The Holy Land in Art: What Was Painted Was What Was Believed

Article excerpt

The Landscape of Belief: Encountering the Holy Land in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture

By John Davis

Princeton University Press

264 pp., $65

From the beginning, America's self-concept involved the Holy Land. Puritans spoke of founding a "New Jerusalem." While still in transit to the American colony, John Winthrop, later the first governor of Massachusetts, adapted a phrase from the Bible (Matthew 5:14) to describe the nation's destiny. "For wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill," Winthrop wrote.

As John Davis reveals in his new book, early American settlers stressed resemblances between the Holy Land and the new land. Towns were given Biblical place names like Bethlehem, Goshen, and Canaan. In the minds of many, America was the promised land.

In the 19th century, artists who had actually visited the Holy Land could claim added authenticity for their works. The demand for images of the Holy Land grew in the second half of the century, especially with the invention and development of photography.

Packaged in series, photographs approximated a walking tour of special sites. Armchair tourists could contemplate the Inn of the Good Samaritan or the Garden of Gethsemane. At the same time, photography created problems special to the medium. Frequently, photographers eliminated or reduced the presence of human figures in Holy Land images. While indigenous peoples underscored the unchanging nature of Biblical lands, the presence of too many residents seemed to sever a viewer's identification with the Biblical sites.

Davis rightly underscores the irony that the Holy Land's people presented a threat to some Americans' sense of mental ownership. The pictorial efforts of four painters who lived and worked in the Holy Land are outlined in the second section of the book. …