The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain
Through November 1, 2009
The National Gallery of Art
4th and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.
When charged by the Prophetess Deborah, in Judges to free the Jews from the tyranny of Sisera, general of the Canaanite king Jacin’s army, Barak the son of Abinoam famously responded with the biblical equivalent of “I’m right behind you.” Deborah agreed to accompany Barak to Kedesh but told him Sisera would die by a woman’s hand. Barak accepted the terms, and Sisera was eventually lured into Yael’s tent, where she fed him milk to make him drowsy and drove a tent peg through his head.
Rather than treating the assassination as obscene (literally “off stage” in Greek drama), Judges 4:21 is intentionally gruesome. Not only did Sisera get pegged, Yael also hammered the nail right through the general’s head and the tip became lodged in the ground. Yet, the narrative is short on other details, allowing for many different artistic depictions of the story.
Heterogeneous suit of armor of Charles V. Desiderius Helmschmid. C. 1543.
The first illustration of Judges 4 of which I’m aware is a watercolor by Pietro Cavallini dated to the 13th-14th centuries. The work is at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, whose website calls the work “Jael and Tisseran” – though the work contains an inscription, “Jael and Siserah (Tiseran).” In the piece, Sisera lies in a courtyard with his head resting on a pillow as Yael holds a peg to his head and readies the hammer. An older woman, of Cavallini’s invention, covers Sisera with a cloth, and the general raises his arms defensively, semi-aware of his fate. Perhaps Cavallini included the extra-biblical woman because he thought the lowly wife of Heber the Kenite needed an accomplice to manage a political assassination, or maybe the woman is Sisera’s mother, who worries in Judges 5:28 that her son’s chariot is delayed.
Several other 15th century pieces treat the scene a bit differently. A c. 1430 miniature by the Netherlandish Master of Otto van Moerdrecht shows Sisera, clad in ochre, lying in a bed covered by a bright red blanket in a house with a black-and-white checkerboard floor. Yael, dressed in deep blue, stands behind the sleeping general and leans over him, holding a nail to his head and raising the hammer. An illumination from the 15th-century German manuscript “Speculum humanae salvationis” (Mirror of Human Salvation) shows Sisera lying outdoors on a grassy slope bearing a shield with a cheveron (v-shape).
Pedro N??ez del Valle. “Jael and Sisera.” C. 1630. Oil on canvas. 48 13/16 x 52 3/8 in. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.
The several dozen other works that precede Pedro N??ez del Valle’s 1630 “Jael and Sisera,” currently on exhibit at the National Gallery, feature other oddities. Some have pillars, some show large pegs and others small nails, one shows Sisera in bed with a wine goblet, and in some Sisera wears a crown. A late 14th century manuscript juxtaposes Yael and Sisera with Judith and the beheaded Holofernes, and Sisera’s shield is decorated with a human face. Medieval artists tended to depict with Yael posing with the hammer, about to strike the general, or the aftermath of the assassination. In a 1481 wood cut, one unknown artist somehow figured Yael would manage to drive the peg through the side of Sisera’s helmet!
What is unique about Pedro N??ez del Valle’s work though is its function not only as biblical interpretation, but also as political propaganda. The National Gallery exhibit, in an unprecedented fashion, matches Spanish imperial portraits with the corresponding suits of armor, so viewers can actually see the armor and the paintings depicting the armor side by side. Needless to say, this ingenious curatorial decision helps collapse the several thousand years that have passed since the works were created.
In N??ez del Valle’s work, the curators notice that Sisera wears armor of the Roman-pagan style (Image Two). Sisera’s breastplate features a head of medusa and his armor and shin guards evoke a suit of armor presented to Phillip II as a gift. Barak’s armor, meanwhile, is in the Spanish style, so N??ez del Valle has literally cast the good guys (Spain) in the heroic pose (Barak’s), and the bad guys (Romans, pagans) as Sisera’s corpse.
Roman-style armor of Guiobaldo della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, presented as a gift to Phillip II. Bartolomeo Campi, 1546.
Writing in the catalog, Carmen Garcia-Frias Checa quotes a scholar who argues the painting features “a parallel between the theme of Jael as liberator of the people of Israel from Canaanite oppression and the allegory of Spain as the great succorer of the Catholic faith against heretics.”
The Catholic reference might be a plausible (albeit symbolic) read of the work, but Garcia-Frias Checa should have also discussed another work on Yael and Sisera that shows Sisera in Roman-style armor. Dirck Volkertsz Coornhert’s 1551 engraving shows a rather muscular Yael about to hammer the nail into Sisera’s head. Sisera, who lies on a bed, wears the same armor with the same medusa and leg guards, and he lies in virtually the same position (though inverted) as he does in N??ez del Valle’s work. Whether N??ez del Valle would have been familiar with Coornhert’s engraving is debatable, but the engraving does show that not only was Roman-style armor used in biblical scenes nearly a century before N??ez del Valle, but they were even used in interpretations of the Yael and Sisera story. N??ez del Valle might have introduced the Barak figure in Spanish armor, but Sisera’s pagan attire was already an artistic tradition.
Dirck Volkertsz Coornhert, after Maarten van Heemskerck. “Jael Slaying Sisera.” From “The Power of Women,” 1551. Engraving and etching.
If Garcia-Frias Checa is right, Spain would be presented not as the victor per se, but as the male leader showing up to take credit after the heroine had done all the dirty work. Yael still holds the murder weapon in her hand, and the peg is clearly visible piercing Sisera’s skull. Perhaps this is reading the scene too literally, but one would expect that N??ez del Valle could have picked a better narrative to illustrate the might of the Catholic Church, if that was his aim, like David and Goliath or Samson killing a Philistine.
Either way, that the Catholic Church would identify itself with a Jewish general like Barak less than 150 years after expelling the Jews from Spain is surely noteworthy, even if it is just a symbolic comparison. For that, we can thank the National Gallery for its brilliant curatorial decision to examine both the paintings and the armor.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.