Rembrandt’s Hebrew

Rembrandt, Belshazzar’s Feast, c.1635-1638, National Gallery, London

In a previous post Stephanie noted that beginning with the Renaissance artists began to include accurate Hebrew texts in some of their works portraying biblical characters, with prophets, for example, holding a parchment displaying a text from their biblical writings (Raphael’s Isaiah being an example of this). Before this artists often used illegible scrawl instead of accurate Hebrew text (and I noted an example of this in de Ribera’s Saint Peter and Saint Paul).

Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast portrays a scene from the book of Daniel when Belshazzar mysteriously watched a finger write some text on a wall during a large gathering (Daniel 5). When his experts couldn’t interpret the writing Belshazzar’s mother suggested calling for the Jewish exile Daniel, who was able to interpret it. This part of Daniel is actually written in Aramaic, not Hebrew, although the two languages share the share script. The mysterious writing said מנא מנא תקל ופרסין [MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN]. Remembering that Hebrew and Aramaic are written from right to left, if you look closely at Rembrandt’s painting this is not what it says. I recently put this to a class of university Hebrew students who struggled to make ense of it. Did Rembrandt get it wrong, or did he just use a weird combination of Hebrew/Aramaic letters hoping his audience wouldn’t notice?

Rembrandt actually lived in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam and obtained the Hebrew/Aramaic text for his painting from his friend Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, so it should be right. In fact, embedded in Rembrandt’s work is an explanation found in the Talmud (Talmud Bavli, tractate Sanhedrin 22a) for why Belshazzar’s experts couldn’t interpret the writing. Rather than simply being written right-to-left, the Talmud suggests that the letters were also written in columns, top-to-bottom (like some Asian scripts), and that is exactly how Rembrandt has written it! So the first column (on the right), reading top to bottom, says מנא (mene), repeated in the second column, then תקל (tekel) and finally ופרסין (uparsin) split over two columns. To someone who is able to read Hebrew/Aramaic it now all suddenly begins to make sense, until they come to the final letter still being etched by the mysterious divine finger. In Rembrandt’s work that letter is zayin ז while the biblical text actually has a final nun ן. There are a few letters which beginners to Hebrew often confuse because they look similar, especially ז, ו and ן as well as י (there is a similar confusion with ד and ר, and ה and ח) and it’s easy to see why. It’s not just beginners and students who are confused; we can actually see evidence of scribal errors in the most ancient biblical manuscripts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, with scribes confusing these letters while making their copies. So Rembrandt can be forgiven for making a common mistake with his final letter, although the rest actually makes perfect sense once we have the key to read it in columns rather than simply right-to-left.

Edwin Long and Edward Poynter – Orientalism, Neoclassicism and Biblical Art

The Babylonian Marriage Market, Edwin Long, 1879

In one of Stephen’s blog posts on the book of Esther, he chose a painting by Edwin Long entitled ‘Queen Esther’ which was painted in 1878 and it resides in the National Gallery of Victoria. Edwin Long also painted a picture of Vashti, entitled ‘Vashti’ in 1879. He also famously painted a work entitled ‘Babylonian Marriage Market’ in 1875 (above). Edwin Long was born on the 12th July 1829 in England and died on the 15th May 1891 in Hampstead in London. The art periods in which he painted were Academic art, Neoclassicism and Orientalism.

Edward Poynter, on the other hand, was born on the 20th March 1836 in Paris, France. He died on the 26th July 1919 in London. Edward John Poynter, 1st Baronet, was a painter, designer and draughtsman and also famously painted ‘The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to king Solomon’ in 1890 and this painting resides in the Art Gallery of NSW. He also painted in the Orientalist style and attended the Westminister School, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Heatherley School of Fine Art.

