Art is the Best Revenge: Painting Justice with Artemisia Gentileschi

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Artemisia Gentileschi. Self-portrait, 1638-9.

Centuries before feminism had a name, post-Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) made waves with exemplary work in a male-dominated medium. Raped at seventeen, she channeled her trauma into her art, raising questions about the mistreatment of women with paintings of staggering beauty and brutality. Of fifty-seven known paintings, forty-nine feature female heroines from history and mythology in positions of strength, many of them also survivors of sexual assault.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593. Her father, Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), was an established artist who taught her to paint while she was growing up. By the age of sixteen, she already showed great promise, but was rejected by more formal academies. Wanting to nurture his daughter’s talent, Orazio arranged for Artemisia to be tutored by a friend of his, artist Agostino Tassi (1578-1644).

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Susanna and the Elders. AG, 1610.

Perhaps the first hint that Tassi was not exactly a gentleman can be found in Susanna and the Elders (1610). The Biblical Susanna was a virtuous young woman who was sexually harassed by some of the older men in her community. While many male artists had depicted Susanna as compliant or even flirtatious, Artemisia’s heroine is anything but: she is disgusted and exposed, shielding herself from two men almost falling over each other to leer at her.

By 1612, Orazio had taken Tassi to court for raping his daughter. Artemisia testified he had forced himself on her, and she had fought him so savagely that she removed a chunk of flesh from his penis. After the rape, Tassi pressured her into having an ongoing sexual relationship with him with the promise he would eventually marry her. Tassi was already married and could fulfill no such promise, but continued to abuse Artemisia until her father brought charges against him.

It wasn’t Tassi’s first run-in with the law. He had already been tried for rape, incest, and the attempted murder of his wife. Artemisia, his latest victim, was a well-behaved young woman of eighteen. So what happened?

They tortured her.

Although Tassi’s defense was contradictory and blatantly false, the court didn’t believe Artemisia’s claim that he had raped her. She was subjected to a humiliating physical exam in front of the court to prove she was no longer a virgin, her character was questioned, she was accused of promiscuity, and then she was tortured with thumbscrews while her rapist watched. Over months of witness testimonies and torture, Artemisia never once changed her story and Tassi was eventually convicted. He chose banishment from Rome over imprisonment, but he was back within a few months. By now it was common knowledge that he was a real piece of work, but he had friends in high places: Pope Innocent X was a big fan of his landscapes.

Tassi may have escaped justice through the courts, but Artemisia wasn’t done with him. Now a far superior artist to her one-time tutor, she took her revenge in a series of masterful paintings depicting women equal to or dominating men. At least half a dozen show women physically assaulting men, such as the story of Judith and Holofernes:

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Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612, and again in 1620): As the story goes, Judith was a Jewish widow. When her town was attacked by Assyrian general Holofernes, she took advantage of his attraction to her by going to his tent with him and then decapitating him as he was passed out drunk. This story has been interpreted by several notable artists including Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and even Kilmt in the twentieth century, but Artemisia’s is undoubtedly the most graphic. It was owned by the Medicis, but hidden for years as it was considered too brutal to display. Two versions of this were painted, the first just after Tassi’s trial.

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Caravaggio’s Judith (left) and Gentileschi’s Judith (right)

This painting is a clear tribute to Caravaggio’s work of the same name, but Artemisia takes it further. Artemisia’s Judith is more mature and self-assured. While Caravaggio’s Judith hesitantly beheads her attacker with a look of distaste on her face, Artemisia’s Judith is all business. She looks almost bored as she hacks off Holofernes’ head as if it’s something she does–or has thought of doing–every day.

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Judith and Her Maidservant (1613-14) : Here we see Judith leaving with her maidservant, sword in hand. Holofernes’ head is in a bag, bottom left. Her hairpin here depicts David, who likewise removed the head of Goliath.

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Judith and Her Maidservant With the Head of Holofernes (1625): In the last of this series, the head is bottom center as Judith and her maid escape into the night.

And then there’s Jael and Sisera (1620):

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Sisera was a Canaanite leader who had ruled over the Israelites for many years. Following his defeat by the Isrealites, Sisera sought refuge in Jael’s tent, only to have a tent post hammered into his brain once he fell asleep.

Artemisia painted heroines she could relate to, such as Lucretia, the classical victim of rape, and other famous “fallen women” like Mary Magdalene and Cleopatra. Lucretia and Cleopatra are shown in the moments prior to suicide: instead of despair, they seem to question the idea that they ought to take their own lives. Surely a woman is worth more than the concept of “honor” attached to her body?

Artemisia seemed to think so. She married another painter and worked as an artist her whole life, fulfilling commissions for the Medicis and England’s Charles I. She was a friend of Galileo, painted a ceiling for Michelangelo’s nephew, and inspired countless other women artists to follow in her footsteps during her lifetime.

As for Tassi, his work has fallen into obscurity and he is now primarily known as Artemisia’s rapist. I wasn’t able to find a portrait of him, but we might be able to guess what he looked like…

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Jessica Cale

Further Reading:

Brash, Larry. Artemisia Gentileschi.

