Jael and Sisera (1620) by Artemisia GentileschiMuseum of Fine Arts, Budapest
Artemisia Gentileschi was a brilliant storyteller. In this deceptively simple composition, painted when she was 27 years old, she created a shockingly memorable image of female resolve, which is forever held in suspense.
The story comes from the Old Testament Book of Judges and tells how Sisera, a commander in the Canaanite army, flees a disastrous battle with the Israelites. He is offered milk and shelter by Jael, a married woman of the Kenite tribe. When Sisera falls asleep Jael drives a tent peg through his skull. Although not an Israelite herself, Jael was praised in the Old Testament for her heroic action: ‘Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be.’
Here Artemisia shows Jael wearing a 17th-century version of the simple sort of dress that might be worn by a respectable tradesman’s wife.
Her hair is neatly braided and pinned back. And her expression is placid – almost sweet – as she methodically sets about her task.
As with many of Artemisia’s heroines, Jael’s sleeves are rolled up to reveal strong, capable arms.
She raises the hammer high in order to bring it down with maximum force.
Sisera, by contrast, is shown blissfully unaware of his imminent fate.
His bright costume is an invented form of ancient military dress.
His pale bare legs emphasise his vulnerability and lack of defence against the impending violence.
The lion's head on the pommel of his sword appears to look on in impotent anticipation.
Although not a very common subject, other artists had tackled it before Artemisia. But few had used her horizontal format, or set the scene against such a dark background.
By creating a great void within the painting, Artemisia emphasises the drama of the impending downward swing of the hammer to drive the tent-peg home.
She also uses the space behind to place her signature within the work.
On the base of a pilaster, as if carved in the stone, are the Latin words
(Artemisia Lomi made this 1620)
Lomi was the Tuscan family name she often went by when she worked in Florence. Even though this picture was probably made after Artemisia's return to Rome in 1620, she uses it here because it's the name under which she had established her reputation.
By placing her signature within the arc of the hammer’s swing, and setting it alongside the figure of Jael, there is a sense in which Artemisia asks the viewer to identify her with this capable heroine.
She, like Jael, is a ready and able agent of her own destiny.