There might be more than one way to understand the cover of Pee on Water, the collection of short fiction forthcoming from Publishing Genius by Rachel B. Glaser (who, in the interest of disclosure, is a friend), but I want to suggest a way of understanding it that is both religious and irreligious – that involves, I think, a peculiar dissolution of the line between the sacred and the profane.
Glaser, who is a visual artist as well as a writer, made the illustration for the cover of her book by manipulating an image of a painting by Caravaggio, ‘The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.’
I’m not sure exactly how she did it (I think she used a design program, but I’m not sure which), but what I want to discuss is the way the title of her book, and the modified version of the painting, create a juxtaposition that results in a fresh sort of paradox.
The original painting depicts the moment from the Gospel of John when the resurrected Jesus invites Thomas – the one Apostle who had been absent when Jesus first appeared to his friends after his death – to examine the wounds on his body. Tradition tells us that Thomas required this moment in order to believe that Jesus had actually risen from the dead. Afterward, Jesus said to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
So the painting is not just a dramatization of a moment, but of an idea – of the difficulties inherent to religious faith.
By sampling the painting, and by changing it, Glaser departs from this idea, but not entirely. By retaining the semblance of the painting, she forces herself to incorporate its original context into her vision of things. Describing this vision might be where interpretations vary. Some readers might hear in her title only a playfulness that echoes the playfulness in her illustration. In this sense, the cover would primarily be a jest. But it’s possible to see both the title and the illustration as equally sincere responses to a natural, albeit peculiar, experience of the world – one that values mundane, material things (like pee) for the same reason it values more ‘miraculous’ things, like those events Caravaggio was fond of depicting. In other words, pee on water might be, like everything, something to be seriously awestruck by. This isn’t to say that playfulness doesn’t exist in Glaser’s work, but rather that it exists as one aspect of a more serious concern.
Consider the arrangement of the cover. The title, Pee on Water, is presented impartially to the reader. We are not told what to think about it, but rather we are invited to consider it – the image of it, the sound of it. There is something funny about it. But there is also something honest about it, something that encourages contemplation. When coupled with the religious iconography, it carries a sort of cheeky irreverence, but even this irreverence is ordered rather than chaotic. It is unmalicious, despite its complications. Notice the pattern and color scheme Glaser chose – they’re sympathetic to those of Caravaggio. The tones aren’t garish, where they could be. The men aren’t painted in neon (which wouldn’t have been surprising, given the otherwise radical changes Glaser imposed). Instead, they retain something of their original earthiness. If you look closely at the figure of Jesus, you’ll see that his skin is filled in with musical notes, as if he is indeed capable of inducing in his friends a kind of transport. All this suggests an engagement with questions of faith (religious and everyday), rather than a disengagement from them, or a dismissal of them.
6 thoughts on “the sacred and the profane: a look at the cover of a book by rachel b. glaser”
Nicely considered, Edward. I think the story “Iconographic Conventions of Pre- and Early Renaissance: Italian Representations of the Flagellation of Christ” may shed some light on the cover too, though it’s one of the stories in there I haven’t read.
I think you’re right, Gabe. To me, that story you mentioned works as a sort of lyrical essay. It’s an exploration of art as a kind of magical fakery, as an imitative exercise that has the potential to reveal something about reality that reality itself does not reveal.
To illustrate her point, Glaser discusses the way the sheer number of iconographic representations of Jesus have resulted in a sort of false depiction of him in our collective unconscious – one that paradoxically has heightened his ‘reality.’ She describes the working of cover songs, in music, to draw our attention to a similar dynamic: “John Coltrane rescues ‘My Favourite Things’ from the original The Sound of Music version. His meandering jazz masterpiece weaves in and out of melody, trilling notes out of control, and all the while the listener has the other prim version in her head… Are Jesus paintings covers of Jesus paintings? Or of Jesus?”
Glaser herself dramatizes this question when she ‘covers’ Caravaggio’s ‘The Incredulity of St. Thomas.’ What’s happening both in the story and on the cover of her book is a kind of reaching, or exploration – not so much an attempt to answer questions as an attempt to more adequately express them.
great piece, edward. i’m really looking forward to this book a lot.
Great conversation here. Thanks for posting. Really can’t wait for this book.