The Song of Songs

‘Hortus conclusus’, by Eric Gill
Wood engraving from Canticum canticorum Salomonis: quod Hebraice dicitur Sir hasirim
[Weimar: Cranach Presse, 1931]
Morison.2.9, pp. 16–17

Eric Gill had written an essay on ‘The Song of Songs’ for The game in 1921. Over the centuries this Hebrew love poem had been interpreted by the Catholic Church as an allegory of the soul’s love for Christ. Gill illustrated the text first in 1925. The Dominican friars thought the engravings too graphic, too sensual for the received interpretation; and their Provincial, Fr Bede Jarrett, asked for the work to be withdrawn, though by then all 750 copies had been sold. Gill worked on a new set of wood engravings in 1929 and 1930. These appeared alongside the Latin text in 1931, when Canticum canticorum was printed in Latin, German, and French by Count Kessler’s Cranach Presse at Weimar. A year later the press was forced to close and Kessler to flee from Nazi persecution. Gill’s engravings for the work have been described as amongst the most beautiful he ever made. In ‘Hortus conclusus’ the natural world in the foreground is set off by the viaduct or aqueduct in the background, and by the outline of a many-storeyed building in the middle distance. The woman moves between or bridges the natural and man-made orders.

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