Related Links
"I must rise now, and go about the city, in streets and in broad ways, seeking him whom my soul loves."
About this Song of Songs
Interpretive History of the Song of Songs
Purchase Song of Songs
Love, Longing, and the Spirit
About this Website


When we turn to modern visual portrayals of the Song of Songs, what is most striking about them is their complete abandonment of the allegorical method. Instead of connecting the Song of Songs to external theological doctrines, painters of the 19th century began to bring their own psychological concerns to the representation of the text. Edward Burne-Jones, the well-known artist of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, designed a stained glass window for an English church illustrating the Song of Songs. In this complex 12-panel work, he stressed his favorite theme of romantic yearning for an impossible and unrequited love. In a different vein, a Jewish member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Simeon Solomon, produced paintings of the Song of Songs characterized by a lush and overripe sensuality. More recently, a series of five paintings on the theme by Marc Chagall in the 1950s combined a Blake-like angelic intensity and playfulness with strong hints of sensuality, enhanced by a glowing rosy background.

from "Interpreting the Song of Songs", by Carl W. Ernst

Edward Burne-Jones

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Simeon Solomon

Marc Chagall

In seeking a specific visual genre to give form to this divine longing, Judith Ernst seized upon the tradition of the "twelve month" (barahmasa) paintings, which are strongly associated with the cult of Krishna but are also found in other Indian religions. These paintings typically portray a woman in the various moods of love and longing, depicted with all of the seasonal details of each successive month of the year. In India, the most intense of these periods is the overpowering heat that occurs just before the rainy season. Then, as countless poets and painters showed (including Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Sufis), the woman is overwhelmed by raw passion as she feels the loss of her absent lover, who may be God. This theme turns out to be quite appropriate for portraying the mood of the Song of Songs. The focus of the Indian poems, and their accompanying paintings, is on the emotions of the woman, and the interpretive tradition for the most part has channeled this imagery into spiritual love. In the artistic realization of this book, the seasonal cycle of twelve months and the Indian environment have no further relevance. Instead, the setting is a timeless Palestine where women's costumes, like their passions, could be from any century.

from "Interpreting the Song of Songs", by Carl W. Ernst

About Barahmasa (from "Romantic Moments in Poetry", Harsha Dehejia, pp. 42-44)

Paintings from the Gita Govinda

"The Lonely Maiden"



Musical settings of the Song of Songs were fairly common in the Middle Ages, mostly perpetuating religious allegory. Compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries were frequently performed in Catholic liturgical ceremonies dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Composers of this music included King Henry VIII of England and the Italian composer Monteverdi. Protestant composers then employed the text in wedding songs, like the church cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, which depict Christ as the king searching for the individual believer. There have also been modern musical compositions on themes from the Song of Songs, by composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Virgil Thompson. Among Jews, the Hebrew text is included in the liturgy of Passover, and it is recited by Sephardic Jews during regular Friday evening services. In modern Israel, folk songs for couples have been created using verses from the Song of Songs.

from "Interpreting the Song of Songs", by Carl W. Ernst

Voice of the Turtle, a Musical Group Performing Sephardic Music

Song of Songs Chanting

Giovanni Pierluigi Da Palestrina (1525-1594)

Ofra Haza's "Love Song" from Shaday (based on Song of Songs)




Countless Christian writers expanded on the spiritual significance of the Song of Songs. Bernard of Clairvaux compiled an extensive series of sermons on the text. The English mystic Richard Rolle (d. 1349) wrote an intensely lyrical commentary on the three first verses of the Song. The Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross is directly inspired by the Song of Songs.