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, Edward Poynter, 1890, Art Gallery of New South Wales

It is to be noted that both artists were from Europe, namely England, and were English even though Poynter was born in Paris. They were swept up in the style of neoclassicism and orientalism. Neoclassicism is a painting style whereas orientalism has its roots in colonial empire building. In a previous blog post I have mentioned the male gaze which is a feminist concept that explains the almost pornographic images that can be found amongst traditional paintings which reflect the male attitude towards women (see also Stephen’s post about this here). Female artists tend to paint with an alternative lense. Orientalism focuses its gaze on the kingdoms of the east with an eye to dominance and derision of its peoples. During these artists’ lives, the Ottoman empire was failing and falling into ruin whereas “the sun never set on the British Empire.” Orientalism could be seen as an extension of the male gaze where the west looks upon the east with both scorn and perhaps a certain amount of covetousness regarding its social structures and customs involving women and men which were quite different in comparison with the stifling social expectations and mores of Europe.

In Long’s works, women are the subject but in the case of Esther and Vashti they are characters in a biblical story. The women are painted as beautiful and feminine with soft brush strokes emphasising their qualities. The light in the paintings is gentle. As is the case in eastern tradition, Vashti is part of a harem even though she is the queen and as such has little freedom. Her refusal of the king’s request to be seen and admired sees her replaced with Esther who also becomes part of the harem. Esther was chosen from all the eligible young women in the land to be the king’s new queen. The social structure of the day could be quite appealing to men who observe that the east does not necessarily see marriage as just between one man and one woman as Christians do. The painting of the Babylonian marriage market portrays women as almost having the status of slaves and yet in the painting they seem compliant or at least resigned to their fate. Neoclassicism focused on the appreciation and fascination with antiquity and certainly in Longs work he seems rather taken with the subservient nature of women in eastern society.

In Poynter’s famous painting of the Queen of Sheba we see a different painting style. It is grand in size (234.5 x 350.5 cm) and the frame is opulent with its gold gilt. The frame is a reflection of the artist’s intention to show in the painting all the splendour of Solomon’s court. The colours chosen are rich in their hue and the brush strokes are fine so as not to detract from the subject matter. Poynter cleverly brings to life the verse in 1 Kings 10:4-5 “…all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings…[ensured] there was no more spirit in her.” He paints the queen in an erotic costume and her skin tone is brown, a controversial move at the time. It took Poynter six years to complete. He was very proud of the work. Criticism of the work was that it was too dramatic, reverting back to Poynter’s earlier works. However, I feel that the artists captures the charisma of Solomon in that he virtually woos the queen with his wealth and style. Orientalism in this case, doesn’t so much deride the subject but seems to be in awe of it.

If you ever get the chance to see the painting in the Art Gallery of NSW you should see it. It is well worth it and it is an excellent example of orientalism at its best.

Esther before Ahasuerus

Artemisia Gentileschi, Esther before Ahasuerus, c. 1628–1635. Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection.

In my recent series on irony and satire in the book of Esther I pointed out that the Persian king Ahasuerus (pronounced Ahashverosh in Hebrew) is ridiculed in the story while Esther and her cousin Mordecai manage to persuade (manipulate?) him in order to save the Jews in the Persian empire from a planned genocide.

In an unrelated post Stephanie wrote about the Italian female artist Artemisia Gentileschi and how many of her paintings portray strong women taking control and dominating a man. Stephanie’s post made me think about a painting by Gentileschi of Esther Before Ahasuerus. One version of Esther falling before Ahasuerus is in the Hebrew Bible which says Esther “fell at his feet, weeping and pleading with him to avert the evil design of Haman the Agagite and the plot that he had devised against the Jews” (8:3). However, in another scene which appears in an addition to the story in the Greek versions of Esther, the writer describes Esther fainting before Ahasuerus:

Lifting his face, flushed with splendour, he [Ahasuerus] looked at her in fierce anger. The queen [Esther] faltered, and turned pale and faint, and collapsed on the head of the maid who went in front of her.  8 Then God changed the spirit of the king to gentleness, and in alarm he sprang from his throne and took her in his arms until she came to herself. He comforted her with soothing words …

Esther 15:7

The scene in Gentileschi’s painting is from this addition to Esther, and she would have been familiar with it because the additional material in Esther is part of the Deutero-canonical books in the Catholic Bible (also called the Apocrypha).

