the other, so lovely of face and so wise of speech!” (11:21).
6  “The heart of Holofernes was ravished at the sight; his very soul was stirred” (12:16). See also 16:2, 9.
7  Gray, J. G. “The Claims of Beauty,” The Virginia Quarterly Review 49, no. 3 (1973): 357–70, at 365.
8  Later Judith praises God as the one “who breaks battle-lines” through the concrete, camping in the middle of his people (16:2).
9  12:2–3, 13:9–10.
10  Gray, J. Glenn. “The Claims of Beauty,” 363, 365.
11  9:10.
12  9:5.
13  It is, after all, “not really we ourselves who understand: it is always a past that allows us to say, ‘I have understood.’” Gadamer, Hans-Georg. “On the Problem of Self-Understanding,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 58.
14  14:9.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 1 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Judith in the Reformation

By Bruce Gordon

Martin Luther on Judith

The Apocryphal books of the Bible, which include the book of Judith, had a troubled history in the Protestant Reformation. Found in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint, they were not included in the Masoretic text, and the reformers of the sixteenth century debated their status in scripture. The church father Jerome had argued that the books of the Apocrypha did not belong to the canon of the Bible, but that they were profitable to read, a position adopted by most Protestant reformers.

In the Luther Bible of 1534, which was the first complete German translation produced by the reformer, the books of the Apocrypha (including Judith) were placed between the testaments with the description that they were “useful and good to read.” Later, in Geneva, John Calvin would take the same position. Luther’s assessment of the book of Judith specifically was also more complex. In his 1534 preface he revealed a largely positive attitude towards the book. Although he doubted the historical veracity of the story of Judith, finding that its events and chronology did not square with other books of the Bible, notably Jeremiah and Ezra, there was much to be admired. He held up Judith, declaring that her story would have been of great value to the ancient people as instruction in virtue and godly living. Indeed, Luther felt that as allegory Judith was an excellent piece of Christian edification.

Therefore this is a fine, good, holy, useful book, well worth reading by us Christians. For the words spoken by the persons in it should be understood as though they were uttered in the Holy Spirit by a spiritual, holy poet or prophet who, in presenting such persons in his play, preaches to us through them.1

Judith in the Catholic Reformation

In its struggle against Protestantism in the sixteenth century, the renewed Catholic Church appropriated valiant Judith, triumphant over unbelievers, as a significant tool of veneration and propaganda. The heroine of the Apocryphal book was presented in literature and paintings as the conqueror of heretics and as a symbol of Catholic resurgence. In the Palazzo Laternese in Rome, a series of frescoes of the Judith story was painted for Pope Sixtus V, who reigned from 1585–90.2 In twenty scenes, produced by the workshop of Giovanni Guerra and Cesare Nebbia, the story of Judith is told on a grand scale. The message of the art could not be more striking: church was restored and triumphant and the authority of the Tridentine papacy absolute. The execution of Holofernes was nothing less than the true Church dispatching its most reviled enemies.

Cover page of Vulgate Bible from the time of Pope Sixtus V.

Catholic writers such as Robert Bellarmine robustly defended the place of the book of Judith in the canon of the Latin Bible known as the Vulgate. Much of his argument was directed against the views of Martin Luther, who, as we have just noted, doubted the place of the Book of Judith in scripture. Bellarmine searched out arguments to defend Judith, and much of his attention to historical context is expressed in the Lateran frescoes. Another key writer in the Catholic appropriation of Judith was Cesare Baronio, the great historian of the Catholic Reformation. Baronio identified the Judith story with papal authority by making the heroine a type for Peter, the first pope. As one historian recently commented, “Baronio’s reference reveals that Judith was more than a generic personification of the triumphant Church: she was fashioned as a pillar of the contentious doctrine of papal sovereignty itself. We find here yet another reason for the Catholic insistence on her canonicity.”3 The Catholic defense of the book’s canonicity fashioned a figure who embodied the triumph over infidels and heretics in a conflict that culminated in the battle between the Bethulians and Assyrians, and the victory of the former. The true Church likewise crushed both the Turks and the heretical followers of Luther and Calvin.

Judith’s most singular role was as a type for Mary, a connection first made by the ancient fathers of the Church. Mary was at the center of a fierce struggle between Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century. One theme that united almost all Protestant reformers was the rejection of the intercessory powers of Mary, who by their reckoning was the model of humility and faithfulness, not the Queen of Heaven to whom men and women could pray. But Mary had been of great importance in the late-medieval church, and this relationship was continued and even enhanced in the Catholic Reformation. To counter Protestant arguments that the veneration of Mary was unscriptural, Catholic scholars turned to the book of Judith as providing a precursor.

