Artemisia Gentileschi’s Jael and Sisera (1620)

In this depiction of an obscure biblical story, Jael drives a tent peg through the head of a sleeping Sisera. He was a defeated Canaanite leader who sought refuge in her tent. She agreed, then killed him asleep. What's odd is Artemisia's signature on the pilaster, centrally-placed and inscribed on stone. That must be why Jael, finishing off a man, is posed like a female sculptor working on marble.1

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Captions for image(s) above:

Artemisia Gentileschi, Jael and Sisera (1620) Oil on canvas. Szepmuveszeti Museum, Budapest.

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Artemisia inscribed her name as Artemisia Lomi, a former family name. Judith Mann noted that, even though the composition is not original, Artemisia must have chosen its L-shape to match her name. Yet not only are the figures (red) L-shaped, so are Jael's arms (yellow) and the neckline of Sisera's vest (blue). Thus Artemisia identifies with each figure separately, the female "sculptor" and male "artwork", but also together to convey the androgyny and unity of her creative mind.

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Diagram of Artemisia's Jael and Sisera

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I read somewhere that Sisera's face (far left) bears more than a passing resemblance to Caravaggio's which the comparisons at left support, whether with an adolescent self-portrait (top) or an adult one (below). It is widely accepted that Caravaggio was a major inspiration to Artemisia as was the sculptor Michelangelo. Thus, whether with the sleeping Sisera-as-Caravaggio "painted" or Jael-as-Michelangelo "sculpting", Artemisia identifies with both of her heroes.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

L, top and bottom: Detail of Artemisia's Jael and Sisera
R: Self-portrait details by Caravaggio from Musicians (top) and Martyrdom of St. Matthew (bottom)

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Each "artist" has their own metaphor for an artistic tool: Jael's mallet for a sculptor's chisel, Sisera's gold-hilted sword for a brush. Sisera sleeps, though, as "a dreaming artist" imagining the scene; Jael acts as a "sculptress" crafting it. That's why Artemisia used the unusual imperfect tense in her inscription, faciebat. It implies that she was still creating it, endlessly painting her own reality as we all do.2 

Captions for image(s) above:

Artemisia's Jael and Sisera

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Lastly, in working on his head, Jael conveys that "Sisera" is her masterpiece because the Italian for it, capolavoro, literally means head-work. On the other hand, despite the demands of the story, it is likely that Artemisia's focus on Sisera's head conveys a more important meaning: that we should not get lost in the illusions of the exterior world but find peace (as Sisera/Caravaggio ironically does) in the inner reality of our minds.





 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Artemisia's Jael and Sisera

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Notes:

1. The presence of the pilaster makes nonsense of the biblical story's setting in a tent. Oddities like this are hints at hidden scenarios. Judith Mann described the pose as that of a stonemason who might have carved the inscription on the stone. She also wondered whether "perhaps Artemisia intended to draw a parallel between Jael's act of violence and her own painted re-creation of that violence...…..it is difficult, however, to reconcile this tale of deceit and then homicide with Artemisia’s role as artistic creator and it may be that her pun is merely intended as a visual rather than a narrative gloss on the story.” Mann, "Identity signs: meanings and methods in Artemisia Gentileschi’s signatures", Renaissance Studies 23, Feb. 2009, p.94

2. Michelangelo also used the imperfect tense on the Vatican Pieta for the same reason. See Michelangelo's Vatican Pietá (1499).

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 25 Apr 2014. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.