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“I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them” (Song of Solomon 5:3)

CAT 51. Van der Heyden. Song of Solomon 5.2 from Suderman, 1622. BA 73..jpg

CAT 50. Jacob van de Heyden. “I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them” (Song of Solomon 5:3) in Daniel Sudermann, Hohe geistreiche Lehren und Erklärungen: uber . . .  desz Hohen Lieds Salomonis. Frankfurt: Eberhardt Kieser, 1622, p. 41. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Melville would not have had difficulty tracing this image of a woman washing her feet to verse 5:3 of the Song of Songs. The German-language version of that verse is printed, with a reference to canticle 5, on the back of his cut-out engraving (CAT 50 verso). This reference initiates a new commentary on the same verse that Sudermann had printed as the inscription for van der Heyden’s image on the front side of the leaf: “Ich hab meine Füss gewäschen / wie sol ich sie wider besudlen” (5:3). The opening line of his commentary in the subscription directly under the picture immediately sets the Solomonic foot-washing in a Christian context: “Christi Braut spricht in sich allein / Ich hab mein Füss gewaschen rein.” Two of three new commentaries on the verso of that page are headed by the foot-washing text. The fragment of the one visible to Melville on the verso of the engraving itself includes one of those words that is conspicuously absent from the Song of Solomon itself: “Gott” (God). 

This image by van der Heyden is very specific to verse 5:3 and is not used elsewhere in Sudermann’s treatise. This moment in the Song of Songs initiates a complex passage, sometimes interpreted as a dream, in which the woman, having purified herself by cleansing her feet, hears the knock of her beloved at the door, rises to meet him, but instead finds that he has departed. This particular engraving shows excellent control of light and dark and attention to narrative detail. The foot and basin are the center of attention, with such details as the slippers on the floor and the book on the table rendered with admirable precision. The female figure, though clothed, shows a voluptuous shapeliness, and her long hair flows delicately over her shoulder and alongside her clothing on the right.  

Van der Heyden’s depiction of the woman washing her feet is similar in subject and style to a seventeenth-century painting by Jan Steen, The Toilet (c. 1661-65; Rijksmuseum; I am grateful to Hinke Bakker from Professor August den Hollander’s Bible Database Team in the Netherlands for pointing this out). His treatment of this and other domestic interior scenes resembles that of some of Melville’s engravings after sixteenth-century Dutch figurative artists catalogued in Chapter 4 below. Some of van der Heyden’s more explicitly religious depictions from the Song of Solomon closely follow the imagery and style of engravings that the German artist Erhard Schön had made of the same subject a century earlier (see CAT 56).