Judith’s genealogy in the book, which is the longest of any woman’s in the Hebrew Bible, confirmed Mary’s lineage from the house of David. Judith’s chastity and humility preceded that of Mary: Judith delivered the people by resisting Holofernes’ advances, and, although she was able to deceive him, she succumbed to his will before she ultimately killed him. Scholars have also noted that Judith’s frequent recourse to prayer would be reinforced in Mary, who intercedes for the faithful. Judith was interpreted as a model of the devout Christian life, one of prayer and virtuous action. Such was the connection made between the two women that passages from the book of Judith became part of the liturgies for Mary’s feast days. Perhaps most important are the words of Bethulian elder Ozias (Judith 13:23), who, when Judith returns from the Assyrian camp, declares, ”Blessed art thou, O daughter, by the Lord the most high God, above all women on earth.” This passage became of great significance to Tridentine Catholics, finding expression in the Ave Maria.

Judith rose above the debate over her book’s canonicity to inspire, in different ways, both Catholics and Protestants.

A native of Canada, Professor Bruce Gordon taught at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he was professor of modern history and deputy director of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute, before joining the Yale faculty in 2008. Gordon teaches and supervises graduate students in a broad range of medieval and early modern subjects and their resonances in contemporary historiography and society. In 2012 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Zurich.

1  Luther’s Works, 35:338.
2  I recommend the essay by Elena Ciletti, “Judith as Imagery in Catholic Orthodoxy in Counter Reformation Italy,” in The Sword of Judith. Judith Studies across the Disciplines, ed. Kevin R. Brine, Elena Ciletti, and Henrike Lähnemann. (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2010), 345–68. My view of Judith in Catholic reception is much indebted to Ciletti’s chapter.
3  Ciletti, “Judith as Imagery,” 351.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 1 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The Origins and Context of Domenico Freschi’s Oratorio della Giuditta

By Jude Ziliak

Oratorio and opera grew up alongside one another, and, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the twin genres developed along fairly similar lines. Both forms have their origins in private societies of an intellectual character in the late sixteenth century. Opera emerged from the innovations of the Florentine Camerata, a humanistic society which met at the home of Giovanni de’ Bardi. The oratorio emerged in Rome, out of the Congregazione dell’Oratorio, an order of secular clergy founded by Filippo Neri in the 1550s and still active today (to avert confusion it is well to note that oratorio uncapitalized refers to the musical genre; an Oratorian is a member of Neri’s order; and an Oratory, in English, or Oratorio, capitalized in Italian, is a building used for meetings of the Congregazione). The Oratorians held evening meetings at which scripture was read and discussed, and communal devotional singing was supplemented with occasional dramatic renditions of scriptural stories given by visiting musicians and actors. Offering an atmosphere of intellectual openness and conviviality, the Oratorians attracted a substantial following, notably including Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, who may have written music for Neri’s gatherings. Over half of a century, musical dialogues based on scripture evolved into the historia, drama rhythmometrum, and cantata,1 loosely defined musico-dramatic forms which are substantially identical to one another and to the oratorio in musica.

The oratorio thrived in Venice from 16672 until about 1700. From 1700 to about 1740, although oratorio performances continued, the number of new compositions dropped off precipitously. Domenico Freschi’s Oratorio della Giuditta is one of the exceedingly few surviving examples of oratorio from the vicinity of Venice dating from that period. It was presented in Vicenza, the small city thirty-eight miles outside of Venice where Freschi was maestro di capella, at the cathedral, in 1705. It was also performed in Vienna. While the exact date of this performance is unknown, it is presumed to postdate the one in Vicenza due to the fact that the music has survived in a manuscript score in the Austrian State Library. By 1705, Freschi (1634–1710), had held his position in Vicenza for nearly fifty years, having been appointed in 1656 at the age of twenty-two. He was also a priest, and was ordained at Vicenza in 1650. Freschi’s duties included supplying music for the Mass and for the principal feast days in the Vicenza cathedral and the other principal churches in the town.

Outside of his responsibilities in Vicenza, in the 1670s and 1680s, Freschi composed at least eleven operas for production in Venice. Despite the Biblical, or more properly deuterocanonical, subject matter of Giuditta, it is far more closely linked to Freschi’s work in the domain of opera than to his liturgical music. His surviving music for worship is simple in style, and shows little interest in dramatic effect; judging from the scant music which is available today, he appears to have made a sharp distinction between theatrical and liturgical music. Giuditta displays well-defined characters, some vivid text-painting and madrigalisms (the illustrative devices typical of Renaissance madrigals and widely used through the Baroque period), and an abundance of recitative.

