The Power of Women

Women have always been the favorite subject of artists. If they are mainly depicted as delicate flowers or considered for their body and sensuality, the figure of the dangerous temptress became a privileged topos starting from the end of the Middle Ages. Tale of caution or dramatic subject?

If the Renaissance artists rediscovered antiquity and made gods and heroes the main subjects of their art, Biblical figures were not forgotten. Heroines of the Holy Book fascinated and inspired artists because of the way their femininity intertwined with masculine violence. This  double nature repulses as much as it intrigues since these women’s power over men is a result of their sexual attractiveness. The topos of the « power of women » shows heroic men dominated by women. It emerged in Germany and the Low Countries at the end of the Middle Ages and quickly spread to other countries.

Judith beheading Holofernes is one of the most represented subjects in European art during the 16th and 17th century, mostly by the caravaggisti — the followers of Caravaggio — and the master himself. The subject lends itself well to the dramatic style characterized by contrasts of lights and shades transcended by the mastery of the chiaroscuro.


Caravaggio,"Judith Beheading Holofernes", 1598-99, oil on canvas (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Roma)

In the story, Judith, a gorgeous widow, is able to enter the tent of Holofernes, an Assyrian general about to destroy the city of Bethulia, because of his desire for her. Judith decapitates him and has his head taken away in a basket. Artemisia Gentileschi also depicted this scene, but, under her brush, it takes another turn: the artist was raped by her drawing teacher and after a humiliating trial, she seemed to have placed all her hopes of revenge in her art. Calm and focused on her task, Judith is triumphant but loses the composure and sensuality that artists usually gave to their female figures.

Artemisia Gentileschi, "Judith Beheading Holofernes", circa 1614-1620, oil on canvas (Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli)

In the family of biblical murderesses, Jael’s story isn’t that different from Judith’s. This heroine killed Sisera, a commander of the Canaanite army, to free Israel from the troops of King Jabin. During the Renaissance, the subject is used to show the risk for men in following women for their beauty. If in the vision of men, she represents a danger, under the brush of Gentileschi, once again, Jael appears attractive and strong, focused, and as a heroine, the savior of her people.

Artemisia Gentileschi, "Jael and Sisera", circa 1620, oil on canvas (Szepmuveszeti Museum, Budapest)

Jan de Bray, Jael and Sisera

Jan de Bray, "Jael and Sisera", 1659, oil on oak (York Art Gallery, UK)

The biblical women depicted weren’t all murderesses, but also temptresses such as Delilah. The lover of Samson, a Nazirite who possessed great strength, she was bribed by the Philistines to discover the source of her lover’s strength. As Samson sleeps, Delilah orders a servant to cut his hair, the source of his vigor. Even though she doesn’t kill him herself, Delilah and her treacherous and seductive ways lead Samson to his death. Here again, there is a clear warning against the ways of women: as we can see, Delilah is often depicted with her breasts bare and scheming among the Philistines.

Peter Paul Rubens, "Samson and Delilah", 1609-10, oil on wood (National Gallery, London)

Matthias Stom, "Samson and Delilah", circa 1630, oil on canvas (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Roma)

Both tales of caution and excuses for depicting nude figures and dramatic subjects, these biblical figures had a long posterity in art. The Orientalists and the Symbolists seized upon the figures of Delilah, Bathsheba and Salome, femmes fatales, beautiful and sensual from another world, but who can only lead those who desire them to a deadly fate.


Lovis Corinth, "Salome", 1900, oil on canvas (Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig)

Gustave Moreau, Samson and Delilah

Gustave Moreau, "Samson and Delilah", 1882, watercolour (Musée National Gustave Moreau, Paris)

Jean-Léon Gerôme, Bathsheba, 1889

Jean-Léon Gérôme, "Bathsheba", 1899, oil on canvas (private collection)

Nancy Ba is an art history student at Paris-Sorbonne University (Paris IV). Her research and projects focus on the art and civilization of the European nineteenth century with a keen interest in the question of the representation of the Other in a society that studies this otherness in the light of scientific, naturalistic and anthropological advances. She also takes an interest in the representation of women in visual arts and all it implies and in the place of women artists in the academic nebula of the second half of the century.

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