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The Artist as Reader of the Bible. Visual Exegesis and the Adoration of the Magi

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image of Biblical Interpretation

The article explores the processes at work in a painting's engagement of its viewer in biblical subject matter. It accentuates the role of the artist as an active reader of the Bible and not merely an illustrator of biblical scenes, the dynamic that occurs in the text-reader process as paradigmatic for the image-viewer relationship and the important role of the developing tradition that felt the need to change or rewrite the biblical story. The processes are explored in terms of hermeneutics and exegesis: hermeneutics defined as 'the interweaving of language and life within the horizon of the text and within the horizons of traditions and the modern reader' (Gadamer) and exegesis as 'the dialectic between textual meaning and the reader's existence' (Berdini). Applied to the visualization of biblical subject matter, the approaches of Gadamer and Berdini illumine the key role given to the viewer in the visual hermeneutical process. The biblical story of the adoration of the Magi (Matt. 2: 1-12), the first public and universal seeing of Christ and one of the most frequently depicted themes in the entire history of biblical art, is used to illustrate their approach. The emphasis in the biblical narrative on revealing the Christ child to the reader parallels a key concept in Gadamer's hermeneutical aesthetics, namely Darstellung, the way in which a painting facilitates its subject matter in coming forth, in becoming an existential event in the life of the viewer.


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