It is not clear where Freschi’s oratorios were performed. The Congregazione dell’Oratorio did not found its Oratory in Vicenza until 1720. Given the ambiguity of the precise dates and circumstances of the first performances of Giuditta, any discussion of its intended meaning or of any potential allegorical intent must remain speculative. The performance in Vienna around 1705 is too suggestive to pass over, nevertheless. In 1704, four years into the War of the Spanish Succession, Vienna was threatened simultaneously by Bavarian armies from the North and French armies from the south. Its fall, which appeared inevitable, would likely have precipitated the collapse of the Grand Alliance. A dispute arose between British and Dutch military leaders as to how to respond; the Duke of Marlborough argued for sending troops to counter the Bavarian threat, but the Dutch demurred. Marlborough, convinced that further inaction could mean the end of the Alliance, pretended to cede to the Dutch, sending his troops at first only as far as Koblenz, where the Rhine and Moselle rivers intersect, on the pretext of a northerly campaign along the Moselle. From there, he redirected them into modern-day Bavaria, where they met and defeated the Franco-Bavarian forces at Blindheim (known as the Battle of Blenheim) on August 13, 1704, saving Vienna and turning the tide of the war—though ten more years of strife still lay ahead.

A map of the Battle of Blenheim from The Department of History, US Military Academy.

For a Viennese audience in 1705, Judith’s unilateral assault on the Assyrian general Holofernes, rescuing Israel from a threat her countrymen declined to face, must have registered as a quite familiar story. Paolo Bernardini argues that one of the defining features of Judith is her acting “on her own . . . in contradiction to the policy originally set by the leaders of her people.”3 This quality of individualism and salvific power outside of the bounds of established, masculine power is consonant with Judith’s role as an ur-heroine, one of the oldest and most potent symbols of feminine strength. The secretive British gambit which led to the Battle of Blenheim, in contravention of the Alliance’s collective decision, conforms neatly to the Judith mold.

The composers and poets who created the first operas in the first years of the seventeenth century were driven by a desire to harness the potent emotional impact which ancient writers attributed to music. Knowing that declamation and song were closely linked for the Greeks, the Florentines sought to unite their contemporary music and poetry into a single art, and they developed the techniques of monody (music for one melodic line with a rhythmically independent bass line accompaniment), basso continuo (semi-improvised chordal accompaniment guided by a written-out bass line), and recitative, which are the essential ingredients not only of opera, but of the stil moderno which today we call Baroque. Recitative, especially, was at the heart of the aesthetic of both early oratorio and early opera: the mimetic imitation of the actual rhythms of human speech gave this nuove musiche an emotional directness which both evoked the ideals of the ancients and spoke directly to contemporary audiences. By the last years of the seventeenth century, however, opera and oratorio alike were tending increasingly toward melodrama and towards an emphasis on virtuoso display by singers. This resulted in exaggerated and implausible plotlines in the libretti, and a marked decline in the use of recitative in favor of increasingly extended arias, the favored vehicle of the celebrity singer. A strong exception to this trend was Venetian oratorio composers, among them Freschi. Contrary to the prevailing manner of the time, Freschi and his colleagues continued to write oratorios using a small number of realistic characters, singing a great deal of recitative.

It is perhaps this conservative strain in Freschi’s oratorio style which allowed him to collaborate successfully with the librettist of Giuditta, Abate Francesco Silvani. Silvani (1660–1744) was a Venetian monk and poet some twenty-five years Freschi’s junior. Silvani produced libretti for opera which found favor with the most celebrated composers of the 18th century, among them Ariosti, Vivaldi, and Handel. Heavily influenced by the leading reformer of opera, Apostolo Zeno, Silvani’s works generally observed the Aristotelian unities of action, time, and place, and are heavily weighted towards recitative rather than aria.4 These qualities had not lost favor with Freschi to begin with, so the younger man’s reforming spirit must have been consonant with the elder’s held-over preferences from the prior century.

Jude Ziliak is a violinist specialized in historical performance practices. Widely active as a chamber musician in repertories from the Renaissance to the present, he is a member of the American Bach Soloists in San Francisco and Sonnambula and the Clarion Society in New York. A graduate of the Juilliard School, he teaches at the Special Music School, New York’s public school for musically gifted children. He writes program notes for such organizations as Lincoln Center, Music Before 1800, and the Portland Baroque Orchestra.

