Exploring the Progression from Nativity to Epiphany

Julia Reinhard Lupton, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, discusses prophetic aesthetics and parallels in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as a guest lecturer sponsored by the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters.

PROVO, Utah (Jan. 26, 2018)—Julia Reinhard Lupton, Professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, thumbed her hands across a glossy wooden podium as she tested the microphone and ran through her slideshow one final time. Her excited energy was tangible, with a beaming smile to match, as she looked to her twin sister for words of encouragement. With this lively demeanor, Lupton was ready to launch into the realm of Shakespeare as she addressed anticipating BYU students, faculty and alumni a few weeks ago.

Photo courtesy of Julia Lupton

Her lecture entitled “Prophetic Aesthetics in Twelfth Night: Scriptural Participations” was just that—brimming with fascinating prophetic parallels linking eighteenth-century artwork and Old Testament stories with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She began by discussing two artists: Henry Fuseli, an Anglo-Swiss painter, and Michelangelo. Fuseli designed four frescos representing scenes from Twelfth Night—Lupton walked through each fresco specifically highlighting Viola, the heroine of the drama, “who is depicted in her own beautiful, poetic image as patience on a monument.”

Lupton compared these frescos to Michelangelo’s drawings in the Sistine Chapel, specifically referencing his spandrels, the triangular space between the outer curve of an arch and the ceiling above, and lunettes, arched alcoves containing a painting, that depict prophets and sibyls, who are ancestors of Christ. “The lunettes are just amazing psychological portraits,” Lupton explained. “We can see in . . . these triangular spandrels how the families are tightly packed . . . in these positions of waiting for something which they don’t know what is.” Lupton made the case that these images link Michelangelo to Shakespeare through eighteenth-century artists who “were trying to create an English art . . . that would have a secular theme but would be galvanized around a scriptural text.”

Photo Courtesy of Julia Lupton

With this foregrounding, Lupton delved into a period she termed “prophetic time.” This was a time of existential waiting, a time between hope and despair that Fuseli and other artists discovered in Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is in this prophetic zone where all the connections were made—both the aesthetic and theological. Lupton first situated Michelangelo’s massive flood depictions in the Sistine Chapel within the world of flood and shipwreck that colors Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night—a play that begins with two children born from the sea, thrust into unfamiliar circumstances, and forced to veil and eventually reveal their identities. But before these connections were crystalized, Lupton had to ensure that her audience understood what exactly Twelfth Night is. Besides being the title of a play, it refers to the feast of the Epiphany which is celebrated with song, drink, and entertainment. Most importantly, Lupton explained, “In Twelfth Night, the prophetic interim is defined by the period between nativity and epiphany, between Christmas and Twelfth Night . . . nativity names a singular birth of the subject into a predicament characterized by both creaturely exposure and hiddenness from the world . . . An epiphany is the manifestation of something hidden that leads to acknowledgement and reattachment.” It is through this progression from nativity to epiphany where the prophetic aesthetics in Twelfth Night are revealed.

To further clarify the connections, Lupton deemed the Hebrew prophet Jonah as the most applicable to Twelfth Night— a prophet who resisted God’s calling to cry repentance to his people and was consequently thrown overboard, swallowed by a giant fish, and later cast out onto dry land. “His ordeal resembles a birth or nativity from a watery womb onto the shores of a new life.” Viola and Sebastian’s shipwrecked condition, in which they are separated from each other, link them to this prophetic story. Lupton pointed out that “Viola’s untimely nativity and her search for a holding zone places her in the great waiting room of messianic time. Nativity for Jonah and Viola issues in creaturely exposure and hiddenness from the world.”

Photo courtesy of Julia Lupton

Lupton pushed this connection across mediums when she discussed how Michelangelo’s Jonah seems to emphasize a certain ambivalence from the prophet; while his head turns toward God, his torso twists away and his legs are “spread in a posture of extraordinary vulnerability.” Lupton even questioned if this anguish could be Jonah giving birth to himself. Such impressive observations forced listeners to consider the parallels between a vulnerable and disguised Viola with Michelangelo’s distressed Jonah.

But Lupton’s insights didn’t stop there—she continued with a final, and perhaps most pertinent, connection between Viola and Jonah relating the construction of Viola’s willow cabin in Act 1 Scene 5 with the booth Jonah built outside Nineveh. Lupton articulately argued that “Viola’s imaginary architecture is related to her birth from the sea, just as Jonah’s delivery from the whale is re-echoed in his creaturely cabin . . . If this shipwreck symbolizes violent nativity, the willow cabin enacts a partial epiphany, bidding Viola’s own affective life to shine through the open weave of her disguise.” Here, Shakespeare undergoes a progression from a nativity birth to an epiphany that leads to re-attachment. Such progression fed into the culminating moment in her lecture where Lupton described this idea of participation. She explained that this type of participation doesn’t simply suggest making comments in class or contributing to a group project—it’s deeper than that. Lupton borrowed words from New Testament theologian Paul Tillich: “Every true symbol participates in the reality which it symbolizes.” Not only are Jonah’s booth and Viola’s willow cabin symbols of such participation, but theater too is a “rehearsal for epiphany” and a “deeply human rendering of participation.”

These prophetic aesthetics shared by Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Fuseli have offered fresh insights into their respective works, drawing fascinating connections across mediums, suggesting that all art lends itself to other works in the process of enhancing and deepening meaning. Without this interplay between mediums, interpretations would remain one-dimensional. Lupton has clearly moved beyond dimensions and binaries in her scholarship, but added in her concluding thoughts that, “We still have much to learn from the zone shared by these artists in our searches for fellowship and epiphany, for courage hope, and for new practices of participation.”

This final call hearkens back to her earlier definition of nativity and epiphany, considered “existential events in the life of a person.” This particular understanding invites people to think beyond the page or artwork and evaluate their own journey from nativity to epiphany, whether that’s as a person in need of re-birth or someone wanting to reattach to a former self. Such introspection begins the process of interrogating and pondering the human condition—a condition in which we are all participants.

Emily Gardiner (B.A. English, ’18)

Emily covers news for the Comparative Arts and Letters Department in the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in English with a minor in writing and rhetoric.