When Bibles Go Naughty

With a romanic plot and erotic imagery, the Song of Songs is not your ordinary biblical book.  Why it is in the biblical canon, is not completely clear.  It may be due to the strong allegorical interpretation of its love statements as the connection between God and his people; it may also be (at least for the Jewish side of things) the love felt by a certain rabbi Akiva for his wife, a love that reverberated in one of the most beautiful stories of the Babylonian Talmud.

One way or another, the Song of Songs became an integral part of the medieval Bible, and one of the most fond books among monastic audiences.  Numerous allegorical interpretations expanded upon this Book, seeing the love story as a map of salvation history, the romance between Christ and his church.  In the early Middle Ages these allegorical interpretations were made into short rubrics – known as voices – which were integrated into the biblical page.  Thus, readers of the book were presented not with ‘the naked text’ of the lovers (if you forgive the pun), but with a layout that mediated a specific understanding of the biblical text.

The opening line of the Book ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love [the Latin has ‘breasts’ and not without reason] is better than wine’ was often introduced by a historiated initial.  The letter ‘O’ (for the Latin ‘Osculetur’, let him kiss) provided illuminators with a good opportunity to present a specific understanding of this verse, most commonly in the form of Christ and Mary.  Numerous images depict Mary with Christ the child on her lap, transforming the book into the innocent of a mother and child.

Glasgow University Euing MS 1 is a Latin Bible from thirteenth-century Italy.  One of its early readers took the pains of carefully erasing one (and only) one image – that of the Osculetur.

It is evident that the reader found the picture offensive.  It is also evident that he was careful to remove only the image, not damaging any of the surrounding letter (noticed by the keen eye of Marie-Pierre Gelin).  This was probably not the work of a Reformer.  Other images, of Christ and of the Creation, were left unscathed.  The image is well-sraped, and it is difficult to learn what it was originally (I hope a UV examination next week will shed some light).  However, other parallels might have the answer.  In British Library, Egerton MS 2867, fol. 282v (a Bible 1230-1240 , probably from Canterbury), the proximity between Christ and Mary is stronger than in other images, a closeness that might have seemed slightly inappropriate given the nature of the biblical book.

The understanding of the Song of Songs as a love story between Christ and his church was beyond doubt, especially as a purely literal understanding was unaccepted.  Could it be that a devote Catholic reader found this image too close to the biblical text?


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