1  Lorenzo Bianconi, trans. David Bryant, Music in the Seventeenth Century. (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1987), 124.
2  George Buelow, A History of Baroque Music. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), 97.
3  Paolo Bernardini, Episodes in Early Modern and Modern Christian-Jewish Relations: Diasporas, Dogmas, Differences. (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), 145–59.
4  Harris S. Saunders. “Silvani, Francesco.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 25 Aug. 2017. <http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.library.juiliard.edu /subscriber/article/grove/music/25789>.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 1 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Letter from the Publisher

Creative Commons music, image by Horia Varlan

At the heart of the Academy of Sacred Drama is a communal effort to explore the world of sacred dramatic music. Lost oratorios and forgotten masterpieces are resurrected through the creation of translations and editions, their stories and contexts are explored in the Academy Journal, and they are performed in Oratorio Readings that mirror the format of their original presentations.

The musical and textual material that we explore is in the public domain. The concept that printed works from past ages can exist for anyone to use, modify, or otherwise engage with recognizes that great ideas and works of art aren’t just the property of an artist and his or her descendants but have something to do with the contributions and identities of communities and even generations.

Copyright might not sound as riveting as the topics of oratorio texts, but it plays an integral part in the Academy’s mission. The 2017–2018 season is the Academy’s Year of Judith. We’re taking three oratorios from the Baroque era and re-imagining them for modern times. Our first oratorio of the season is a Giuditta with music by Domenico Freschi and a libretto by Abate Francesco Silvani. Both music and libretto have not been heard by anyone since the early-eighteenth century.

Lucy Yates has contributed a masterful translation of Abate Francesco Silvani’s libretto which will be released as a draft during our November 2017 Oratorio Readings and will be released in it’s final—though still early—form in October 2018. We’re confident that her translation successfully conveys the meaning and intention of Silvani’s libretto. However, we want to make it possible for other translators and musical directors to make changes to her translation as they deem necessary in order to highlight their linguistic priorities without having to start a new translation from scratch.

Jonathan Woody transcribed the notes from Freschi’s manuscript, and I edited the music and inputted the text, making decisions about how the text corresponds to the musical notes as I went along. My editorial decisions will be reviewed in the rehearsal process for the Oratorio Readings. Through the course of this process, a final—though still early—edition of Freschi’s Giuditta also will be released in October 2018.

The same system will guide our exploration of Antonio Draghi’s Giuditta in March 2018, and we will create English and Spanish translations of Niccolò Jommelli’s La Betulia liberata for our Oratorio Readings in May 2018. It might be possible for our organization to bring in a little extra money by selling these editions and translations. However, while we acknowledge and value the contributions of the many people whose ongoing efforts make Academy programs a reality, these oratorios and their librettos are the property of everyone who engages with them.

Many people put in a tremendous amount of time and effort into Academy programs. They do this for little or no monetary payment, and it is both important and a privilege for the Academy to recognize and publicize their contributions. We’re grateful to the many musicians, scholars, and writers who contribute to Oratorio Readings, the Journal, and our editions and translations.

We chose to use a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license for the editions and translations which enables other people to modify them, and a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 license for the Academy Journal which enables other people to distribute and reprint articles as they deem appropriate. This balances our need to acknowledge the efforts of Academy members by requiring the attribution of their work on Academy projects with our desire to make what we do through the Academy the starting point for other communities and generations to build on our work.

Although our work is already ambitious, we have even larger goals that couldn’t begin to be realized without utilizing copyright licenses that acknowledge both the individual and communal aspects of human identity. Our system for publication makes it more easily possible to spread the stories and music of Baroque-era oratorio and even to begin to re-imagine the way we do research or form communities.

If this intrigues you, help us explore Baroque-era sacred dramatic music as a member of the Academy of Sacred Drama. Together as musical professionals, linguists, historians, amateurs, and supporters we can rediscover the perspectives of past ages and explore the world of sacred dramatic music for our own time. We can’t wait to share this fantastic journey with you.


Jeremy Rhizor is a Baroque violinist, the artistic director of the Academy of Sacred Drama, and the publisher of the Academy Journal. He dedicates his time to exploring the world of sacred dramatic music and searching for appropriate boundaries in our understanding of what it means to be human.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 1 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Twin Advocates: Hope and Obedience in Giona

By Rev. Kevin K. Wright

The story of the prophet Jonah, as told through his eponymous book, stands as one of the most fantastical mythologies in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Set during the reign of the Jewish King Jereboam II (786-746 BC), Jonah’s story subverts the idea that “what goes around come around” and supplants it with the hope that God’s love and compassion are readily available to those who earnestly seek the path of repentance and obedience.