The love relationship described in the Song of Songs is of such intensity that it also led to controversy. It is not surprising that the erotic power of the text brought about patriarchal anxiety, particularly when women dared to interpret the text. About 1573, St. Teresa of Avila wrote a little book on "Concepts of the Love of God" based upon the Song of Songs, which was fortunately saved from the flames to which it had been condemned. In it she criticizes the cowardice of those souls who are afraid to read the text because they don't understand it. Likewise the French mystic Madame Guyon published an important interpretation of the text in 1685. In her autobiography, she states that she completed this in a day and a half, writing so fast that she injured her arm. This was one of the books condemned by the archbishop of Paris in 1694, as one of the chief examples of the mystical heresy of Quietism. As a result of this condemnation, there was little written about the Song of Songs in the eighteenth century.

from "Interpreting the Song of Songs", by Carl W. Ernst

Bernard of Clairvaux, "On the Song of Songs"

Gregory the Great's "Commentary on the Song of Songs"

The Poetry of St. John of the Cross

Song of Songs of Solomon: Explanations and Reflections Having Reference to the Interior Life, by Madame Guyon

The Song of Songs in English Renaissance Literature: Kisses of Their Mouths,
by Noam Flinker




There is a timeless tension between physical and spiritual love, and the sheer exuberance and passion of the Song of Songs carry it beyond the limits of ordinary sensual enjoyment without dispensing with the body. Overwhelming longing for God overlaps with the shock of physical eroticism. The Spanish monk Fray Luis de Leon was imprisoned in 1562 by the Inquisition for composing an original translation of the Song of Songs directly from Hebrew, and for treating the text as if it were a non-allegorical pastoral poem. But as he observed in the introduction to his translation, "Nothing is more proper to God than love, and there is nothing more natural for love than to turn the lover to the conditions and character of the beloved." The Song of Songs accomplishes this task. Here, there is no fixed line separating sensual from spiritual love.

from "Interpreting the Song of Songs", by Carl W. Ernst

Rumi (Song of the Reed)

What are we to make of the Song of Songs which, in spite of its antiquity and its archaic images, still carries with it such charm and power, is still so touching to those who fall under its spell? The subject of love, even physical, erotic love, when it is conveyed with such beauty strikes a chord deep within us all. We have a profound longing to be whole, to be united with another, but this longing carries with it something more than just physical desire. The Sufi poet, Rumi, in the first part of his Masnavi, describes that longing as the plaintive song of the reed flute, lamenting its abrupt removal when it was cut from the reed bed, longing to be back again from where it came. It is the primordial longing of the created to be back, united with our origins, at one with the Creator.

from Song of Songs: Erotic Love Poetry, by Judith Ernst

About Rumi

Translations of the "Song of the Reed" from the Masnavi

Mystical Romances: Sassi/ Punnu, Sohni/ Mahiwal, Majnun/Layla, Shirin/Khosrow, and Yusuf/Zuleikha

Many traditional stories from the Indian subcontinent (Sassi/Punnu; Sohni/Mahiwal), as well as the famous Persian stories of Majnun and Leila, Shirin and Khosrow, and the various versions of the romance of Joseph and Zuleikha (Potiphar's wife) feature the motif of separated lovers who find a deeper spiritual longing and fulfillment through their intense yearning for one another. The story of Joseph from the Old Testament was reworked by many mostly Muslim writers to become a romantic tale of separation and longing. In the Persian poet Jami's version, after years of pining for Yusuf, even to the point of trying to seduce him and tearing his shirt from behind as he tries to escape from her seduction, finally Zuleikha comes to this state:

Thus Joseph so she in her heart enshrined,
That life or world she never bore in mind.
In her deep thought of him herself she lost;
Out of mind's tablet good and bad she crossed.

Jami continues:

Jami, from self, too, do thou pass away:
To the eternal mansion find thy way.

poetry from translation of Joseph and Zuleikha by Alexander Rogers (1892)

Stories from the Indian Subcontinent

Majnun and Layla

A Contemporary Translation of Majnun/Layla

Majnun and Layla—a Sufi Explanation by Zahurul Hassan Sharib

Majnun and Layla (miniature painting)

Khosru and Shirin

Khosru and Shirin ("Art Articles" and then "History of Miniature Painting)

A Highly Abridged Version of Jami's Yusuf and Zuleikha

Michael McGaha's Coat of Many Cultures
the Spanish Stories of Joseph and Zuleikha

A Detail of Bihzad's Painting of Yusuf Fleeing from Zuleikha (scroll down)

Yusuf Before His Marriage to Zuleikha (miniature painting)

