Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi
How a female artist broke with convention in this vivid and gruesome painting
Take some time to look at this painting. It is dramatic and gruesome. It is also complicated.
It was painted by the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Not only was she a supremely talented painter, she was also unusual for being a woman in a predominantly male profession. In 17th-century European art, Artemisia was an exception. Her willingness to challenge convention meant she become the first woman to gain membership to the Florence Academy of the Arts of Drawing in 1616. This self-confidence is also evident in her art, not least in this painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, made sometime between 1614 and 1620 when Gentileschi was in her twenties.
The event depicted is the climatic moment of the story of Judith and Holofernes, as told in the Old Testament and later elaborated in apocryphal texts.
Judith was a beautiful and wealthy widow from the Jewish city of Bethulia. The city was at war with the Assyrian army. Desperately under siege, Bethulia was on the point of surrender. The Assyrians were led by a general called Holofernes. In order to save her city, Judith devised a scheme to kill Holofernes; she pretended to desert her people and cross over into enemy territory. Captivated by her beauty, Holofernes put on a banquet for Judith, and then later took her back to his private quarters. Intent on seducing her, he was instead sedated by too much wine, at which Judith seized his sword and with two swift blows, severed his head. She and her maidservant took the severed head in a sack and returned to Bethulia. After the fate of Holofernes had been discovered, the Assyrian army quickly fell into disarray and consequently retreated.
In this painting, Gentileschi chose to show the actual moment of the assassination. The challenge that she poses to the viewer is to look upon the scene without recoiling. She gives us the most direct view possible, with fierce attention paid to the bloody realism of the slaying.
Gentileschi’s style was strongly influenced by the preeminent artist of Rome at the time, Caravaggio. As artists looked to each other for ideas and inspiration, Gentileschi and her father (Orazio Gentileschi, who was also an artist) incorporated elements of Caravaggio’s painting style into their work.
Caravaggio was admired — and sometimes reviled — for the intense and unsettling realism of his work. His extreme form of chiaroscuro, using contrasts of light and dark, meant his scenes became events of heightened drama, where the details of gesture or facial expression were pronounced in the vivid language of highlights and shadow.
Caravaggio painted his own version of Judith and Holofernes in 1599, some two decades before Gentileschi. It was, up until Gentileschi’s version, perhaps the most macabre version of the scene ever painted.
Prior to Caravaggio, artists tended to show Judith holding or carrying the head of Holofernes after the slaying. Judith is seen holding the severed head in her hands or in a basket, or else displaying it on a plate. These works tended to emphasise Judith’s wealth, making her fine clothes and jewellery a central emblem of the image and thereby underlining her noble status — and by implication, the nobleness of the deed.
Gentileschi’s painting, under the influence of Caravaggio, focuses on the more graphic moment of the murder. Judith has taken hold of Holofernes’ head by grasping a clutch of hair and turning his head away from her, drawing the sword across his neck. It is a gruesome and vivid portrayal that has no intention of softening the brutal nature of the act.
Spiralling around Holofernes’ contorted head is a complex arrangement of overlapping arms, which array outwards like the spokes of a wheel. This patterning of flesh tones acts as a kind of semi-circle around Holofernes’ head, against which his dark beard, the shape of the sword and the spray of blood stand out vividly. The triumph of Gentileschi’s composition is in how we look directly into Holofernes’ eyes, which are wide open as if he is watching his own death unfold.
To foreground Holofernes’ head in this way helps to anchor the composition on a single point. All of the elements of the work are built up around this atomic core. The arms of all three protagonists, as they flare outwards, form a sort of spiral around Holofernes’ twisted face.
Beyond this, there is another semicircle made up of the red, blue and gold fabrics of the protagonists’ clothing. The red cloak that covers Holofernes begins the shape; it passes through the blue of the maid’s clothing and culminates in Judith’s golden dress.
The two women who undertake the deed, Judith and her maid, are painted with intense concentration on their faces. It is neither disgust nor vitriol they express, but instead a type of practical determination. In this way, the psychological tension of the work is somehow balanced out: Judith undertakes her deed with a steadfastness that regulates some of the horror of the scene. Still, the macabre touches persist: in the spray of blood from Holofernes’ severed arteries, Gentileschi has substituted Judith’s jewellery with a ruby necklace of blood.
