Thursday, December 31, 2009

WOMEN IN THE BIBLE



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Here is a nice example to where the symbol of Salome was drifting to. At least since the end of the 19th century Salome was converted in a kind of femme fatale with increasing characteristics of a nightclub dancer. Here she appears as a dancer of a burlesque show and the once so terrible head is now a pure theatre accessory.

The painting is from 1916 and by the Austrian/American artist Raphael Kirchner (1876-1917) who became with the "Kirchner Girls" a father of the later Pin-up art.

Susanna and the elders by the French painter Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856).

Chassériau started as a pupil in the the atelier of Ingres and received there a classical academic education. But later he fell under the influence of Delacroix the romantic opponent of Ingres. This Susanna with its exaggerated gestures, the impressive colors and the concentration on a few important details is pure romanticism. 

David und Bathsheba (1562) by the Flemish manierist painter Jan Massys (c. 1509-1575).

Massys was best known for the sensuality of his nude paintings. Here Bathsheba and David are shown in a typical European courtly scene – besides from Bathsheba’s nudeness. The really interesting thing about the painting is that David appears two times: in the back on the balcony and in front with Bathsheba. That’s still very medieval, to unite on one image different stages of a story.

udith (c. 1530-33) by the Italian/Flemish Renaissance painter Ambrosius Benson (c.1490-1550).

This painting resembles still a medieval altarpiece. There is no movement, no “action” like in the later Baroque paintings. Judith is still an icon like an altarpiece. All in it is symbol: her nudeness because she seduced Holofernes, the revenging sword, her luxury clothes and the head of the enemy. 

Everybody knows Sodom and Gomorrah, the two cities which had been destroyed for the sins of their inhabitants by the wrath of God. Their names are proverbial, synonymous for vice and sexual deviation and perversion. And most people know that from all that destruction there was saved only Lot with his family, because he was the only good man in the two cities. Warned by the angels Lot escaped with his daughters; only his wife was turned into a pillar of salt, because she was looking back against the orders of the angels.

So far, so good, but from here on the story is far lesser known. Lot and his daughters took shelter in a cave. The daughters were convinced that they were the only survivors in the world and because of that it should be their responsibility to bear children and enable the continuation of the human race. On the next nights they inebriate their father and had sexual intercourse with him. They became pregnant as they wished and had later two sons. That was enough because mankind wasn’t extinguished as they had supposed.

It’s a really strange story. There are the people of Sodom and Gomorrah wiped out because of the sexual excesses, and some hours later good old Lot had sex with his own daughters. Sure, it’s well explained and he was so drunk, that he didn’t even notice what he was doing. And if there is someone guilty, that’s the women, who nearly raped the poor father. All that is more than ambiguous, it sounds like a petty excuse for the deeds of Lot. In modern studies Lot is cited as the model of the father, who had sex with his daughter(s).

The topic is controversial. But it’s not my intention to discuss what Lot did or not. For me he is first and foremost a subject in art; and he and his daughters have interested artists for centuries. And in these paintings can be seen the different interpretations. In some Lot is a poor victim, but in many he appears like an old horny seducer.

Lot and his daughters by the Italian Baroque painter Giovanni Battista Lama (1673-1748)

Here the daughters made their father drunk. In the background is burning Sodom and on the way could be seen the salt statue of the mother.

The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael (1668) by the French Baroque painter Claude Lorrain (1600-1682).

Lorrain worked in Italy and was famous for his landscape painting, which he normally decorated with some classical buildings and pastoral figures in classical dress. He was primarily interested in an ideal landscape and its illumination, second came the classical architecture. So here Hagar and Ishmael appear more as a decoration of the landscape. 

Salomé (1914) by the French painter Gaston Bussière (1862-1929).



Ruth in the Fields. That’s the cover of a magazine of 1947.


It’s obvious how the technique of 19th century history painting now have spread to a more popular level. Now it’s important to show the persons in oriental and historical costumes. Nevertheless Ruth with her makeup resembles an American woman of 1947. 

Bathsheba was the beautiful wife of Uriah a Hittite mercenary in the service of King David. While her husband was in the field fighting the Ammonites, Bathsheba was watched by David from the rooftop of his palace how she was taking her ritual bath. Impressed by her beauty the king immediately ordered her to come to his palace.

