Thursday, December 31, 2009

WOMEN IN THE BIBLE (PART 1)

The Banquet of Esther (1640s) by the Dutch baroque painter Jan Victors (1620-?), who was probably a student of Rembrandt van Rijn.

Here Esther reveals to the king that she herself is a Jew and that Haman has plotted to kill them all. She will loose her live if she couldn’t convince the king.
All are wearing typical Dutch costumes of the 17th century. Only the turban, which is from the same period, reminds that the scenery happened somewhere in the Orient. There is still nothing "historical" in the painting.


Everybody knows the story of Moses. That he was set adrift on the Nile River in a basket because his mother wanted to save his live. That he was Pharaoh's daughter, who adopted him as her own son, so that he grew up as a younger brother to the future Rameses II. As a political and religious leader, lawgiver, and prophet Moses is probably the most important figure in the Bible. Nevertheless I’m more interested in Pharaoh's daughter.

In Jewish texts she is called Thermuthis and it is said that she later fled with the Jews during the Exodus and became Jewish by marriage. Despite she is not very important in the Bible - she is not even named there – she was very attractive to painters. In the interpretation of art she was a very important noble woman, something like a queen, who adopted a poor orphan and arranged his future. So she was the ideal symbol for any kind of patronage or sponsorship.

Paintings of Pharaoh's daughter were popular among mighty women, to show their generosity, their love, their maternally gifts. Among artists they were popular to appeal for sponsorship. Pharaoh's daughter has to be seen therefore as a patron of the arts.

Finding of Moses (1638-40)

Moses saved (1651)

These two examples are by the French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), who is considered as the founder of the French Classical tradition at the end of the Baroque era. Interesting is the classical architecture in the background. A pyramid and an obelisk are symbolizing Egypt, but the costumes are like a classical artist would have imagined Greeks or Romans.


This still medieval Bathsheba dates from about 1485 and is by the Dutch Renaissance painter Hans Memling (c.1435-1494).

Despite its age there are already all important persons present. The nude seductive Bathsheba, a maidservant and king David peeping on his balcony.
Interesting may be that Memling doesn’t make any effort to give the painting a historical or oriental touch. The clothes and the furniture are pure 15th century Dutch.


Lot and his daughters by the German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553). It’s probably from about 1528, but that’s not sure because Cranach painted at least four like this.

It’s a kind of psychedelic or symbolist painting. I like that bloody rainbow above Sodom.
But what’s really interesting. That it is one of the rare examples where Lot appears as the victim. It seems that Cranach hadn’t any doubt that the poor old man was totally manipulated by his two cool looking daughters.


Salomé by the French Academic painter Pierre Bonnaud (1865-1930).

Salomé is posing here as a triumphant victor. She is totally aware of her sexual power. And maybe feels a kind of pity with her poor victim. The tiger skin on the floor is only another symbol for his dangerous feline predator.


Here a relatively modern interpretation of Samson and Delilah. It’s by the German painter Ernst Liebermann (1869-1960). The painting is not pretending to be realistic. There are no historical costumes or exotic accessories. There is only a modern looking woman who is triumphantly waving with the hair of Samson. It is a kind of scalp, her trophy.

Samson and Delilah (1902)


Ruth and Naomi (1886) by the English Painter Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833-1898).

Naomi wanted to go back to Bethlehem and Orpah is also on her way. Ruth instead is begging to stay with Naomi. The two women seemed like lovers, when Ruth is saying: "For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge…”


Esther before the king from the Bible illustrated by Paul Gustave Doré (1832–1883).

For Doré it was important be historical as exact as possible. So he drew a kind of exotic palace and costumes which could pass as Persian. But if you look at how theatrically Esther is losing her consciousness, it could only be on a stage. So it’s theatre in a good setting what Doré is showing.


Bathsheba (1594) by the Dutch painter Cornelis Corneliszoon van Haarlem (1562-1638).

Corneliszoon van Haarlem was one of the leading Northern Mannerist artists, and with this painting he is showing what he’s able to. There’s not only one nude Bathsheba, there is nearly an entire harem to be seen. The bodies are perfect and the artist confronts the paleness of two with the dark exotic skin of Bathsheba’s black maiden.


This Susanna from about 1865 is by the French academic painter Jean Jacques Henner (1829-1905).

It’s one more of these typical neoclassic Susanna paintings, which concentrates on the nude female body. Even the elders are nearly hidden in the darkness of the background.


This Judith by the French painter Joseph Benjamin Constant (1845-1902) resembles a lot the other one. It’s also a proud woman who doesn’t need much symbols or action like cutting heads. The sword is enough.



Lot and his Daughters by the Italian Renaissance Painter Bonifacio Veronese (c.1487-1553).

I can’t help, but I got the strong impression that Lot doesn’t look so drunk, instead he seems very interested in his daughter while the second is waiting patiently. In the back there’s burning Sodom. So they don’t lose any time. I think Veronese gives a really cynical interpretation of the old story.



Samson was one of the great Heroes of the Israelites in their fights with the Philistines. God had granted him a superhuman strength to combat his enemies and perform heroic feats unachievable by normal humans. So he overcame a lion with his bare hands or an entire army with only a jawbone of a donkey.

His end came when he fell in love with Delilah a Philistine woman. Living with Samson Delilah was asked by her people to find out the secret of Samson’s strength. Insisting for a long time she found out finally that the source of Samson’s supernatural power lies in his long hair. When she had found out Delilah cut Samson’s hair and called her people. The Philistines captured Samson and blinded him. As a prisoner he had to work in a mill grinding grain, which was the typical work for slaves.

Later when the Philistines wanted to celebrate their triumph they took Samson to their temple. But in the meantime Samson’s hair had grown long again and he had recovered his old strength. Tied to the temple's central pillars Samson was able to break them and led the whole temple come down. There he died with many of his enemies. What happened to Delilah is not mentioned.

The story of Samson and Delilah is therefore primarily that of a valiant warrior who became a victim of his passion and his treacherous wife. But what did Delilah really? She betrayed Samson, but she risked a lot for her people the Philistines. In the end I cannot see a big difference between her and Judith. That one is a traitor and the other a hero depends only on the perspective of Israelites.

But it’s not my turn to judge Delilah. I will show the interpretations of the artists. And there dominated the naïve hero who is betrayed because he trusted his wife.

On this “Samson and Delilah” painting from about 1610 by the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) yet the most important characteristics can be seen. The nude breasts of Delilah symbolize not only sexual attraction but also a false motherly security. There is the strong Hercules-like figure of Samson, who is falling victim of his trustfulness. In the background is a statue of Venus and Cupid, indicating the cause of Samson's fate.


James Tissot (1836-1902) was a French painter who had immigrated to England after the suppression of the Paris Commune. In London he had great success with his (in my opinion brilliant) paintings of fashionable women. But after the suicide of his beloved mistress (she had tuberculosis) he returned to France underwent a religious conversion and became a devoted catholic. He visited the Holy Land in 1886-87 and published a series of illustrations to the events of the Bible, which became enormously popular.

Here is Ruth gleaning. An impressionist influence can be noticed. The artist is primarily interested in the oriental landscape, the light and the workers. Probably Tissot watched similar scenes.

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