Judith Slaying Holofernes was in fact Gentileschi’s second attempt at the subject. An earlier version, painted sometime before 1612, operates as a kind of forerunner to the later version.
The similarities between the two paintings are quite clear. In the first, the overall composition is fully laid out and changes little into the second. Where the differences show are in the intensity of the scene. For in the more recent work, the chiaroscuro is stronger. There is almost no suggestion of depth in either painting; yet in the second, the highlights are painted with greater conviction. Judith’s dress has switched to yellow. The tonal contrasts in Holofernes’ face are more noticeable. Both the nocturnal setting and also the main event in the foreground are emphasised. Everything is more intense.
Much of Gentileschi’s reputation, particularly in recent years, has been shaped by the rape she endured as a teenager in 1611, at the hands of another artist, Agostino Tassi. The case went to trial and remarkably detailed court records exist. They capture Gentileschi’s entire testimony, from which her voice rings out clearly: “He then threw me on to the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast, and he put a knee between my thighs to prevent me from closing them. Lifting my clothes, he placed a hand with a handkerchief on my mouth to keep me from screaming.”
Despite the clarity of Gentileschi’s court testimony, the outcome of the trial was complicated, owing to the fact that Gentileschi and Tassi continued to have relations after the event, and also because of the contemporary expectation of Gentileschi having been a virgin prior to the rape, without which the charges could not have been pressed. At the end of the trial, a disgraced Tassi was exiled from Rome, although no sentence was ever enforced.
Readings of Gentileschi’s art have been strongly influenced by these events, with many historians choosing to interpret her paintings as a proto-feminist response to her experiences. The idea is that Gentileschi took revenge on Tassi — and on men in general — through her gruesome depictions.
It is true that many of Gentileschi’s paintings focus on strong female heroines from myth, allegory and the Bible. Two of her most well-known works are Susanna and the Elders and Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, both of which show strong female protagonists in opposition to men.
Yet it would be a mistake to ascribe the content of Gentileschi’s art to the events in her personal life. It is perhaps more appropriate to read her paintings within a wider historical context. For instance, as a woman it is likely that she was limited only to female models, including her daughters and sometimes herself, which explains her apparent preference for female subjects. She also worked under the patronage of grand-dukes and kings; in short, she worked within a marketplace and served tastes for dramatic narratives from the Bible or classical sources.
Gentileschi was an artist who, against the prevailing conditions of the time, developed a successful career as a painter in a male-dominated field. More than this, she made work that continue to astonish viewers even four centuries after they were made. Paintings like Judith Slaying Holofernes are evidence enough of a remarkable talent and a self-confident individual.
Recent Oil on Linen
Recent Oil on Canvas
True Art Doesn’t Portray, It Evokes
4 Artworks That Speak Emotions to Me
Art is a subjective medium. You might like an artwork because it connects with you visually. Or perhaps you engage at a deeper level; arousing an ocean of emotions. I humbly place myself in the latter category.
Jim Davies, a cognitive scientist at Carleton University, studied what makes art more appealing to individuals. He looked at why some art is easy to understand while others are more esoteric.
Davies explains: “We don’t like our art too simple. We like some kind of incongruity that activates a different part of our brain that drives curiosity. It’s not necessarily pleasurable, but it makes us compelled to learn more and want to see more.”
Before I started reading paintings, beauty and aesthetics were my only criteria to checkmark an art piece. But as I’m progressing towards learning more about art history, I love to decipher the creative process behind an artwork.
What triggered Vincent van Gogh to paint The Starry Night?
Why did Francis Bacon prefer to live a masochistic life and created those dark and dramatic artworks?
This is how I love to comprehend artworks. Does this happen to you too?
It doesn’t mean I don’t like Girl with a Pearl Earring or Christina’s World. I love them too; but for me, a deeper engagement is more important.
In this article, I’d list 4 artworks that speak to me, creating an array of emotions — happiness, sadness, giving me goosebumps, or might alter my state of mind. You know what they say — “a picture is a poem without words.”
1. Portrait of the Girl by Konstantin Makovsky
Can you take a quiet moment to appreciate the magical gaze reflected through this artwork? Or is it just me who feels that way?
The first time I saw this painting on Twitter, it caught my attention for a while. For me, this painting strikes a perfect balance of beauty and innocence. It strikes me in a gentle manner and melts my heart right away.