When Bathsheba later became pregnant David summoned Uriah from the army in the hope that he would sleep with his wife and think the child was his own. But because there was an ancient rule that officers shouldn’t sleep with their women while the troops remained in the field, Uriah stayed with the palace troops.

Unable to resolve the problem this way David sent Uriah back to the army with a secret letter for his commanding general. In this letter David ordered that Uriah should be abandoned in the battle, so that he would be killed by the enemy. And so it happened.

Later the child of Bathsheba and David died because it was the result of a sin (always the wrong have to pay). But anyhow Bathsheba became queen and hat another child of David, the later mighty King Salomon.

It’s clear that David is a sinner. He betrayed a true soldier and sent him into death only to satisfy his lust. Not so easy to judge is the role of Bathsheba. Sure she had to obey the king. But there is to suspect that she wanted to be watched by David while she was bathing, that finally she seduced him and not vice versa. And if we are viewing the paintings about that story it’s easy to see that many artists had the same opinion.

This is a late medieval book illumination by the French painter Jean Bourdichon (1457-1521). It already shows the characteristics of the typical Bathsheba paintings: a naked woman bathing and King David (with the crown) on his balcony.

Anytime when you will see in a museum a naked bather and somebody on a rooftop or a balcony watching it’s probably Bathsheba.

Judith and her Maidservant (ca. 1625) by the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–ca.1653).

The head of Holofernes is already stuffed in the sack and the two women are preparing to flee back to safety in Bethulia. The hushed candlelit atmosphere emphasizes the imminent danger of the situation. But as well it’s easy to see that the artist was fascinated by that new technique to paint light and shadow. 

Susanna caught by the Elders by Surprise in a Bath (1822) by the Russian neoclassical painter Piotr Vasilyevich Basin (1793-1877).

It’s that typical neoclassic construction, a perfect female body, Greek architecture and a spotlight on the interesting parts. The turban is the only concession to a historical or oriental scenery

This Esther is by the English painter Sir John Everett Millais (1829–1896) one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Esther is standing at the crossroads. To enter her husband’s hall without being called meant death, regardless the rank of the person. But Esther had decided to intervene and to risk her live to help her people.
Millais a great specialist in showy clothes painted a queen with all her splendor, probably to show what she had to loose. 

Sometimes I’m asked what nudes got to do with religion. If we talk about Christian religion, not much I think. But here I want to talk about art and for art nudes are very important. The problem was (and is) the hypocrisy of society. Painting nudes could be a good business, but simple nudes were not considered as art but a scandal.

In the good old times an artist who wanted to paint nudes to make a living had only three possibilities: classical goddesses (Venus, Aphrodite etc.), oriental women (Odalisques) or biblical subjects.

So the normal biblical nude pretended only to be a religious painting. Actually it was a lame excuse to sell nudes. That this was a common practice is shown by the caricature by Honoré Daumier from 1864. Visiting the yearly exhibitions of the Paris Salon with all that nudes sold as classical goddesses two women are lamenting scandalized: "This Year Venuses Again… Always Venuses!"

Another example is the French painter Édouard Manet (1832–1883), who is often considered as one of the most important fathers of modern painting. Manet was planning a painting about the finding of Moses and made therefore studies of Pharaoh's Daughter inspired by the painting "Susanna bathing" by Rembrandt.

Rembrandt: Susanna bathing (ca.1636)

The first result was another Susanna know by Manet.

In 1861 during a visit in Russia he wanted to sell this painting, but thought that the very religious Russians would prefer to buy a classical nude. So he added a satyr and called it "nymph surprised" (instead of Susanna surprised). When he couldn’t sell it, he covered the satyr, and so it can be seen today in Buenos Aires.

Probably tired of that hypocrisy of the art market he painted in 1862 the most famous of his works: Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass). Sure that it was influenced by paintings by Raphael and Titian, but I think that there are still two men with the nude women, which reminds me of Susanna and the elders.

Anyway it caused a great scandal, art critics called it "immoral" and "vulgar" because there were normal nudes to be seen (not half as voyeuristic as many of the neoclassical goddesses). But this was the point, that there was no Bathsheba, no Susanna, no Venus or Diana, just normal, human nudes. The jury refused to expose the painting in the Paris Salon, which was the cause of the formation of the impressionist movement.