If you take a careful look at Gentileschi’s painting you will see two rather striking things. First, in Esther’s fainting pose her neck is exposed as her head falls back, and she is portrayed with a rather muscular, almost masculine, neck. In fact, I think I detect an Adam’s apple! Second, by contrast with this ‘masculine’ Esther, Ahasuerus is portrayed as a ‘dandy’. It seems to me that Gentileschi knew the story well and had picked up that Ahasuerus is exposed as weak and easily manipulated, while Esther manipulates and therefore dominates him. The artist reveals in a masterful way that she understood what was really going on in the story.

Thanks again to Stephanie, the family art historian, for helping me to see more in Renaissance art than simply pretty pictures!

Hebrew, Greek or nonsense?

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, circa 1616, by Jusepe de Ribera, on display in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, France.

Two recent posts featured paintings which included Hebrew texts from the book of Isaiah. In an earlier post on Raphael, Stephanie commented that “before the birth of the Renaissance, many works that featured biblical themes had illegible scrawl substituted for Hebrew.” The above painting by Jusepe de Ribera is a good example of this. A few letters on the parchment and on the spine of the book under the arm of Saint Paul (the person on the right) look like Hebrew script, a few look like Greek, and the rest is just “illegible scrawl”. By this time other artists were beginning to include authentic Hebrew script in their religious works. Ribera, however, may have been constrained by social mores and the anti-Semitic attitudes of the Catholic church, or he may not have had the same social contacts as other artists to know how to write the correct script.

Ribera’s style was influenced by Caravaggio, and consequently paid a great deal of attention to detail, visible even in the naturalism of Saint Paul’s filthy finger nails. The painting includes some interesting details, such as the key on the table (according to Matthew 16:19, Jesus gave Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”) The painting depicts Peter and Paul in a belligerent manner, strangely with the younger Paul holding a sword. Two possible reasons why Ribera depicted Paul holding a sword come to mind. First, this could be an allusion to Paul’s own reference to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17), or second, to his early life when he persecuted the church (Acts 8:3; 9:1).

On another interesting note, Ribera apparently reused another canvas to paint over for this work as an upside-down head of a child from the earlier work can still be seen below the parchment in Saint Peter’s hand.

Thanks to Stephanie for her art history expertise in writing this post!

Eduard Bendemann – Jewish/German painter of the 19th century 

Jews Mourning in Babylonian Exile (based on Psalm 137), 1832, Eduard Bendemann. In the public domain.

Eduard Julius Friedrich Bendemann was born on 3rd December 1811 in Berlin and he died on 27th December 1889 in Düsseldorf at the age of 78. His father was Anton Heinrich Bendemann, a Jewish banker. His mother Fanny was the daughter of Joel Samuel von Halle who was also a Jewish banker. Eduard’s education was closely scrutinised but he was allowed to pursue an artistic career as he showed a talent for painting. He enrolled in an art school and painted a picture of his grandmother in 1828. This attracted some attention and as a consequence he went on a trip to Italy in 1830 for a year. 

On 28th October 1838 Eduard Bendemann married Lida Schadow who was the daughter of the famous sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow. They went on to have children and quite possibly immersed them in the Jewish faith and culture of their families. Stephen chose ‘Jews mourning in Babylonian Exile’, painted in 1832 by Eduard Bendemann and based on Psalm 37 for one of his posts on the suffering servant of Isaiah. This painting was featured in the Berlin art exhibition and was quite popular with the public. The piece is dignified and manages to convey the feeling of sadness of the figures in the painting. Bendemann also painted ‘The Two Girls at the Well’ in 1832, ‘Jeremiah amid the Ruins of Jerusalem’ in 1837 and ‘The Harvest’ which is his best known work. His paintings received accolades and awards and he was well received. He was promoted to professor of the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in 1838 and eventually the director of the Düsseldorf Academy from 1859 to 1867. Eduard went on to create larger frescoes and painted for the royal family. He made a successful career of his chosen profession. 