Konstantin Makovsky, an influential Russian painter of the 20th century has drawn many mesmerizing portraits but this painting stood out for me. If I’ll curate my dream wall in my home, which certainly I’d, this painting would be right there.
2. Rape by Rene Magritte
Every time I see this artwork, it stuns me with goosebumps. It gives me deep tremors. I might not wish to revisit this often. But it is one of the several paintings that made me curious to understand the painter’s psychology and learn about the trauma he underwent in his childhood.
3. Displaced by Arabella Dorman
I don’t know much about contemporary war paintings except Picasso’s Guernica. But when I decided to research and write a 2-part article on the Afghanistan war, it broke my heart, often erupting into tears.
While I’d not jump into the war politics or advocate the right and wrong but the complex narrative raised a single question — what was the crime of the innocent civilians who died or had to forcefully displace from their own country and become refugees in other countries?
Dorman said that we see so much war in the media, and it’s very easy to become somewhat emotionally inured to it. We slightly blunted because of the familiarity.
We should never take our democracy for granted.
4. Sheela Na Gig
These stone carvings might be considered grotesque, frightful looking, and absurd but the truth is we have mostly read the distorted narrative. It’s time to change our perspective and rediscover the history behind these figurines.
Sheela Na Gigs were predominately found in the churches of Ireland. Baubo is an African Goddess and Lajja Gauri is a fertility Goddess in India.
Dr. Barbara Freitag, a former lecturer in intercultural studies at Dublin City University and author of the 2004 book Sheela Na Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma, was the first to place academic muscle behind the idea of the Sheela Na Gigs as a fertility goddess or talisman.
An Instagram page called Sheela Na Gig was started in Ireland that fights against misogyny and unabashedly promotes women’s reproductive freedom.
Susan Sontag has aptly summarized: Modern aesthetics is crippled by its dependence upon the concept of ‘beauty.’ As if art were ‘about’ beauty — as science is ‘about’ truth!
How Oil Paints Work: Art Fundamentals
A technical revolution in the history of art
The invention of oil painting was an enormous turning point in the story of Western art. It enabled artists to represent the world around them with a level of detail never seen before. And because of the ability of oil paints to be layered in semi-transparent glazes, works of art became luminous in their depth and resonance of colour.
The important thing to remember about oil painting is that it really refers to the “medium” of the paint rather than to any special aspect of the pigments used to make the colours.
The “medium” is the liquid substance that holds the pigment and dilutes it. Before they are mixed with a medium, a paint pigment is usually in the form of a finely ground powder. Traditional sources of pigment were various: for instance, the colour known as ultramarine (a vivid blue) came from the ground-up rock lapis lazuli, whereas the colour vermilion (brilliant red) was originally made from the powdered mineral cinnabar.
More unusually, the colour Indian yellow was once produced by collecting the urine of cattle that had been fed only mango leaves. In more recent times, natural pigments have given way to synthetically derived colours, but the principle remains the same.
From egg to oil as the carrier medium
Before the adoption of oil as the medium, artists used other liquids to play the role. Tempera was popular, where an emulsion of egg yolk and water was used to make the pigment usable as paint. Tempera was capable of producing very fine paintings, often onto wood, but had the drawback of drying quickly and with a matte, opaque finish.
When oil painting arrived, artists made immediate use of its slow drying nature, which meant they could work more patiently over the finer details of their work. They also utilised the fact that oil paint can be thinned and then applied in semi-transparent layers, otherwise known as “glazes”.
With glazes, paint can be built up with one colour overlaying another. When light penetrates the paint layers, it reflects back the full spectrum of layered paint, giving a more resonant and luminous feel.
For a long time, it was thought that oil painting was invented in Northern Europe in the 15th century, by the painter Jan van Eyck in particular. But in fact oil painting had been in use in Middle Eastern countries like Afghanistan since at least 650AD, and in Europe since the Middle Ages.
Still, it was Jan van Eyck and his contemporaries from the Netherlands who, in the 1400s, took oil painting to new heights. Take a painting like Portrait of a Carthusian by Petrus Christus, painted in 1446. Christus was based in Bruges in present-day Belgium, and was active between 1444 and 1476 — the year he is thought to have died.