So in short: I don’t want to write about religion, but about the tricks in art. And because religion provided art with a lot of subjects, tricks and excuses I write about that interpretations.

Here Hagar is driven away by Abraham and his wife Sarah. Interesting is that there the boy Ishmael is missing. Instead of this Hagar is pregnant. So it seems that the famous Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) gives a very subjective interpretation of the old story. A pregnant servant is chased away by her master and his wife. The difference could be seen in the elegant silk clothes of Sarah compared to the common clothes of Hagar. The aggressive dog is a nice detail as well.

It’s a scene which was easy to understand for the people in the time of Rubens. So he didn’t make any effort to give the painting a historical or oriental look. This happened every day.

Hagar Leaves the House of Abraham (1615) 

This Judith is from the 1870s and by the French painter Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (1845-1902), who was specialized in historical and oriental subjects.

Constant shows Judith in all her luxury clothes as a strong, powerful, decisive, resolute women. It’s not that girlish type which some artist chose. The well arranged banners behind her recall the wings of an angel. So Judith appears as an revenging archangel.

Susanna Caught by the Elders (1831) by the Russian painter Grigory Ignatyevich Lapchenko (1801-1876).

This is a typical Neoclassical painting. The artist shows his skills: the perfect nude body, the illumination (there must be a spotlight on the upper left) and the crystal clear water. The two Elders in the background are only there to give the painting a title. Otherwise it could be any nude. 

This painting showing Hagar and her son Ishmael chased away by Abraham is probably from the 1630s and by the Dutch Mannerist Painter Abraham Bloemaert (ca.1564-1651).

Typically for that time is the dutch landscape and the costumes. Bloemaert painted a rich farmer who expeled a servant with his unwished bastard. Only the turban is a reminiscence that the story has happened somewhere in the Orient. 
 
Once Nebuchadnezzar the mighty king of Babylon sent his general Holofernes with a powerful army against the rebellious provinces in the west with the order to punish them for their disobedience. Holofernes had already devastated large parts of Asia Minor and Syria when he reached Palestine. There the Israelites in the small mountain town Bethulia made a desperate resistance.

But as the situation of the besieged turned worse, they decided to surrender the fortress after some more days. A resolute opponent of this plan was the young widow Judith, who was well known because of her beauty and her piety.

After Judith had prayed long, she dressed and adorned herself, and went accompanied by her maid to the camp of the besiegers. Here because of her beauty and her eloquence she attracted the attention of Holofernes. Finally he gave a great feast to her honor, during which he became drunk. Because he wanted to spent the night alone with her, she murdered him with his own sword. Then she returned with his head as a trophy to the besieged town. Deprived of their commander the Babylonians fled and the whole encampment fell into the hands of the Israelites.

In art Judith is one of the great icons to symbolize the savior of his own people. When all seems lost, she remains strong in her faith in God and thus has the power to kill the enemy of her people.


She went to the bedpost near Holofernes' head, and took down his sword that hung there. She came close to his bed, took hold of the hair of his head, and said "Give me strength today, O Lord God of Israel!" Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head. Next she rolled his body off the bed and pulled down the canopy from the posts. Soon afterward she went out and gave Holofernes' head to her maid, who placed it in her food bag.
(Judith 13:6-10)

Judith's Return to Bethulia (1472-1473)

This Early Renaissance painting is by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510). It shows aleready many symbols which became significant for modern Judith-paintings. There is the maid, carrying the head of Holofernes in the basket, and there is the sword carried by Judith herself, because she did the bloody work with her own hands (in contrast to Salome).

The clothing and the landscape are pure Italian 15th century. There is absolutely no historical intention. The story of Judith could happen in any place at any time.  

Although this too is a 19th century romantic Ruth, it's quite different from that of Francesco Hayez.

It's by the German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), who was a member of the the Nazarene brotherhood. The artists which belonged to this movement sought their inspiration in the art of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance and rejected what they called "superficial virtuosity" of later art.

Because of that this painting resembles a two dimensional panel painting of the 15th century. A Nazarene never would have painted a naked Ruth or have followed the oriental fashion of his time.




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