The Book of Jonah was most likely written sometime between the late 5th and early 4th century BCE during a period in which the Jews were led into exile by the brutal Babylonian Empire. This period of exile gave birth to a proliferation of Hebrew writing as Jewish communities sought to secure their history and heritage while they struggled to survive in a strange and foreign land.

The story of Jonah commences with God commanding the prophet to proceed to Nineveh (located on the outskirts of modern-day Mosul in Iraq) in order to exhort the people there to repent of their wicked ways. Jonah does the complete opposite, however, and secures passage on a boat sailing in the opposite direction as a means of escaping his emissarial assignment. God unleashes a storm to harass the boat, and Jonah, realizing that his disobedience is jeopardizing the lives of those around him, insists on being tossed overboard. The sailors fling Jonah into the sea where he is swallowed by a giant fish. Jonah spends three nights in the stomach of the fish where he repents for his disobedience. God hears Jonah’s remorse and commands the fish to spit him up on the shore so that he can carry out his mission. Once on land, Jonah goes to Nineveh where the people repent of their wickedness and are spared God’s wrath.

The irony of Jonah’s story is that it is his disobedience to God that marries his situation to that of the people of Nineveh. The personified character of Hope in Giona pleads with the people of Nineveh to realize that “Eyes full of tears move to compassion the angered Heaven.” Hope echoes this cadence again to Jonah where it says “Console yourself, oh heart of a sinful man: the penalty of Heaven is not as severe.” In the face of certain destruction, it is only hope that stands before God pleading for the fate of both the prophet and the city.

If Hope is the advocate for the haughty, then it is Obedience who instructs them on how to curry favor with the Almighty. Amidst Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh it is Obedience who tells the prophet that “It is not for man to interpret the law laid down by Him who recreated the soul, who holds and sustains them.” After Jonah’s decision to abscond from his duty lands him in the belly of a fish, Obedience and Hope comfort the disheartened prophet by saying, “The Heavens are not harsh and deaf to the supplications of humility.” Obedience advocates for the choosing of God over one’s self and helps individuals to navigate the rocky shoals of their own ego and pride. In tandem effort, Hope and Obedience provide gracious guidance to those seeking the favor and blessing of God.

Contemporary audiences might need to hear Hope’s voice in the midst of our contentious national climate. Hope pleads with each of us to strive for goodness and gracious acceptance of the other while believing in our individual and corporate ability to act with justice and kindness. We might also welcome Obedience in our lives as well as we strive to weld our actions to patterns of love shaped by an adherence to Hope’s dream for us all. Each of us faces the choice between allowing our lives to be shaped by love or allowing our existence to be overrun by selfishness and fear. Hope and Obedience beckon us to the former. Like Jonah, we are fortunate to have such noble advocates on our behalf.

Rev. Kevin K. Wright is an ordained United Methodist elder and the Minister of Education at The Riverside Church in the City of New York.

Academy Journal Beta.1, 14-15 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND

Jonah in Art: Changing Perspectives

By Dr. Ann Plogsterth

Over time, Jonah has inspired varied religious and artistic interpretations, focusing on different aspects of the complex tale. It is even found in the Quran (37:139) and in Near Eastern art (fig. 1). Only the first part of Jonah’s story is covered in our oratorio, and it focuses on the theme of the prophet’s disobedience.

The first Christians were, of course, Jews, well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. They knew the book of Jonah, unique among the prophetic books in that it is entirely narrative and contains no real oracle. They also knew the tradition that would later become the New Testament. Both Matthew (12:40–41; 16:4) and Luke (11:29–32) speak of the sign of Jonah, whose three days and three nights in the belly of the whale1 were seen as prefiguring Jesus’s three days in the abode of the dead and his ultimate Resurrection; this connection is explicitly spelled out in the first Matthean passage.

So it should be no surprise that Early Christian sarcophagi and catacomb frescoes are especially fond of Jonah’s story, perhaps adding allusions to baptism, the gateway to resurrection—allusions which would have been apparent only to initiates. Jonah often emerges from the fish naked and bald, with a baby face (as if newly reborn) and in an orant pose, and the scene of him resting under the gourd tree (an incident not included in the oratorio) reflects the blessed soul of the baptized and resurrected Christian.2 In some fourth-century sarcophagi (fig. 2), Jonah under the tree is juxtaposed with a scene of Peter baptizing his jailers: first, baptism in this life, then paradise in the next.