The extraordinary naturalistic detail of paintings like Portrait of a Carthusian was a profound innovation in European art.
To underline the realistic possibilities of his oil paints, Christus added a telling detail to his portrait. Look towards the bottom edge of the painting and notice a small fly perched on what appears to be the picture frame. This lower ledge, along with the inscription, is all painted invention.
From pigs’ bladders to tubes
Early artists mixed their own pigments with heat-bodied (gently-heated) linseed oil, derived from crushed flax seeds, sometimes adding beeswax to prevent the paint from darkening as it dried. They worked through a patient process of grinding the powdered pigments into the oil to achieve a smooth, honey-like consistency.
Up until the mid-1800s artists would typically transport their mixed paint in a pig’s bladder. Such was the case with the French painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, who adopted an effective practice of travelling and painting outdoors during the summer months, making studies and sketches directly from nature.
Yet this was not an easy situation. Bladders didn’t travel well and frequently burst open. And to get at the paint, Corot would have to prick the bladder with a pin, after which the hole was difficult to completely plug.
In 1841, the portrait painter John Goffe Rand invented the metallic paint tube. Soon enough, manufacturers of oil paints began to offer paint in tubes with screw caps to preserve the paint.
This simple development allowed artists to more easily carry their paints with them, opening up the possibilities of painting on location for many more artists. The artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir is quoted as saying: “Without paint in tubes there would have been… nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionists.”
Moreover, with paint in a more accessible form, artists began to enjoy a greater flexibility of brush marks, from thick impasto (thickly textured paint) to finer details. This dexterity of oil paint has left a permanent mark on the course of Western painting.
Artists as wide-ranging as Vincent van Gogh and Willem de Kooning, utilising the versatility of modern tube-based paints, learned to use paint expressionistically. Their paintings forged an imprint of the very moment of creation, and with it, an indelible record of the artist’s response to the world.
Hidden Meanings Behind Six Famous Artworks That Will Blow Your Mind!
Nothing is more unvaried than paintings without hidden meanings.
People are mostly drawn to paintings for two reasons. They are aesthetically pleasing, and it is hard to turn your eye away from these paintings without fully speculating and admiring them. Two, because of the meaning that they hold, the stories they tell, and the reasons behind why they were painted.
Although paintings are purely subjective and can be interpreted in several ways, here is a list of hidden meanings in 6 famous paintings that will definitely blow your mind.
1. The Old Fisherman by Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka — An Illusion Within The Painting
This painting, the Old Fisherman, was painted in 1902 by the Hungarian artist Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka. At first glance, the painting seems like a pretty normal one. In fact, you’d even think that the painter was not good at drawing symmetrical figures because of how the old man’s face is shaped.
The right side of the painting is mirrored, you see an evil old man sitting in front of a very gloomy sky and a very stormy sea, adding a sinister touch. When the other side is mirrored, you see an old man clasping his hands as if he was praying, in front of a calm sea.
The artist purposely did this to portray how there are two sides to every person. He wanted to paint the bipolarity of human nature, how we all have both a good and a bad side to us. The right side of the painting portrays the good side and the left side portrays the left side.
2. Bill Clinton’s Presidential Portrait by Nelson Shanks — A Scandal Exposed Through Art
In 2001, American artist and painter, Nelson Shanks, was commissioned to paint the portrait of the 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas).
The portrait features Bill Clinton leaning against a mantlepiece with a weird shadow visible nearby. The painting was proudly hung up in the National Portrait Gallery which led to many people asking what exactly was that shadow depicting. After a couple of years, Nelson Shanks revealed that the shadow depicted Monica Lewinsky. Monica Lewinsky was the president’s former mistress. It was Shank’s way of reminding people of Bill Clinton’s scandalous past.
Shanks said that it was hard for him to paint the president because he was a liar and a cheat. He wanted the portrait to depict that side of him.
3. Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time by Agnolo Bronzino — A Depiction of Chronic Bacterial Disease
Agnolo Bronzino painted the Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time in 1545. Many people believe that it is jealousy and lust that this painting depicts but taking a closer look at it says otherwise. The painting seems to be a warning about syphilis and sexually transmitted diseases.