In the painting ‘Jews Mourning in Exile’, the emotion of resignation, loss and sadness is conveyed by the muted brush strokes and soft light. The body language of the figures is one of hopelessness and the male figure, who has given up playing his harp, is shackled –  indicating that they are not there willingly. One can imagine a very mournful song being played and sung as the captives wonder just how this calamity happened. Where was God? The modern song ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ by Boney M comes to mind when viewing this image. The viewer can see the river behind the figures and the capital seems to dominate the far background. If the artist, Eduard, and his wife were Jewish, plus both sets of parents, then it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that the artist wanted to tell stories about his people and their history. Quite a few of his paintings have a similar theme. The Jewish community was well established in Germany or Prussia and it would have been beyond the artists imagination to comprehend what would happen in the future. At this time in Germany’s history there was not the rampant anti-semitism of the 20th century. One hundred years later Hitler would visit another terrible calamity upon the Jewish people. 

If we don’t learn from history then we are bound to repeat it and the Jewish people have good reason to remember the past and its’ atrocities. Certainly Jews, and the artist Eduard Bendemann in this case, have felt similar emotions to the suffering servant of Isaiah and they must wonder what is the cost of being chosen, or being a special people. 

Raphael – Renaissance Painter.


Raphael, The Prophet Isaiah

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino was born on the 6th April 1483 in Urbino, Italy. He also died on the 6th April 1520 in Rome, Italy. He was known for painting and architecture and he wielded his craft in the Renaissance period of Italy. His work is admired for its clarity of form and ease of composition and for the concept of the Neoplatonic form of human grandeur. In the Renaissance many of the churches’ teachings were rejected, including that human nature is sinful. Raphael’s humans are beautiful, thus embodying the new philosophy of humanism, or the concept that humans are good.

He was born to Giovanni Santi, a painter, and Magia di Battista Ciarla, who both died when Raphael was a child. His father offered his son lessons and later he joined Perugino’s workshop either as a pupil or as an assistant. Raphael studied the works of his contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He earned the title of ‘master’ at just 17. Raphael was reputed to be engaged to the niece of a friend who was a cardinal but he continuously put off the wedding. Raphael was thought to love women and he was supposedly to die as the result of a night of passion which caused a fever at just the age of 37. This gave him the enduring reputation as a womaniser.

However, there is no doubting that Raphael was a genius at his chosen craft. The Prophet Isaiah, 1512 is just one of his works. His famous works include Transfiguration, 1520; The Sistine Madonna, 1512; The Marriage of the Virgin, 1504; Self-portrait, 1506 and The Triumph of Galatea amongst others. He also found time to work as an architect, building churches and beautiful buildings.

However, it is his painting, The Prophet Isaiah, that I would like to concentrate on in this piece. Stephen chose this painting to illustrate his blog post on understanding Isaiah (go there to see the full picture) and the painting has some interesting features. Note the bold use of colour, the brightness of the light and the fine brush strokes which are almost invisible and give the painting an unearthly quality. This quality is highlighted by the cherubs which adorn the ornate background. The bodies are muscular and beautiful, a feature of his work. However, it is the scroll and the authentic Hebrew writing which is a feature of note and tells us something of what is evolving in the society that Raphael painted in.