In the sixth to eleventh centuries, Byzantine manuscripts expanded the narrative cycle to include further events: Jonah’s calling, his embarkation, and his preaching at Nineveh (fig. 3). These exquisite works influenced Jonah’s depiction in icons through subsequent centuries.

In the Middle Ages, the connection with Jesus’s Resurrection remains (figs. 4, 5), as do the narrative scenes, but, apart from these, Jonah also appears among group depictions of the prophets. In psalters and books of hours, Jonah and his whale were sometimes placed with Psalm 68/69,3 with its references to rising waters. An Ordo for commending a soul at the time of death prayed, “Sicut liberasti Jonam de ventre ceti, eicias me de morte ad vitam” (As you freed Jonah from the whale’s belly, may you cast me from death into life).4 One curious use of the Jonah theme is on South Italian ambos and preacher’s chairs, where it might be seen as a warning to reluctant preachers: Jonah’s disinclination to address the Ninevites did not work out well for him.

An important new medieval use of the Jonah theme is found in manuscripts and printed books like the Biblia pauperum and Speculum humanae salvationis. Both were collections of New Testament events joined to their Hebrew prototypes, with suitable quotations from the prophets, often in the vernacular (figs. 6, 7). For instance, Jesus’s burial is paired with Jonah swallowed by the whale and Joseph thrown into the cistern; the Resurrection parallels are Sampson destroying the gates of Gaza (as Christ burst the gates of death) and Jonah emerging from the whale.

In the Renaissance and Baroque, both narrative cycles and allegorical allusions disappear, and we find more or less realistic depictions of a large fish and a man (fig. 8). Although Jonah is usually shown elderly, befitting a prophet, Lorenzetto portrayed an Apollo-like young Jonah (fig. 9); writing of this work, Vasari noted its allusion to the resurrection of the dead, a symbolism still remembered then. Michelangelo’s massive Jonah in the Sistine Chapel makes, by its placement, a connection between Jonah and the Christ of the Last Judgment (fig. 10), again perhaps reiterating the Resurrection theme.

By the time of our oratorio, the Biblia pauperum was hardly current reading and the scholastic mindset that searched for typologies was no longer prevalent, although probably remaining as a subconscious influence.5 Giona ignores the traditional connections with resurrection and baptism, focusing entirely on the motif of Jonah’s disobedience and subsequent obedience, a theme much harder to depict visually.

By the nineteenth century, all connections beyond the details of the actual story seem to have been lost, and we are left with a simple adventure story. Perhaps the most significant artist to depict Jonah then was James Tissot in his massive series of watercolors on the Bible (fig. 11). Eventually, the theme is taken over by Sunday-school illustrations (fig. 12), which can come to rival very bad cartoons (fig. 13). Sometimes the depiction reflects a hyper-literal interpretation of Scripture (figs. 14, 15). In Israel Jonah has generally received more serious artistic treatment (figs. 16–18), though, even there, one finds exceptions (fig. 19). Perhaps humanity can no longer deal with miracles or with metaphor; in this modern age we cannot see past the details of whale anatomy to perceive the prophet’s underlying message.

Dr. Ann Plogsterth has a doctorate in art history from Columbia University and a lifelong obsession with religious iconography.

1. Actually “great fish” in Hebrew, and variously depicted as fish, seahorse, or sea monster.
2. The Vatican’s famous Jonah Sarcophagus pairs the prophet’s story with several scenes suggesting the saving waters of baptism (Noah in his ark receiving the returning dove [cf. 1 Peter 3:20–21], Moses striking water at Massah and Meribah) and the resurrection of the dead (raising of Lazarus).
3. The Hebrew and Greek Bibles number the psalms differently. Jews, Protestants, academics, and modern Catholics use the Hebrew system; Orthodox and traditional Catholics follow the Greek Septuagint.
4. Louis Réau, Iconographie de l’art chrérien, 1955, Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 415.
5. The connection of Jonah to the Resurrection persists in odd places: a gravestone c.2013 in the Ratzeburg cathedral cemetery depicts Jonah and the whale, and a 2014 Good Friday procession in Malta includes Jonah and his maritime companion.

Academy Journal Beta.1, 7-13 (2017) · CC  BY-NC-ND license

What are the Jewish Perspectives on the Book of Jonah?

