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.