Monday, 30 June 2014

Jael and Sisera by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera, by Artemisia Gentileschi, (1620), at the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.
A biblical theme of a woman slaying an aggressor. Sisera was a cruel Canaanite leader who ruled the Israelites for twenty years. He was defeated by Barak but managed to escape and sought refuge in the tent of Jael. She gave Sisera sanctuary but when he fell asleep she drove a tent peg into his brain. The act fulfilled the prediction of a prophetess who foresaw that a woman would slay Sisera.
Sisera's face in the painting has a resemblance to Caravaggio. Is Gentileschi signalling the end of her admiration for the painter she revered the most? Caravaggio was often in trouble with the law: he killed an officer in a duel in Rome, escaped justice, fled to Malta, and was later jailed for assaulting a Knight of Malta.
Is Gentileschi declaring that she is superior to the man who influenced her style? Or is this really Tassi in the painting, the man who raped her?
She has signed her name on the pilaster, centrally-placed and inscribed on stone. Jael is positioned in the painting like a sculptor working on marble.
There is so much we don't know about Gentileschi who for centuries had the fate of so many women artists, being ignored by art history and fading into obscurity. An Italian Baroque painter, in an era when women painters were not easily accepted by the artistic community, she was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. She was raped when she was 18 years old, and insisted on prosecuting the rapist. During the trial she was subjected to a gynaecological examination and was tortured with thumbscrews to verify her testimony. At the end of the trial the rapist was sentenced to imprisonment for one year but never served his sentence.
Her paintings are extremely expressive, they portray women as assertive and strong, capable of giving themselves over to both crime and pleasure. She thus broke away from traditional conventions of the 17th century. Finally, this 'forgotten' artist is being recognised as one of the most progressive, revolutionary and accomplished Italian artists of the Baroque period.


  1. No wonder Jael looks as if she is relishing banging in that tent peg!