By Dr. Michael Schulman

The Book of Jonah is read during the services of Yom Kippur, the Jews’ Day of Atonement, because its messages are a fitting inspiration for that time. To understand this scripture, it helps to know the identities of Jonah and the king of Nineveh.

According to the Talmud, Jonah was the boy who was resurrected by Elijah (I Kings 17). He grew up as a prophet and a disciple of Elisha. He is the disciple whom Elisha sent to anoint and prophesy to Yehu (II Kings 9:1-10), and he prophesied to King Jeroboam II (ibid. 14:25). By the time of his prophecy to Nineveh, he was about 100 years old.

A prophet is liable to death by the Hand of Heaven if he suppresses a prophecy that G-d instructs him to deliver (Tractate Sanhedrin 89a). Why did Jonah do this? He recoiled from being the one through whom a criticism would be brought against his fellow Israelites. The Israelites included ten northern tribes that had separated from Judah and Benjamin, and formed the Biblical nation of Israel. They had then been drawn into idolatry, and although G-d sent prophets to warn them, they had not repented. Jonah knew that if he prophesied to the Gentile city of Nineveh, they would fear G-d, repent to Him and be forgiven. Then G-d would turn to the Israelites and say: “The Gentiles of Nineveh heard My warning from a true prophet and repented, so I forgave their sin. I sent many prophets to you, My nation, but you still refuse to abandon idolatry. Now everyone will know that I am justified in sending the Ten Tribes into exile as their atonement, until the End of Days when I will bring them back” (see Deut. 30).

To compel Jonah to obey, G-d first caused him to be willingly cast overboard, thus proving his merit that he cared more for his fellow Israelites than for his own life. Then G-d caused him to be saved by the giant fish that was created for that purpose during the Six Days of Creation (Midrash, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 10). The Midrash (ibid.) relates that the fish brought Jonah to view the Leviathan (Job 41). G-d will kill the Leviathan when the Messiah son of David comes, speedily in our days, and its meat will be served at the great celebratory feast that G-d will make for the righteous to welcome in the Messianic Era (Tractate Bava Basra 75a). At that time, G-d will remove everyone’s evil inclination, and Jews and Gentiles will dedicate themselves to serving G-d in unity and peace, as it says (Zephaniah 3:9): “For then I [G-d] will turn the peoples to pure language, so that all will call upon the Name of G-d to serve Him with one purpose.” We can see that G-d reminded Jonah about the universal destiny for mankind by bringing him to view the Leviathan.

But how was Jonah sure that the people of Nineveh would repent? As he said to G-d after they were spared (4:2), “Was this not my contention…? For this reason I hastened to flee…” The answer lies in the identity of the king. Jewish tradition teaches that he had been the Pharaoh whom we read about in the Book of Exodus (Midrash, ibid. 43). As the exodus took place, Pharaoh stood looking over the Red Sea while it split. When his army was drowned, he finally admitted to G-d’s complete control of the world and repented for his sins. He left and went to Nineveh, where he became king and dedicated it as a “great city unto G-d” (3:3). He was then blessed with long life, but eventually he lapsed and allowed his subjects to sin. Jonah knew that Pharaoh, of all people, would head G-d’s warning and lead them in repenting.

Jews have more commandments than Gentiles and are held to higher standards. Gentiles are accountable for the 7 Universal Commandments in the Book of Genesis, which are the foundation of true morality: establishing just courts, and the prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, homicide, forbidden sexual relations, theft, and eating meat that was severed from a living animal (cruelty to animals). But an entire population of Gentiles is not liable to collective Divine punishment unless they breach the boundaries of civilized coexistence, like the generations of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, and the metropolis around Sodom. In Nineveh, the rampant crime was theft (3:8). When Pharaoh heard that a prophet of G-d had declared that Nineveh would be overturned (3:4), he led the people in repentance to G-d. Since theft can’t be fully atoned without making restitution to the victims, they returned all stolen items and even tore apart their houses to return the materials they had extorted (Tractate Taanit16a). Thus it says (3:10), “G-d saw their deeds, that they repented from their evil way,” instead of “G-d saw their sackcloth and fasting.”