Before the birth of the Renaissance, many works that featured biblical themes had illegible scrawl substituted for Hebrew, as the language was considered the work of the devil because of its association with the Jews, the so-called “Christ killers”. However, intellectuals of Raphael’s time wanted to learn the ancient language as, rediscovering history, it came to be considered as one of the four classic ancient languages along with Greek, Latin and Arabic. Hebrew inscriptions could be found on tablets, scrolls, books, shields, framed wall panels and tombstones. Lettered ornaments on sleeves, collars and hems suggested sacred messages coming from the figure or addressed to the figure. Some intellectuals believed that Hebrew was the ‘divine’ language, the language of the angels and it is interesting to note that Raphael included cherubs in his painting with Hebrew clearly displayed on the scroll. Intellectuals even believed that if all societies and peoples learned to speak Hebrew there would be peace and the practice of war would be no more. Kabbalah studies became popular, Christians believing they could unlock the secrets of the Bible by studying ancient Jewish texts and beliefs and thus gaining greater understanding of life’s mysteries. Some Jews were very sceptical of the interest in their culture and others embraced it. However, treatment of the Jewish people did not necessarily improve and the Catholic church still considered them a hostile enemy. Therefore it could be speculated that Raphael was being rather modern and daring by using the original Hebrew script in his work.

Raphael was an artist who painted at the height of the Renaissance and he was a creature of his times. Those times began to loosen the hold of the Catholic church on western society and humanism began to take root. Modern western civilisation can see its beginnings in this era thus making his works very significant indeed.

The male gaze and Biblical interpretation


Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori, in the Royal Collection (public domain).

In an earlier post Stephanie referred to a work by the female artist Artemisia Gentileschi and noted that “her gaze is not that of a man and so there is no male gaze here to interpret the female form”. The term “the male gaze” describes the heterosexual male perspective which dominates art and literature and which often represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. Gentileschi was radically different because she was one of the few female artists of the time and her work was almost exclusively of female subjects. They were often portrayed in dominant positions relative to males in the same painting,  including biblical scenes such as Jael and Sisera, Judith Slaying Holofernes, and Samson and Delilah (I may write about her painting of Esther before Ahasuerus when I come back to the Book of Esther at a later date.)

Terms such as “the male gaze” and “the female gaze” initially arose in feminist theory, and while they are useful in specific contexts we should acknowledge that they can be generalisations. I personally find the concept helpful in appreciating how male and female artists see the world from different perspectives. But those perspectives are not limited to their gender; they are also filtered by the artist’s race, religion, sexuality, social status and colour. In fact, each artist has a unique perspective and there as as many gazes as there are gazers. This is equally true of biblical interpretation as it is of art. As various artists will portray biblical scenes differently, depending on how they “view” it, so readers will read the same text differently. One’s interpretation of a text is not only influenced by their gender, race, colour, religious background, sexuality and social status, but also by countless experiences in life. There are as many interpretations of the Bible as there are readers.

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1607, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Gemäldegalerie, Vienna

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1607, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Gemäldegalerie, Vienna

Caravaggio painted at least three pieces of David with the Head of Goliath. In each piece it is clear that he used himself as the model for Goliath – a self-portrait of sorts. This wasn’t particularly unusual as other artists sometimes worked themselves into paintings. Cristofani Allori did something similar with his Judith with the Head of Holofernes (above) where he used himself as the model for Holofernes, his former mistress as the model for Judith, and her mother as the model for Judith’s maid. I wonder, however, if the artist did not merely use these women as “models” but by putting his own severed head in their hands he was also making some kind of commentary on their relationships. It’s possible that Caravaggio was also making some kind of statement about himself in his David with the Head of Goliath. In at least one of his three versions (possibly all three), his model for David was described as il suo Caravaggino (“his own little Caravaggio”). This may refer to Cecco del Caravaggio, the artist’s studio assistant in Rome some years previously, or it could mean the artist was painting his younger self as David. If so, we would have a young Caravaggio holding the severed head of the older Caravaggio. I am neither a psychologist nor an art historian so I won’t say too much about what this might tell us about how the artist saw himself. However, it makes me think about how people often read themselves into biblical texts. What I mean by this is readers of the Bible may “hear” the writer or God speaking directly to them through the text. They might perceive the text as speaking specifically to their situation or circumstances, perhaps giving the words a meaning which could not have been intended by the writer for their initial audience.