Art theorists at the London National Gallery suggest that the rather ill-looking man at the bottom left side of the painting is not there to depict jealousy. Neither is he depicting the heartbreak and agony you feel after being deceived. In fact, he is suffering from a chronic bacterial disease. His fingers are clearly swollen and red. One of his fingernails is missing. His hair has clear signs of syphilitic alopecia. All of these symptoms hint towards syphilis. Also, his almost empty gums could be pointing towards mercury poisoning.
During the Renaissance period, the closest thing people had to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases was mercury. So, the missing teeth of the man could be because of the mercury treatment.
4. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein The Younger — An Eerie Skull Illusion
This particular painting was composed in 1533 by Hans Holbein The Younger. At first glance, the painting seems quite boring, just two very well-dressed gentlemen looking at you.
They’re wearing their dress attire and just standing there. However, if you look closely at the bottom middle of the painting, you can see a skull in anamorphic perspective. It seems odd when you look at it from the front. When you tilt the painting, the skull transforms its shape and looks like a proper skull.
It is said that The Ambassadors was hung up on a stairwell so that as people stepped up or down the stairs, they could see the skull. The skull serves as a reminder of mortality and portrays that death is looming over your head all the time, it is inevitable.
5. The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti — Brain Anatomy Within Art
Michelangelo is perhaps one of the most well-known artists of the Renaissance period. A lot of his work is still applauded to this day! He is known as a brilliant artist but what a lot of people don’t know is that Michelangelo had a curious mind and was very much into human anatomy.
At the age of 17, he started dissecting corpses that he got from a church graveyard. He did this because he wanted to draw anatomical sketches. So, he was aware of human anatomy.
In 2010, two American neuroscientists found an image of the brain cleverly disguised in Michelangelo’s work The Creation of Adam. It is not only the outer structure but the inner as well that is cleverly disguised in the representation of God’s neck and chin. Many art theorists believe that Michelangelo incorporated anatomical sketches in his paintings in an effort to attack the church’s contempt for science.
6. The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck — The Painter Himself Hidden In The Art
The following portrait was composed by the artist Jan Van Eyck in 1434. It is believed to depict the Italian merchant, Giovanni do Nicolao Arnolfini, and his wife in their home in Bruges.
Now, you might be wondering what is so unusual about this specific oil painting. If you were to take a closer look between the couple and pay attention to the mirror placed on the wall, you’d notice that there is something written above it.
The Latin inscription reads “Jan Van Eyck was here 1434.” Also, in the mirror, you can notice two figures who seem to be spectators of this scene. One of the figures is Jon Van Eyck himself, waving his arm. Many believe that is why the merchant has his hand raised.
The painter wanted to show that he was being greeted by his subject, Giovanni do Nicolao Arnolfini. Jon Van Eyck was known for entering secret and witty messages into his paintings and compositions.
How many of these hidden meanings were you able to spot when you first looked at these paintings?
Let’s Play Medical Detective with These Famous Paintings
I spy van Gogh’s depression, Bronzino’s syphilis, and way too many goiters
Medicine is an art. It’s why I have always believed the most talented physicians are also the keenest artists. And while diseases may cause death, the soul of art lives on. Or, as the father of medicine, Hippocrates, said, “Life is short, the art long.”
The following portraits have endured through the ages. Let’s play history detective and understand the people behind the disease.
Dr. Gachet’s mellow yellow
After van Gogh left the asylum at St-Rémy, he painted three paintings of his friend and physician, Dr. Gachet. Between Dr. Gachet’s dejected eyes, cadaverous skin, and the wilted plant in his hand, Dr. Gachet is clearly bummed out.
The plant in his hand is foxglove or digitalis. At the time, digitalis was used to treat psychiatric disorders, including delirium tremens, mania, and epilepsy. (Epilepsy was once believed to be a psychiatric problem.) Dr. Gachet suffered from depression (called melancholia) and treated van Gogh for the same condition.
Digitalis also had a rare but nasty side effect — a yellow discoloration of vision. Some medical researchers have hypothesized that van Gogh’s obsession with yellow in his paintings was due to taking digitalis, but there isn’t any proof he used the drug.
Venus and Cupid’s public service announcement
Poor Venus. She gets blamed for all the world’s sexual woes. There’s a reason why STDs are called “venereal diseases” and not marsereal diseases. The above painting may look innocent, but there is something more sinister going on between Venus and Cupid.
