Hidden in the Cleft (Artful Devotion)

Living in the side-hole
Moravian devotional image by Marianne von Watteville, 18th century. Embroidery and watercolor on cardstock, 11 × 16 cm. Unity Archives, Herrnhut, Germany.

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And [the LORD] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

—Exodus 33:18–23 (emphasis added)

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.

—Numbers 20:10–11

Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.

—1 Corinthians 10:1b–4

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.

—Song of Solomon 2:14

But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.

—John 19:34

Exodus 33:12–23 is assigned in Sunday’s lectionary; the other Bible passages I’ve added because I want to show how an intertextual reading yielded our song of the week.

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HYMN: “I Thirst, Thou Wounded Lamb of God” (Ach! mein verwundter Fürste!) | Words by Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, Anna Nitschmann, and Johann Nitschmann, 1735; English translation by John Wesley, 1740 | Music by Bethany Brooks, 1997 | Performed by Bethany Brooks on the Cardiphonia compilation album Songs for the Lord’s Supper, 2011 (also on Quarry Street Hymnal, vol. 1, 2012)

I thirst, thou wounded Lamb of God,
to wash me in thy cleansing blood,
to dwell within thy wounds; then pain is
sweet, and life or death is gain.

Take my poor heart and let it be
forever closed to all but thee!
Seal thou my breast and let me wear
that pledge of love forever there.

How blest are they who still abide
close sheltered in thy bleeding side,
who life and strength from thence derive,
and by thee move, and in thee live.

What are our works but sin and death
’til thou thy quick’ning Spirit breathe?
Thou giv’st the power thy grace to move;
O wondrous grace! O boundless love!

Hence our hearts melt, our eyes o’erflow,
our words are lost; nor will we know,
nor will we think of ought beside
my Lord, my Love, is crucified.

Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, one of the authors of this German hymn, was the leader, patron, and protector of the Moravian Church from 1727 to 1760 and its major theologian and liturgist. Anna Nitschmann was chief eldress in the church since age fourteen, serving as spiritual mentor to female congregants, and a missionary for a time to the Native Americans of Pennsylvania and New York; she married Zinzendorf in 1757, but both of them died within a couple of years. Johann Nitschmann was Anna’s brother.

John Wesley, who translated “I Thirst” into English just a few years after it was written, was well acquainted with the Moravians. His journal, covering the years 1736–38, is full of comments and observations about them, starting with a transatlantic sea voyage he was on, during which a storm arose, and everyone panicked, except the Moravians, who sang hymns of praise and prayed with great calm. When he returned to London he attended a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, where he experienced an evangelical conversion. After that he joined the Moravian society in Fetter Lane and in August 1738 traveled to the denomination’s headquarters in Herrnhut, Germany, to study. He corresponded with Zinzendorf, and the two met face to face on more than one occasion. In late 1779 he broke with the Moravians and soon after founded Methodism, greatly influenced by Moravian pietism.

Eighteenth-century Moravians were fascinated with Jesus’s wounds, especially his “little side hole” (where a Roman soldier pierced him on the cross to confirm he was dead), which they described as “warm,” “hot,” “beautiful,” “sweet,” and “today still open.” They wrote hymns about the side wound and created side-wound art—indeed, centered much of their devotional practice on it. As one hymn goes, “Dearest Side-hole! I do covet thy warm Blood above all Things. O thou art the most beloved of all other Wound-hole-Springs. Side-hole’s Blood, bedew me! Cover and go thro’ me! Take thy Course thro’ all my Veins, Heart and Reins, so that nought unbath’d remains.” “I Thirst” is comparatively mild (though granted, I couldn’t find the German original).

Historically, much Christian hymnody and art have fixated on the blood and woundedness of Jesus, but Zinzendorf and his followers took it to another level. To them such graphic imagery was not morbid but comforting and affective. Even I, who have a low tolerance for blood and gore, find myself strangely compelled by this devotional language and visuality of the womblike side wound.

“I Thirst, Thou Wounded Lamb of God” is one of many Moravian hymns that picture Jesus’s side wound as a shelter, a place of refuge where the blessed enter into and reside. “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” written some forty years later by the Anglican cleric Augustus Toplady, is a more widely sung hymn that employs similar imagery—so, too, the less explicit and far less poetic “He Hideth My Soul” by Fanny Crosby.

Moses’s being hidden away in the cleft of a rock so that he can glimpse a glimmer of God’s glory is partly in view, in an implied way, in “I Thirst.” The Song of Songs also refers to “the cleft of a rock”—to a dove, a beloved, nesting there; a lot of Christian commentators read the rock as Christ and the dove as his church, sheltered in his torn flesh (his body was cleft by the spear). Added to the hermeneutical mix is the Numbers passage of water from the rock: during Israel’s desert wanderings, Moses strikes a rock and water streams forth to quench the people’s thirst. (Like Jesus, the rock was beaten, giving issue to a river of life.)

All these biblical stories and images come together to create a constellation of meaning.

(Related post: “Our Sweet, Travailing Mother Christ,” on a Bible moralisée illumination of the birth of Ecclesia)

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Living in the side-hole

The mixed-media needlework reproduced here, from the Unitätsarchiv in Herrnhut, is by an eighteenth-century Swiss German woman named Marianne von Watteville. In embroidery and watercolor, she shows a rocky hillock topped with grass and flowers, into which a little cave is carved, which is Christ’s side wound. She kneels inside the wound in prayer and is showered by the blood of Christ. The inscription on the lip of the wound reads, “O, I rejoice, I rejoice so much that I have found the sea from the wound, where I am a blessed little sinner. I have everything.”

For further reading:


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 24, cycle A, click here.

One thought on “Hidden in the Cleft (Artful Devotion)

  1. This post about the wound in Christ’s side “cleft for me” was helpful to me, beautifully compiled, with such a wonderful list of artworks and music that have profoundly reflected on this motif. I can add one more item: George Herbert’s poem “The Bag,” whose concluding stanzas are these:

    But as he was returning, there came one
    That ran upon him with a spear.
    He, who came hither all alone,
    Bringing nor man, nor arms, nor fear,
    Receiv’d the blow upon his side,
    And straight he turn’d, and to his brethren cry’d,

    If ye have any thing to send or write,
    I have no bag, but here is room:
    Unto my Fathers hands and sight,
    Beleeve me, it shall safely come.
    That I shall minde, what you impart;
    Look, you may put it very neare my heart.

    Or if hereafter any of my friends
    Will use me in this kinde, the doore
    Shall still be open; what he sends
    I will present, and somewhat more,
    Not to his hurt. Sighs will convey
    Any thing to me. Harke, Despair away.

    Like

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