The sight of a female painter in 17th century Italy must have been an absolute rarity, but Artemisia Gentileschi was lucky enough to be taught to paint in her father’s workshop. It was there where she also met Agostino Tassi, another artist that her father, Orazio Gentileschi, had hired to tutor her.
One day Tassi raped his pupil, who was only seventeen at the time, and afterwards, pressured by Orazio, he promised he’d marry her. When he didn’t make good on his promise, Orazio pressed charges against Tassi and the trial became a very public, sordid affair. Artemisia was subjected to a gynecological exam and torture, in order to have her claim verified that Tassi had taken away her virginity. In the end, she and her father won the trial, but the sentence was never carried out.
The rape, however, had a long lasting effect on Artemisia. Her art – influenced by Caravaggio – often depicted violent imagery against men, even if the context and narrative were taken directly from the Bible. There is a distinctive feeling of “us” vs. “them” in her art, women working together to defeat men. In this sense, Artemisia’s art is considered cathartic, a way for her to get the justice she never received.
Jael and Sisera is also based on a Biblical story. After being defeated in battle, Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army, hides away in Jael’s tent, being received with hospitality. But as soon as he falls asleep, Jael drives a tent peg through his temple, pinning his head to the ground. In Gentileschi’s painting, Sisera is sleeping peacefully while Jael is just about to kill him, hovering over his head and holding a hammer in the air. She looks focused and rather content, as if she was simply doing a regular chore. It’s an eerie painting, with no apparent emotional tension coming from the characters themselves.
The dark background brings more attention to the scene and enhances the light. But there, on a pilaster, the artist inscribed ARTEMITA LOMI / FACIEBAT / MDCXX. Lomi was the Florentine name of one of her uncles, which she used while living and working in Florence. Faciebat, Latin, translates as “was making”, and MDCXX is 1620 in Roman numerals.
Because Gentileschi used the imperfect past tense “faciebat” just like Michelangelo did on his sculptures and because she painted Sisera resembling Caravaggio, it’s been suggested that the she was paying homage to her favorite artists. In fact, Jael looks more like a sculptress chiseling away at her masterpiece (“capolavoro” in Italian, literally translates as “head-work”) than a murderess. Whether it represents a cold-blooded revenge on Tassi, her tutor, or an artistic statement, this painting continues to intrigue and fascinate.