To start, the masks in the lower right-hand corner represent deception. The Cupid on the right holds flowers and wears bells around his leg to represent pleasure. Is Bronzino saying pleasure is deceptive? The scary, toothless screaming man may have the answer…
Most art historians believe this painting is not an allegory for desire but an allegory for disease. Or, more specifically, the sexually transmitted disease syphilis.
In Bronzino’s day, syphilis was far more agonizing than it is today. The last stage of syphilis — the tertiary phase — affects the heart, blood vessels, and nervous system. Symptoms include paralysis, blindness, seizures, headaches, and dementia. In this final stage, many would pull out their hair and pound at their head like the man above.
His other syphilitic symptoms include swelling on his fingers, patchy hair (alopecia), and toothless gums. (His bleeding gums may have also been caused by the mercury treatments used to treat syphilis.)
He is not the only one having a bad neurological day. The woman in the top left represents Oblivion, and she is missing half her brain — possibly a reference to how the disease ate away the brain.
The Cupid on the right is oblivious too. He is stepping on thorns with a beatific grin and no pain.
This is known as tabes dorsalis — an ongoing loss of pain sensation and paralysis in the tertiary phase of syphilis.
An Allegory with Venus and Cupid is an erotic painting. Still, it comes with a warning often repeated amongst all the horny Renaissance kids —”A Night with Venus, a Lifetime with Mercury”…or a hell of a lot of screaming pain.
Angry man in a bridge pose
This man might look like he is contorting his body into a yoga pose, but he is in the throes of opisthotonus — spasms of the muscles that cause backward arching of the head, neck, and spine. Opisthotonus is often caused by severe tetanus. (This man most likely got tetanus after a bullet wound.)
Sir Charles Bell was both a doctor and an artist. Bell made careful recordings of many of his patients and is best remembered for the condition named after him — bells palsy. Bell’s palsy is unexplained facial paralysis due to damaged facial nerves.
Being both a doctor, artist, and teacher, Bell changed how art students portrayed facial expressions. Bell believed bodily gestures and facial expressions revealed the soul. And given that most communication is nonverbal, some physicians might want to heed his advice when speaking to patients.
Those guilt-ridden goiters
Artists of the past had a funny way of portraying humility. Penitence only came when you messed with your subject’s hormones. It’s why you will find a lot of crucifixion scenes showing whopping goiters.
A goiter is an enlargement of the thyroid gland due to iodine deficiency. In many parts of poorer communities in Europe, the condition was common where the soil and water lacked iodine.
Some of the goiters are pretty obvious, like the one found in this Caravaggio painting.
Others are more subtle.
You can also find a lot of Madonna and Child scenes with the bulge.
Unlike today, abject poverty was cool. For this reason, we do not know if artists were taking liberties with their subjects and adding goiters to show the subject’s impoverishment, or if the paintings were realistic and practically everyone had a thyroid problem. Either way, now you can play “spot the goiter” on your next museum visit.
The painting above depicts the moment Bacchus first lays eyes on Ariadne and falls helplessly in love. He is so smitten that his head is in the clouds. But while love can levitate you to the heavens, it also can cause your bowels to twist into a lurid hell.
Yep, that’s right. Bacchus is caught in a moment of unbridled gassiness.
Titian is clearly having a little scatological fun with this scene. The satyr offers a clue to just how much fun.
We know Bacchus is breaking wind by the white flower’s spread pistons beneath the satyr. The white flower is a caper flower. Doctors used it as a natural carminative to prevent flatulence.
Titian is saying that the lovestruck Bacchus has lost control of both his fervor and his flatulence. In other words, Ariadne is the wind beneath his sails, the toot in his horn, a blast of hot cheekiness… ok, I will stop.
Throughout history, artists’ materials were also found in a doctor’s medical bag. Precious saffron created vivid yellows, reds, and greens but was also used to treat asthma and whooping cough. Scarlet red was made from female scale insects, and traditional Chinese medicine used it to treat wounds. And mercury was used to create vermillion and treat syphilis.
One can always find the science in art and the art in science. Perhaps that is the lesson we can learn from studying art through the lens of medicine — both connect us to our humanity.
“Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity.”— Hippocrates
The Mystery Of Symbols In Art
Decoding the obscure language of iconography
The symbolic language of art is a language of intrigue and meaning.
