Brawlin' Broads: Jael and Sisera

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Artemisia Gentileschi, Jael and Sisera, 1620
Brawlin' Broads
By BLAIR HUXMAN

The Italian baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi depicts a murderous biblical scene in Jael and Sisera. The scene comes from the Book of Judges and shows Jael's decision to murder Sisera, a Canaanite general who is a threat to her people. Sisera was a cruel leader who ruled the Israelites for over 20 years. During one battle, Sisera escapes and Jael, the wife of Herber the Kenite, welcomes him into her tent. She feeds and comforts him, even possible seducing the warlord. While he rests, she drives a tent peg into his brain. Jael appears almost serene before the act. She is determined to do what will save her people. Gentileschi chose to show the moment directly before the climax of the scene. Her arm carefully aiming above his head before crashing down leaves the viewer with a gut feeling of suspense and impatience. What happens next? Is she successful? By showing the moment directly before the murder, Gentileschi leaves the viewer in a suspended state of anticipation.

Gentileschi was inspired by Caravaggio and was influenced by his unique style. This work is similar to Judith Beheading Holofernes, in that a biblical woman acts independently to murder a military leader to preserve her people. Caravaggio's work was praised and set a precedent for depicting female independence. Without it, Gentileschi's painting of a woman not acting under the influence of a man would have been met with fervent criticism. Gentileschi's style shares many similarities to Caravaggio. Clothes have soft folds and fall gracefully and characters are softly illuminated by an outside light source. Many art historians have noticed a resemblance between Caravaggio's face and Sisera's. Some believe she is symbolically disgracing her long time idol by killing him in this painting. However, historians do not know what caused this seemingly sudden disdain for her primary influencer. It almost appears like Jael is sculpting marble - which could hold and entirely different meaning. No one knows exactly what feelings she is conveying towards Caravaggio. No matter the meaning, Gentileschi intentionally draws the viewer into this dramatic scene with her skillful depictions of human emotion and form.

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