Tableaux Vivants

Tableaux Vivants and Scenes from the Bible (part 1)

Living Pictures, or Tableaux Vivants, are motionless assemblages of costumed actors representing an art piece or scene from literature.   They were a popular form of entertainment in the early 19th century and possibly earlier. Ranging from entertainment at salon parties to educational tableaux for schoolchildren, these ‘reproductions’ communicated something to the audience that, though silent and still, brought the scenes ‘to life.’

Such living tableaux are common in major tourist sites as ‘living statues,’ often painted silver or gold, whose movements surprise and delight onlookers. My church in Metairie, Louisiana produces a Living Nativity for several nights during Advent, in which ordinary people dress and pose in a classic Nativity scene outside the front doors. A Christian theater group in Cincinnatti called Friends of the Groom, offers scripts and performances using living pictures. I would love to see some of these ‘performances.’

In the early 20th century a group known as the American Colony lived near Jerusalem.  Started with 17 Americans in 1881, the group was led by none other than Horatio Spafford, the man who penned the classic hymn, It is Well with My Soul. The group, having studied end-time prophecy, apparently expected to simply stay in Jerusalem until the Lord’s return. In 1896, a large contingent of Swedes joined them. This ‘colony’ became known for its Christian humanitarian efforts serving both Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land and for its photographic enterprise. During World War I, the colony operated a soup kitchen serving over 2000 people a day.

Eric G. Matson, who joined the colony from Sweden with his family when he was only 8 years old, became the eventual holder of decades worth of photographs taken between 1897 and the 1930s. Many photos were published in National Geographic pieces documenting historical events and daily life in the Middle East. Others were sold to tourists and religious pilgrims in Jerusalem. Upon Matson’s death, the entire collection of photographs, some 20,000 images, was placed in the Library of Congress. source:  Jerusalem’s American Colony and Its Photographic Legacy BY TOM POWERS © 2009

A friend of mine, Todd Bolen, founder of, has amassed his own collection of photographs from the Holy Land. These photos help Bible teachers and students better understand the setting of Bible events. I use many of them to illustrate my Bible Studies for Teens, with Todd’s permission.  He has also refinished and compiled a number of the American Colony photos. In particular, Bolen found a set of photographic ‘tableaux vivants’ depicting the Old Testament story of Ruth.

They are fascinating.  —-More on the Ruth photos in tomorrow’s post….

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