Did you know that a lily means purity, or an ostrich egg signifies virginity? (More of that later).
One art historian, Erwin Panofsky, likened the language of artistic symbols to that of gestures between people. He imagined walking along the street and being greeted by an acquaintance who lifts his hat in friendliness:
“This form of salute is peculiar to the Western world and is a residue of medieval chivalry: armed men used to remove their helmets to make clear their peaceful intentions and their confidence in the peaceful intentions of others.”
We don’t lift our hats anymore, probably because we don’t wear hats or else we don’t want to mess our hair up. The point is that signs and symbols communicate ideas, and those symbols have a wonderful history.
For me, one of the great pleasures of visiting an art gallery is in exploring the possible meanings of the works on display. After all, every picture tells a story, yet for many visitors the language of art is a mystery.
For centuries, artists have drawn on a rich collection of stories, from ancient Greek and Roman myths to the stories told in the Old and New Testaments. As the centuries passed, a language of symbols developed so that artists could tell these stories with deeper and more intricate emphasis.
People still read the classics of Greek and Roman literature, and thanks to blockbuster films, the names of ancient gods and characters such as Jupiter, Achilles and Helen are still alive in our imaginations. The Bible too — upon which so much of Western art is based — continues to be read. Yet for the understanding of art, it is useful to know not just the stories but also the ‘rules’ that artists followed (and sometimes broke) in order to depict these stories.
It also makes a trip to an art gallery far more enjoyable.
Legends and Lore
As a student of art history, one of my biggest delights was to come into contact with some of the more esoteric sources of pictorial conventions. One such text, for instance, which had a huge influence on Christian symbolism, is the Golden Legend.
Written around 1275 by a Dominican friar called Jacobus de Varagine, the Golden Legend is a compilation of the lives of the saints and legends of the Virgin, as well as other stories relating to the Christian calendar.
Since the Golden Legend is a collection of traditional folklore about the saints; you won’t find these stories in the Bible. The tales of martyrdom and heroism were widely read in medieval Europe, and as such entered the vocabulary of artists and the conventions of their work.
To give an example, if you see a figure in a painting holding a palm leaf, then they are almost certainly a martyred Christian saint whose story is told in the Golden Legend.
Here is a painting of St. Lucy by the Italian painter Francesco Zaganelli. The green palm leaf she is holding in her left hand tells us straight away that she is saint who came to her death because of persecution.
The association of palm leaves with saintliness comes from the feast of Palm Sunday, a celebration in Christianity commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem when palm branches were placed along his path.
The symbolism of the palm branch in fact stretches back to the ancient world, where it was a symbol of victory and peace. A victorious athlete competing in ancient Greece, for instance, was awarded a palm as a symbolic prize. The palm also has a place in the Muslim tradition where, as a symbol of peace, it is associated with heavenly Paradise.
In the Western artistic tradition, individual Christian saints such as Lucy and Catherine can be further distinguished by objects they tend to be holding or stood beside. These items are known as ‘attributes’.
Let’s examine the case of St Lucy in a bit more detail, since she offers a good example of how pictorial traditions actually help embroider stories.
St Lucy lived in Italy, and died around 304 during a widespread persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Diocletian. She was a real historical figure, yet her depictions in art tend to focus on legends.
As the above image shows, Lucy holds a palm leaf to indicate her martyrdom. Sometimes she is shown at the moment of her death, which was said to have occurred by a knife to the throat.
Not all depictions of Lucy are quite so gruesome, however. Since her name comes from the Latin lux, meaning ‘light’, she is sometimes shown holding a candle or oil lamp. Most common of all, she is shown holding a pair of eyes, sometimes held between her fingers and sometimes resting on a plate in her hand or else sprouting from a stalk. Originally the eyes were given to her simply as an allusion to her name, and developed as a convention since she became associated with the protection of people’s eyesight. Legends were later developed to give additional meaning to the eyes: in one story she was said to have had her eyes gouged out by a tyrant; in another she plucked them out herself to subdue an admirer who would not stop praising them.
As with all symbols in art, the rules are never hard and fast. A palm leaf indicates a martyred saint, but sometimes a palm leaf is used as specific attribute of an individual saint too: in depictions of John the Evangelist, who is the presumed author of the fourth gospel, he is sometimes shown holding a palm leaf. This relates the Virgin Mary on her deathbed, at which moment she is said to have handed him her palm. Again, this is an apocryphal story – in other words, it doesn’t appear in the Bible.