While it may be perfectly legitimate to read the Bible in this way – thinking that God is speaking directly to the individual reader through the text – there is a danger in thinking that this meaning which the reader has taken and applied to their own unique circumstances is actually the meaning intended by the writer and therefore also applies to other readers and their circumstances. We need to carefully distinguish between what the writer intended and how the initial audience would have understood the words when they first heard them, and any application of these words to the lives and circumstances of readers at some later time. The task of the biblical scholar is to endeavour to understand the actual text and what it meant to the writer and the initial audience. How these words are applied in new situations and at other times may be a legitimate task for rabbis, pastors and general readers, but we should not confuse this application with the original meaning. What the Bible actually says, and what it may mean “for us” may be two different things, and each reader will approach the text with a unique perspective. We don’t all read it with the same “gaze.”

I was reminded of this recently when I saw a question on an academic forum about the meaning of a particular biblical text. One of the respondents encouraged the person asking the question to “open themselves to the leading of the Holy Spirit who will reveal the meaning to them.” This response may have been appropriate in some religious contexts but was entirely out-of-place in that forum. The questioner was trying to understand the actual meaning of an expression and the best tools for that job would have been a good Hebrew lexicon, a Hebrew grammar, and some commentaries or articles which addressed the meanings of the words in context, or asking scholars who were competent with these tools (which is what they did). What the respondent was thinking was how the questioner might want to apply the text in their own unique circumstances, and that is a different matter entirely.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – A Religious Painter

Sacrifice of Isaac (Sacrificio d’Isacco) by Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born to Lucia Aratori and Fermo Merisi on 29th September 1571 in Milan, Italy. He was a leading Italian painter who lived and worked for most of his adult life in Rome. Caravaggio became famous for the realism of his larger than life religious works which were in the Baroque style. He had a volatile character, was reputed to be homosexual in orientation and committed murder in his life. He was probably born in the small town of Caravaggio and would have spent his early life in both Caravaggio and the larger city of Milan, where his father had a workshop. He had a reputation for being a controversial painter with a flamboyant style and personality. He was only 39 when he died and he lived and played hard.

Caravaggio was probably the most revolutionary artist of his time, as he abandoned the idealised human and religious experience of earlier painters for realism and the Baroque style. In those times, aspiring painters were apprenticed to artists to learn the craft and Caravaggio was apprenticed to Simone Peterzano. He became familiar with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael and other High Renaissance masters. He moved to Rome in 1592 and began to work in an artists’ factory painting fruit. He made friendships and connections and to paint his first works. However, some of his paintings were considered vulgar as the themes were sexual by nature, common and depicted death. The church and general society were not amused and the paintings sold for a low price. He turned his talents to painting religious themes in his own unique style, that of naturalism, lack of preparation in the execution of the work and using oils with which to paint. Eventually he received commissions for his craft and he became well known in higher circles of society. Artists created schools and retained pupils who were educated in the distinctive style of the master and Caravaggio was no exception. His naturalistic style influenced artists who were to come later such as Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Velaquez. In 1606 he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni and was banished from Rome, making his way to Naples. He enjoyed the protection of the Colonna family and continued to paint in churches and on canvas. His early death could have been a result of his wild ways. 

In The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1602, once again we see the play of light and shade and the rich texture of the oil paint in the painting. The brush strokes are delicate and well hidden, giving the painting a photographic finish. The models for Abraham and Isaac seem familiar as if Caravaggio has used them before for other works. This is quite possible. The angel is intervening just in time to prevent Abraham from killing his son and the look of horror on the face of Isaac implies a struggle by the boy against his father’s will. This is the naturalism that Caravaggio brings to his craft by depicting humans as they are, not as creatures who blindly do the will of a heavenly being. Caravaggio does not seem too concerned to paint every detail as precisely detailed in Genesis 22. He captures human emotions and passions perhaps because the artist himself is at the mercy of his own personality in life.