After Jonah saw that Nineveh was not destroyed, he was sickened over the comparison with the unrepentant Israelites. To admonish Jonah, G-d provided for him a kikayonplant, which he cherished. The next day it died, which broke Jonah’s heart. G-d then told him, how much more so does He care for all people. For He invests all people with His image (Gen. 1:27), watching them constantly and waiting for them to repent to Him for their sins so they can be forgiven, as proven by the people of Nineveh.
There were thousands of prophets in the Biblical Holy Land, but the only prophecies that were canonized in the Hebrew Bible were those which are relevant for all time, as G-d says (Malachi 3:6), “For I, G-d, have not changed…” The Book of Jonah teaches that all people, on account of G-d’s attention and care for them, are obligated to pray to Him to fulfill their needs – including prayers of repentance for their sins, combined with a commitment to actively improve their ways.

The author is grateful to Kate Bresee for the editing and useful comments that she provided.

Dr. Michael Schulman (PhD Physics ‘88) is an Orthodox/Hassidic Jew who has served since 1999 as Executive Director of the charitable organization Ask Noah International, and its web site Asknoah.org, from which this essay is reprinted with permission. A.N.I. is overseen by leading Orthodox Rabbis in the mission to provide education and guidance to Gentiles in the parts of the Written and Oral Torah tradition that apply universally to all people. Dr. Schulman is co-author of the book Seven Gates of Righteous Knowledge: Spiritual Knowledge and Faith for All Righteous Gentiles.

The content of this article is the property of Ask Noah International and does not carry the same CC BY-NC-ND license as the rest of the magazine.

Academy Journal Beta.1, 4-6 (2017) · Reprinted with permission from Asknoah.org

Letter from the Publisher

By Jeremy Rhizor

I am very pleased to present the first issue of the Academy Journal. It is a major step in the direction of building a community of thought around the music and stories of oratorios. Over the past year and a half, the Academy of Sacred Drama produced Oratorio Readings of five rarely-heard Baroque-era oratorios with the help of 67 volunteers in order to begin to build this community. These were paired with potluck dinners and experiments from a social game built on the story of Susanna to reflections on excerpts from Ishmael. As the Academy community continued to grow, I revisited some of my original goals for the organization including talks by guest speakers and a publication. I originally intended to include talks on contextually related material in place of the sermons that were placed between the halves of many Baroque-era oratorios. The North American Premiere of Giovanni Battista Bassani’s Jonah (Giona) marks a return to this model with a talk by Dr. Eric Bianchi on the intellectual and cultural context for Baroque-era oratorio.

The performance of Bassani’s Jonah also launches our Amateur Performance Initiative, in which gifted amateurs have the opportunity to participate in the performance of selected movements of the oratorio. An amateur viola da gamba player will participate in select movements of the first half of the Jonah performance. This is one of five new programs that the Academy now offers its members. Our goal with our membership programs is to unite the abilities and skills of professionals and amateurs of various fields in an effort to shed some light on the largely unexplored world of Baroque-era oratorio.
The launch of the Academy Journal is the most visible element of the Academy’s renewal and expansion. It is designed to be a central resource for the world of sacred dramatic music.

In order to start to fulfill that function, we are offering a calendar of oratorios and reviews of performances of note. In this issue, Christopher Browner reviews the Modern Day World Premiere of Bonaventura Aliotti’s Santa Rosalia that occurred at Trinity Church, Manhattan on June 1st. The reconstruction and rediscovery of forgotten oratorios is a central component of our mission, and we are excited that New York Baroque Incorporated undertook this project.

The second essential part of the Academy Journal is the exploration of the story and themes of Academy Oratorio Readings with articles by members of the extended Academy community. In this inaugural issue, Dr. Michael Shulman explores Jewish perspectives on the Jonah story, and Rev. Kevin Wright approaches themes of hope and obedience in the Jonah story through Christian perspectives. Dr. Ann Plogsterth also offers a narrative on the changing emphasis of visual artists as they sought to depict the Jonah story.

And finally, an exploration of this type would not be possible without a clear and intelligently crafted English translation of the original Italian text which until a couple months ago was unavailable. Dr. Elisabeth Pace created the first English translation of the libretto by Ambrosio Ambrossini which was the basis for Bassani’s oratorio. She made it possible for us to undertake this communal and in-depth exploration of Bassani’s Jonah.

We call this first issue of the Academy Journal Volume Beta. It is an experiment in which we are trying out a new Academy Journal website, creating the fresh design of a new printed journal, and going through a new editorial process with our gifted editor, Kate Brecee. The Academy Journal will continue to grow and be refined from this point. Be we are excited about its launch and are happy to finally be able to share the fruit of much labor. We hope you enjoy it.

With gratitude to you for being part of our community,
Sincerely yours,

Academy Journal Beta.1, 2-3 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND license