Sunday, April 4, 2010


The completed set of 22 woodcut prints, created between 2000 and 2005, are meant to be a visual adaptation of the Old Testament book. The narrator of the book (Qoheleth, or "The Preacher"), having concluded that he is unable to understand the true nature and intentions of God, decides to write about what he has come to know well, the eternal truths of human nature and natural law. These truths are just as valid some 2300 years later, making the ancient book very adaptable for contemporary treatment. The titles are derived from quotes pulled directly from various translations. As with other print series I've done, some depictions are fairly literal approaches to the original text, while some use more unusual interpretations that are still meant to be faithful to the intent of the author. I tried to capture the overall major themes as I understand them: the importance of seeking wisdom, doing good works, and enjoying the good things in life when they happen, but coupled with the inevitability of sadness and death, and the fact that life often seems confusing, random, and useless. (keep in mind that I'm an artist, not a theologian) My goal was that someone who viewed the whole series of prints would be left in approximately the same emotional and philosophical state as someone who read the book.

For the purposes of this site I have chosen 18 of the images. I have grouped them along some of the major themes of Ecclesiastes as I interpret it. Some of the prints could be in more than one of my categories. These are from carved wood blocks printed with black ink, after which the prints are hand colored with watercolors. With each print I have included the specific verse from which I derived the title and theme for each print. In most cases I excerpted a piece of the quote for the title, in a few cases rearranging the words slightly to make a more practical title. There is also a little background about how each print came to be made.

NA- The New American Bible
GN- The Good News Bible

All images Copyright 2000 to 2005 by Paul Bonelli

The Natural World

One thing that Qoheleth is comfortable talking about is the natural world. Things occur as they always have, uninfluenced by the activities and presence of mankind.

The sun rises and the sun goes down

1:5 NA "The sun rises and the sun goes down: then it presses on to the place where it rises"

I decided that a sundial would be the best way to depict the path of the sun through the sky. I like to be accurate in drawing, but couldn't find a working public sundial to draw from. So I got a library book, learned the geometry needed to design one for my location, built it from scrap wood, and set it up in proper alignment.

To the places where they go the rivers keep on going.

1:7 NA "All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full. To the places where they go, the rivers keep on going."

To me the Grand Canyon will always be the best symbol of a near eternal continuous flow of a river. Not an actual scene, but bits and pieces of canyon geology arranged for the composition.

Wherever it falls, there shall it lie

11:3 NA "When the clouds are full they pour out rain upon the earth. Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, wherever it falls, there shall it lie."

This image is from an actual tree that fell outside my house; it fell to the south, into some deep woods, not the north where it would have crushed my house. The point of view is standing on the downed trunk of the tree, with the leafy ground immediately beneath it.


One of the major themes of Ecclesiastes is vanity, meaning that all we do in life is in vain, empty, and useless. No matter what we do with our lives, it means nothing to us at death. We are advised to enjoy life when we can, but we are given examples of what happens when we forsake that in the pursuit of wealth and fame.

All is vanity and a chase after the wind

2:17 NA "Therefore I loathed life, since for me the work that is done under the sun is evil: for all is vanity and a chase after the wind."

I selected the mouse running on the wheel as the ultimate symbol of wasted activity. Always running but never getting anywhere. As productive as chasing the wind.

I undertook great works

2:4 NA "I undertook great works: I built myself houses and planted vineyards."

When it comes to physical structures, perhaps nothing will ever top Ancient Egypt for excessive personal monuments. I guess they were partly successful in that we remember many of the individual pharaohs today, but considering the cost and labor involved, one can imagine what might have be created for the living instead.

A solitary man with no companion

4:8 NA "A solitary man with no companion; with neither son nor brother. Yet there is no end to all his toil and riches do not satisfy his greed. 'For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good things?' This is also vanity and a worthless task."

The large scale of the well appointed bedroom and the small single figure within were meant to demonstrate the idea of someone whose pursuit of wealth came at the expense of having no one to enjoy it with.

Human Nature

The Preacher has a lot of knowledge about the ways of people. These prints look at some of the negative aspects of humanity, a theme he explores thoroughly.

One dies as well as the other

3:19 NA "For the lot of man and of beast is one lot; the one dies as well as the other. Both have the same life-breath, and the man has no advantage over the beast; but all is vanity."

I was hung up on this quote for a while, trying to come up with something involving literally man and beast. Then there was a period of a few weeks where there was a back and forth between Israelis and Palestinians every couple of days. Nothing was really being accomplished but a lot of innocent people on both sides were dying. I felt the image fit within the mood of Ecclesiastes enough to be included and well suited the shortened quote I used for the title.

People save up their money and then lose it all

5:13-14 GN "people save up their money for a time when they may need it, and lose it all in some bad deal and end up with nothing left to pass on to their children."

I'm not into gambling myself, but I had job that used to take me into Atlantic City casinos a few dozen times a year. Casino related imagery has worked itself into a lot of my art over the years as a result. Some people here and there will be lucky, but for most casino gambling is a bad deal.

Days of sorrow, vexation, sickness, and wrath

5:16 NA "All the days of his life are passed in gloom and sorrow, under great vexation, sickness, and wrath."

I keyed on the sickness part of the quote, and recycled an image from a previous body of work, expanding and colorizing it. Today if you have money HIV is often a dangerous, but manageable chronic disease, but back when the quilt project was started it was practically a death sentence. The early days of AIDS inspired a lot of negative emotion.

Who can make straight what God has made crooked?

7:13 NA "Consider the work of God. Who can make straight what he has made crooked?"

Variations on this quote appear twice in Ecclesiastes, and I had once used it years earlier in a print relating to trying to control river flooding. I took a very different approach this time, applying it to a disturbed mental state. All of the pills depicted are various anti-depressants or mood elevators. Not something really talked about in Ecclesiastes, but I felt that something about the idea that seeking happiness is at best a temporary and often futile pursuit fit within the overall theme of the book.

The sinner will be entrapped by her

7:26 NA "More bitter than death I find the woman who is a hunter's trap, whose heart is a snare and whose hands are prison bonds. He who is pleasing to God will escape her, but the sinner will be entrapped by her."

Qoheleth seems to have a mixed opinion of women in general, but I wanted something that most people would agree on to go with this quote. To me the prostitutes were a clear symbol of temptation and sin.

Crime is committed because it is not punished

8:11 GN "Why do people commit crimes so readily? Because crime is not punished quickly enough."

This one was inspired by the then current Enron scandal, in which market manipulations and some illegal bookkeeping got some top executives rich while gouging customers, and when it all came down most company employees lost their jobs and their pensions. The behaviors at Wall Street investment banks over the past few years shows that the image is still relevant.


I see these two prints as dealing with the theme of reverence for God. Although Qoheleth suggests that God's plans for us aren't necessarily influenced by our actions (good behavior isn't always rewarded, bad behavior isn't always punished), he still suggests we show proper respect and reverence.

Thus has God done that he may be revered

3:14 NA "I recognized that whatever God does will endure forever; there is no adding to it, or taking from it. Thus has God done that he may be revered."

Saint parades of this type are still common in traditional Italian neighborhoods in the NY/NJ area. The typical features- conveying a statue of a saint with money attached to it, a small marching band, widows dressed in black, young kids, explosions, etc. (there is an example on film in The Godfather part II) It was a subject I had wanted to work into an print and this series gave me the opportunity. I generally consider reverence to be an internal thing, but the parade provided a public example. Obviously a saint is not God, but I think the idea of reverence for things holy still holds up.

Delay not the fulfillment of a vow to God

5:3 NA "When you make a vow to God, delay not its fulfillment. For God has no pleasure in fools: fulfill what you have vowed."

I liked the quote but needed to come up with a visualization of the idea of fulfilling such a vow. Eventually I came up with this. Vows to God are often made as part of a request for divine intervention- help me with this and I promise to do that. The lighting of candles is another variation on that- pray for your cause, light a candle, and deposit a monetary offering. My change was putting the credit card machine on the candle rack. After all a credit card is a promise to pay at a later date for the thing you want right now.

General Wisdom

I group these prints together under the category of general wisdom: good advice and some things to consider.

Money answers for everything

10:19 NA "Bread and oil call forth merriment and wine makes the living glad, but money answers for everything."

For me nothing captures the mood of this quote like the scene at the end of a large meal at a restaurant. The table is littered with dirty dishes and utensils, empty glasses and bottles, and various detritus, to which the check is eventually added.

A few flies

10:1 GN "Dead flies can make a whole bottle of perfume stink, and a little stupidity can cancel out great wisdom."

It is from this verse that the expression "a fly in the ointment" is derived. However, I never felt much impact from the analogy. Might not the dead flies smell nice from the perfumed ointment, instead of the other way around? And if not, who cares of some ointment gets ruined? In any case, it's not a visually interesting image. I decided that the ice cream sundae with flies suited it better for the purposes of a print. When this is hung on a wall and seen from across a room, the flies are too small to be noticed, and the viewer just sees the hot fudge sundae. It is only when they come close to enjoy it that they see the flies and are repulsed. So no ointment, but I feel it captures the spirit of the quote.

You know not how life begins in the womb

11:15 GN "God made everything, and you can no more understand what he does than you understand how life begins in the womb of a pregnant woman."

While we certainly know a lot more now about the process of fertilization and gestation, there are still many aspects of genetics currently beyond our knowledge, not to mention the philosophical concept of wondering what lies ahead in the lifetime of what starts in the womb.

At evening let not your hand be idle

11:6 NA "In the morning sow your seed, and at evening let not your hand be idle. For you know not which of the two will be successful, or whether both will turn out well."

The subject of my print literally has his hands busy with television remote and beer, but spending the evening in front of the tv is a classic example of idleness.