Caravaggio was paid in four instalments by his agents for this painting and it remains one of his most famous works today.     

The art of vengeance: the biblical art of Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders, 1610, Artemisia Gentileschi. Public domain.

Artemisia Gentileschi was an artist of the Italian Baroque and she was quite unique for her times as she was a woman who learned the craft of painting. Born in July 1593, she was the eldest child of Orazio Gentileschi and Prudentia Montone. Artemisia’s mother died when she was twelve. Her father kept his children with him in his workshop while he painted and Artemisia showed great talent at fifteen, certainly more than her brothers who were also learning the craft. However, Artemisia was acutely aware of her limitations as a woman.

One of her first paintings at seventeen was Susanna and the Elders, a biblical story of a woman who is sexually harassed by two elders of her community.* There are echoes of the ‘Me Too’ movement in the painting as the advances from the old men are definitely not wanted. It would seem that such societal problems were nothing new as they were manifest in 1610. Such was Artemisia’s fate that she was raped as a teenager and the perpetrator, Agostino Tassi, promised to marry her. However, as is to be expected, he reneged on the deal and so Artemisia’s father decided to lay charges against the man. Rape was considered a blight against the family honour in that society and Artemisia was tortured with thumb screws before being believed. The sentence was banishment, however, there is no evidence that it was ever carried out. Artemisia is thought to have said of her torture that the thumb screws were the rings that her rapist gave her. This incident and its subsequent trauma was to shape her artistic work for the rest of her life.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612–1613, Artemisia Gentileschi. Public domain.

Artemisia painted in the style of Caravaggio. Artemisia’s father was a student of the artist. One of her best known paintings was Judith Slaying Holofernes. Once again, it is the story of a beautiful woman slaying the Jewish enemy by cutting off his head, similar to the themes of the book of Esther.** Holofernes was the Assyrian general who was commissioned to subdue the Jewish people and Judith saves her people by assassinating him when they were having dinner. It was painted in 1612-13 and it has been interpreted by feminists as a strong woman taking control and dominating a man. This theme is often seen in her works and she seems to be drawn to biblical stories with this theme of female strength. It would seem that Artemisia subconsciously wished that she had such strength to use against her attacker. As the artist is a woman, her gaze is not that of a man and so there is no male gaze here to interpret the female form. Instead of seeming weak and helpless against male passion, her women are heroic.

The painting is a play of light and shadow, with the shadow casting a sinister feel, especially as there is also copious amounts of blood contrasted against the white sheets as Judith is painted as plunging the sword into Holofernes’ neck. Holofernes certainly looks intoxicated as he lies on his bed and the two women, Judith and her maid, look at him with intensity as they go about their gruesome task. He almost looks surprised as they attack. This is the last thing he expected. It is interesting to note that the costumes of the two women seem to comply with the artist’s fashions of the day in Italy rather than ancient Persian societal fashions. As a student of Caravaggio, who was reputedly a homosexual, the male figure is muscular and well defined. The artist also uses chiaroscuro well (the use of strong contrasts between light and dark) in the painting, the play of light and dark creating the haunting atmosphere.

Artemisia Gentileschi had many wealthy and famous clients but she faded into obscurity until the 20th century when she was rediscovered. Artemisia was ahead of her times but receives many accolades today.

Editorial notes:

* Susanna and the Elders is a biblical story which appears in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles as an addition to the Book of Daniel, and in other Bibles as part of the Apocrypha.

** The Book of Judith is in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, and in other Bibles as part of the Apocrypha.

Biblical Art

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often like to include classical works of art in many of my posts. These art works often have a story of their own which are worth exploring, although this is not my area of expertise. However, I am fortunate to have an Art Historian in the family! From today Stephanie Cook will join me as a writer on this site. Stephanie has a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in Art History from the University of Sydney. She will bring another dimension to the biblical stories I write about by helping me to choose appropriate art works and by exploring and explaining the artists’ contributions to biblical interpretation through their craft.