Gita Govinda

. . . love poetry for me came to be epitomized by the Gita Govinda, the wonderful medieval Indian poem chronicling the love play between Radha and Krishna. The lovers experience all the delights of love, as well as its tribulations, but their interaction becomes more than just that of lovers. It becomes in the Indian context a personification of our underlying longing for union with God, the divine beloved, a longing that mystically drives all of creation. The Indian paintings that typically illustrate this poetry are exquisite, delicately capturing the sensuality of both Radha and Krishna. Yet the tone which is set by the breathtaking beauty of these paintings makes the spiritual content implicit to the viewer.

from Song of Songs: Erotic Love Poetry, "Artist's Notes", by Judith Ernst

About Jayadeva's Gita Govinda (from "Romantic Moments in Poetry",
Harsha Dehejia, pp.28-31)

Multi-media Site with Dance, Painting, Recitation on Gita Govinda
(if you can get the complex multi-media features to work!)

More Gita Govinda

Ancient Egyptian Love Songs

Because of the similarity of themes and images between ancient Egyptian love poetry and the Song of Songs, some scholars have made the case for a historical and literary connection, though this is a debated issue.

Ancient Egyptian Love Poetry

The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs by Michael V. Fox

Pre-Islamic Arabic Poetry

It is astonishing, to say the least, that no one has undertaken comparison between the Song of Songs and the great odes of pre-Islamic Arabia. These sophisticated and complex poems have been neglected in part because of the extraordinarily bad translations committed by disdainful Orientalists of the colonial period. To be sure, one occasionally finds mention of the bodily description (wasf) of the beloved as a standard category derived from Arabic literature. Where else should one look for parallels to verses such as "How much better is your love than wine, and the smell of your ointment than all spices! Your lips, my bride, drop as the honeycomb; honey and milk are under your tongue, and the scent of your garment is like the fragrance of Lebanon"? There are wonderful examples of this sensuous exaggeration in the Arabic tradition, as in the ode of `Alqama in Michael Sells' translation (Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes):

Before the senses even now
----her fragrance lingers,
The folds of her hair
----redolent of musk when the pod is open.
Reaching out to touch it
----even the stuff-nosed is overcome.

Or consider the rich sensuality of the opening lines of the Song of Songs: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth - for your love is better than wine. Because of the sweet fragrance of your ointment your name is as ointment poured forth." The intense evocation of the smell and taste of a kiss finds its equal in the Sells' translation of the poem of `Antara:

She takes your heart
----with the flash edge of her smile,
her mouth sweet to the kiss,
----sweet to the taste,
As if a draft of musk
----from a spiceman's pouch
announced the wet gleam
----of her inner teeth.

These comparisons are not made to suggest any kind of historical correlation, but they do suggest that there are aesthetic continuities that are not limited to the category of literary influence.

from "Interpreting the Song of Songs", by Carl W. Ernst

More about Michael Sells' Work

Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes

Initiation in a Mayan Village

In the second book of his remarkable memoir, Long Life, Honey in the Heart: A Story of Initiation and Eloquence From the Shores of a Mayan Lake, Martín Prechtel describes courtship in a traditional Mayan village. It is a description which parallels much of what is implied in the Song of Songs:

"A village youth could not be eligible for intiation into adulthood until he or she was seen courting on the village streets, because that adolescent courting signaled the approach of the time when a young man and woman could begin to see and feel the physical presence of the divine in their longing for each other. . .It was this longing of the heart that motivated youth away from their families and clans toward their lovers and eventually to the spirit."

Prechtel continues by describing what he calls "an ancient tradition of anti- traditionalism sanctioned by the traditionalist adults and parents who fully expected to be disobeyed and subverted". It is an embrace by all in the village of an exuberant courtship behavior by its adolescents in spite of the natural unease felt by elders about these inherantly dangerous and volatile situations involving love and longing. This courtship itself propels the young people toward initiation, which ultimately leads them to the full understanding of and integration into the spiritual life of the community. This ambiguity between the recognition of the place of courtship in the community on one hand, and its dangerous volatility on the other, is reminiscent of passages in the Song of Songs.

More about Martín Prechtel's Work

Long Life, Honey in the Heart

Love, Longing, and the Spirit
Home / About this Song of Songs / Reviews / Interpretive History of the Song of Songs /
Purchase Song of Songs
/ About this Website
Copyright © 2003 Judith Ernst — All Rights Reserved