By Graham Kings
Which painting resonates with the crossing of the Red Sea, the Lord of the Rings and a famous TV advert? The answer is Miriam by Silvia Dimitrova, a Bulgarian icon writer and painter. It arrived at our home in Bermondsey on New Year’s Day this year and was a long time in conception and birth.
Miriam is the fifth in a series of paintings of Women in the Bible, which Silvia and I have been working on for more than 20 years. I choose the texts and discuss them with Silvia. She prays over them and draws a sketch that Alison, my wife, and I consider, and between the three of us we agree on the changes. Alison and I do not see it until it arrives, framed by Silvia’s husband, Simon. After some time, I write a poem expounding on the painting.
Covenant published our first four paintings and poems in June 2016: Magdalene (2003); Lydia (2009); Priscilla (2013); and Sarah (2016). I have also written about Priscilla, Sarah, and mission at Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion (see here and here).
I will be writing the poem for Miriam later this year. The remaining two paintings will be of Ruth and Esther. Each painting has luxuriant leaning trees as a serial theme.
“What do you see?” This is the simple question, in the last few weeks, which I have asked of people in various contexts. We have meditated on it at a baptism at our inner-city church, St. Matthew’s, Elephant and Castle, and at Evensong at Hertford College, Oxford. It also appeared as a focus at a seminar for the Community of St. Anselm and a retreat in Amman, Jordan for the clergy of the Diocese of Jerusalem.
People see differing things for, like any work of art, there is always something more to be sought out, which translates well into a neat, Latin gerundive expression: semper plura quaerenda. For example, various people have seen Miriam’s tambourine as a eucharistic host, which surprised Silvia and me but makes intriguing sense.
There are three scenes during different periods of time in the painting. First, at the bottom right, is Miriam’s baby brother, Moses, in the bulrushes of the river Nile. Exodus 1 tells the story of the dictatorial Pharaoh who gave orders for Hebrew boys to be killed at birth. The two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, obey God rather than Pharaoh and give a shrewd excuse: “Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Ex. 1:19). In chapter two, Miriam’s mother puts her three-month-old brother in a basket and hides him in the bulrushes of the Nile. Miriam watches the daughter of Pharaoh finds him and, with ironic acumen, offers to find a Hebrew woman to be his wet nurse. So Moses’ mother looks after him until he is grown and then presents him to the princess.
Second, bottom left, is the burning bush (Ex. 3). Moses is called by God to set his people free. God says, “Come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). Max Warren, general secretary of the Church Missionary Society (1942-63), wrote on this passage in his general preface to the Christian Presence series he edited:
Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on men’s dreams. More serious still, we may forget that God was here before our arrival. (Introduction in Kenneth Cragg, Sandals at the Mosque: Christian Presence amid Islam [SCM Press, 1959], pp. 9-10)
Third, we see the Red Sea. Behind Miriam is the rushing sea returning to drown the Egyptian cavalry pursuing the Hebrews. She sings her song of joy with her tambourine (Ex. 15:20-21):
Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
On the left are Moses and Aaron. Moses has his staff and the tablets of stone, which he will be given by God later at Mount Sinai (Ex. 31). They are echoed in the shapes and scintillating leaves above Moses’ head. Aaron, brother of Miriam and Moses, carries a flask of oil, evoking Psalm 133:
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
On the tops of the waves of the Red Sea, Silvia has painted horses. In English the phrase white horses is used to describe the bubbling, breaking crests of waves. J.R.R. Tolkien, a committed Roman Catholic, wrote an echo of the crossing into The Fellowship of the Ring. As Frodo is pursued by the wraith-like Black Riders, he barely manages to cross the river at the Ford of Rivendell:
At that moment there came a roaring and a rushing: a noise of loud waters rolling many stones. Dimly Frodo saw the river below him rise, and down along its course there came a plumed cavalry of waves. White flames seemed to Frodo to flicker on their crests and he half fancied that he saw amid the water white riders upon white horses with frothing manes. The three Riders that were still in the midst of the Ford were overwhelmed: they disappeared, buried suddenly under angry foam. Those that were behind drew back in dismay.
In the film, this is portrayed particularly powerfully: computer-generated white horses bear down on the three Riders and Frodo is saved.
There is another resonance too. In 1998, a TV advert was commissioned that became very famous. A legendary surfer waits and waits for the right wave. Computer-generated white horses bear down upon him from the tops of the crashing waves, but he survives. The strap line, “good things come to those who wait,” and the Guinness logo only appear at the very end. The theme of waiting underlies the book of Exodus.
So Miriam sings with joy and delight, and we are caught up in this painting. Her song, traditionally and evocatively, has been sung at the Easter Vigil throughout the Christian centuries and throughout the world. May we join with her, here and in heaven.
 A favourite concept of Jacques Maritain’s was “things are not only what they are.” Maritain was a central figure of the French Roman Catholic revival at the beginning of the 20th century. His Mellon Lectures, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (Bollingen Foundation, 1953) are nourishing. Rowan Williams discusses Maritain profoundly in Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (Continuum, 2005). Williams comments: ‘Re-presentation assumes that there is excess in what presents itself for knowing, and that neither the initial cluster of perceptions nor any one set of responses will finally succeed in containing what is known” (p. 139). I have tried to focus this concept in coining the Latin tag, semper plura quaerenda.