Look at this painting of the Death of the Virgin by Andrea Mantegna. We can now identify the figure on the left in the green robe as John the Evangelist, since he is clearly holding a palm leaf. With a bit more detective work, we could probably identify all the other figures surrounding the dying Mary. One thing is for certain: they are all holy or sanctified people, because of the halos hovering above their heads.
As well as a palm leaf, another item of flora that is often seen in association with the Virgin Mary art is a lily flower, the presence of which indicates her purity.
One theme of the Virgin’s life in which a lily is nearly always present is the Annunciation, as painted by Leonardo da Vinci, for example. The Annunciation was the moment that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced she would conceive and bear a son.
Sometimes the lily is in a vase; at other times the angel is shown carrying is, as in Leonardo’s painting. Why a lily? Well, since the event occurred nine months before the Nativity, the events of the Annunciation were calculated to have occurred on 25 March. The spring setting gave rise to the motif of the flower, which later refined to a lily. Leonardo decided to give his painting an all-over spring feel, with a lush carpet of flowers beneath Gabriel’s feet.
The Virgin Mary became deeply revered during the late medieval and Renaissance periods. For the Christian Church, the Virgin Mary emerged as the Purissima or ‘most pure’ of figures. It’s for this reason that she appears often as the subject of art, sometimes through episodes of her life, as we have seen, and sometimes as the mother figure of Christ.
In Western art, paintings of the Virgin and Childwere extremely popular. They are so numerous that it is impossible to find a single set of conventions to which they all accord. Here is just one detail which is always worth looking out for.
The symbol of an apple was sometimes taken up by painters when depicting the infant Christ, for instance, in this painting by Quentin Matsys, which shows the Christ Child held by his mother. Now, if you look closely to the left side of the painting, at the bottom of the column is an apple.
Why an apple? In fact, apples are one of the most prevalent fruit in all of Western art, and have several meanings depending on the context. Probably most well-known of all apples is the one that Eve offered Adam in the Garden of Eden.
According to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were the first humans, created by God in his own image. God placed them in the Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise where the only rule was not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Unfortunately, a serpent tempted Eve to eat some of the ‘forbidden fruit’, and when she also gave some to Adam, they both recognized their nakedness and covered themselves with a fig leaf. This symbolic act was in recognition of their shame at disobeying God’s orders.
In paintings of this scene, the forbidden fruit is typically shown as an apple, sometimes proffered by the snake hanging down from a tree, and sometimes held in Eve’s hand as she passes it to Adam.
So what about Christ’s apple? The purpose of showing the Christ child with an apple is to connect Him to the story of Adam and Eve: if Adam and Eve were responsible for the ‘fall’ of humankind, then Christ is suggested as being the redeemer. The symbol of an apple is a way of uniting the stories into a grander narrative, reaching back in time and stretching into the future.
The history of art is replete with symbols both commonplace and cryptic. To end this cursory look at symbols in art, I thought I’d share one of the more obscure reverences in the tradition, and one of my favorites too.
Take this painting by Giovanni Bellini. It shows Mary and Christ surrounded by fours saints, positioned symmetrically about the throne. The overall style of painting is known as a sacra conversazione, a tradition in Christian painting where several saints are gathered together around the Virgin.
Among the riches of this painting, one fascinating detail is at the very top of the picture, so easy to miss: an ostrich egg hanging from a chord.
What is an ostrich egg doing hanging in mid-air like that? Well, how much do you know about incubation habits of ostriches?
It is now known that ostriches lay their eggs in communal nests, which consist of little more than a pit scraped into the ground. The eggs are incubated by the females in the day and by the males at night.
However, in medieval times, the ostrich — a much admired bird at the time — was commonly believed to bury its eggs in sand and allow the heat of the sun to carry out the incubation. On account of the young emerging without parental involvement, it was thought that the ostrich egg was an ideal symbol of the virginity of Mary — a theologically tricky concept for which parallels in nature were sought.
So the ostrich egg was a symbol Mary’s virginity, which is why it has pride of place at the very top of this painting.
Next time you’re at a dinner party, see if you can squeeze that one into the conversation