Sunday, February 24, 2019

Exodus 34 and II Corinthians 3: The Reasons for Veils

What is the purpose of a veil? Is it to conceal? Is it to reveal in part? Is it to protect? Is it to hint? The story of the veil worn by Moses is told in Exodus (34:29-35) and then is referenced by Paul in II Corinthians 3:12-4:2. Over the course of those two texts, the veil is examined in a variety of ways.

Exodus reports that Moses wore a veil because the splendor of God reflected in Moses' face alarmed the people. Moses removed the veil when he went in to speak with God, so the veil does not screen Moses from God. Moses went before God bare-faced. The veil eases the relationship between Moses and the people. As did Moses, the veil stands between the people and God's glory.

In II Corinthians Paul appropriates Moses' veil as a recurring image in discussing the relationship between Jewish law, Jesus, and Christian understanding. He reinterprets Moses' veil as something that conceals a dying light. Certainly the law had a glory when it was given, but that glory, Paul asserts, like the law itself, is not the last word. It fades in the presence of a greater light. Paul goes on to announce Jesus as glory even greater, and also given by God. Jesus removes the veil from between the people and God's glory (notice that the veil is now worn by the people rather than Moses), allowing them to see God's undiminishing glory in Jesus.

For Moses, the veil was a necessary addition in his relationship with God's people. For Jesus, the veil must be removed so that people can see the full glory of God. Does that make the veil about concealment? Protection? Accommodation? Hindrance?
(Left) Rafaello Monti. Veiled Lady. c. 1860. Minneapolis, MN: Minneapolis Museum of Art.
(Right) Giuseppe Sanmartino. Veiled Christ. 1753. Capella Sansevero, Naples. 
For a group of sculptors - mostly Italian, but not all - the reason for veils was none of these things. For these artists, the reason for covering a face with a veil was to demonstrate virtuoso carving. These artists crafted images of women with their faces and heads veiled. Through the skill of the carver, one could "see" through marble, a decidedly non-transparent material.

Though these veiled sculptural  images are usually women, Italian artist Giuseppe Sanmartino was commissioned to create a full-length figure of Jesus Christ in death, wrapped in a transparent shroud. Through the sheer veil, the viewer sees the face of Christ, peaceful yet showing the signs of his painful death.

The veils in these sculptures don't obviously echo any of the uses described by Moses or Paul. But they may speak to a God who does not see as humans see, but who sees beyond and sees through and sees into humanity, which sometimes may seem as opaque as marble. Perhaps these sculptural images can remind us that though the people used a veil to add one degree of separation of themselves from God's glory, nothing - not even an attempt to hide our own faces - can separate us from the love (or glory) of God.

This week on Art&Faith Matters on Facebook, a veil where a face is revealed.
 For Transfiguration Sunday, click here, here, and here.

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