The male gaze and Biblical interpretation

Judith_with_the_Head_of_Holofernes_by_Cristofano_Allori

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.