Christiansen, Keith, and Mann, Judith. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi

Sartle. Category: Artemisia Gentileschi

 

The Ketubah, an Ancient Marriage Contract

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The Wedding. Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1861)

Marriage is a contract. In terms of religion, a couple that marries enters into the default contract defined by their faith. When two people agree to marriage in the absence of a written contract, they also accept the default contract provided by the state and its laws.

The state’s contract is essentially economic, despite the romantic glow in which modern culture dresses marriage. Anyone who does genealogical research quickly realizes that the recording of marriage followed closely on the recording of deeds and wills, which are among the earliest recorded personal contracts. Other records—birth, death, even divorce—came much later. Marriage and property are deeply enmeshed in law, impacting inheritance and ownership. In our modern era, other economic factors impacted by marriage laws include tax breaks, benefits, and entitlements.

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A ketubah from 1740.

These laws and customs have not always been kind to women. Not long ago, English Common Law, under the doctrine of coverture, held that a married couple was one person under the law. That person, of course was the husband. A woman gave up all legal right—even the right to her own children—when she married. In that arrangement, it isn’t difficult to understand the need for marriage settlements, particularly among the property classes. A contract designed to assure a woman and her children would have some financial means of support in the event of widowhood provided at least some protection where the law didn’t.

In our own day, pre-nuptial agreements spell out property rights, particularly among the super wealthy in a similar manner. Couples also may establish contracts that spell out everything from the division of labor to the custody of pets.

Long before any of that, the Jewish marriage contract, or ketubah, provided all married women with the security of certain financial arrangements. The earliest know example of a ketubah dates to 440 BC. Because such documents were legal rather than religious, they were written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, and this one is no exception. It outlines settlements paid to the bride’s father and the amount both families contributed to the dowry. It explicitly names the wife as the beneficiary in the case of the husband’s death.

At no time in history has the ketubah had anything to do with purchasing a bride. In Judaic law husbands did not have property rights over their wives. The ketubah is a “charter of women’s rights in marriage and men’s duties.” A ketubah is not, actually, a contract between husband and wife. It is traditionally a document in which witnesses verify the groom has met his obligations and may marry, and that the bride has freely accepted his proposal. The witnesses testify that the groom will meet all human and financial obligations, “as Jewish husbands are wont to do.”

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A ketubah from Gibraltar, 1826.

The elements in a traditional ketubah are:

  • Date, place and names
  • Testimony that the proposal has been made
  • Promise of basic support to “honor, provide, and support.” The promise of food, clothing, and conjugal rights are a woman’s right and a husband’s obligation and considered so fundamental to marriage they would be required even without a contract. This is the heart of the contract.
  • Promise of specific amounts to the wife in the event the marriage terminates (designed as a deterrent to divorce in a male dominated society)
  • Testimony that the bride has accepted the proposal as outlined above.
  • Promise of a dowry given to the bride by her father including such items and valuable she might bring to her new home. The groom’s acceptance is noted and he provides and additional gift to the bride.
  • Testimony that the groom agrees to a mortgage or lien on all his belongings including “the mantle on my shoulders,” to meet the obligations of the contract should it become necessary.

The promise of the woman’s conjugal rights is interesting because of the contrast to other religious traditions. In Jewish tradition marriage is holy, and not entirely, or even primarily, intended for procreation. The Torah Genesis 2:18 states “it is not good for man to be alone,” indicating companionship as the goal of marriage. Refraining from marriage is frowned upon in the Jewish tradition.

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A Persian ketubah, 1879.

In “An Open Heart,” my contribution to the Bluestocking Belles’ 2016 holiday anthology, Holly and Hopeful Hearts, Adam proposes to Esther privately first to make sure she is willing. She accepts his proposal publicly when it is put to her by a matchmaker, but begins to question the elements of the ketubah. To the horror of the matchmaker and her elders, she and Adam agree to add clauses about the education of their daughters. Esther demands that they receive equal opportunity for at least Judaic learning within the family, while the two of them continue to support women’s education more broadly.

Now couples routinely modify the traditional text to reflect their beliefs going much farther than Esther and Adam. One site lists texts for Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Interfaith, Same Sex, Secular Humanist, and Sephardic marriages as well as a “write your own” option. Couples generally sign the ketubah shortly before the wedding, as do two witnesses. The document becomes a family treasure, often a work of art in fine calligraphy that is framed and hung in the home.

holly-and-hopeful-hearts-2Caroline Warfield grew up in a peripatetic army family and had a varied career (largely centered on libraries and technology) before retiring to the urban wilds of Eastern Pennsylvania. She is ever a traveler and adventurer, enamored of owls, books, history, and beautiful gardens (but not the act of gardening). She is married to a prince among men.

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Sources

Encyclopaedia Britannica: Coverture

Ketubah.com: The Origins of the Ketubah.

Lamm, Maurice. The Marriage Contract (Ketubah). Chabad.org.

Rich, Tracey. Marriage. Judaism 101.