Jael, Samson, Judith and David are heroes from the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament who risked their own lives to save their people from the enemy. They are unlikely but true heroes, charming, clever and cunning, and in the case of Samson fighting with physical strength. Paintings with these true heroes had often a political or moralising message. Their stories were associated with the underdog defeating an oppressor; a small country fighting victoriously against the big enemy. The four are commonly depicted as follows: Jael holds the hammer and peg with which she killed Sisera (Judges 4:17-23), Judith displays the head of Holofernes and holds the sword with which she decapitated him (Judith 13:6-10), David leans on the gigantic sword with which he cut off the head of Goliath (I Sam.17: 51), and finally Samson who holds the jawbone with which he slew a thousand Philistines (Judges 15:15-20).
The topic of the canvas is the moment in which Jael is about to kill Sisera, a general of the enemy. Jael welcomed Sisera into her tent and covered him with a blanket. Sisera asked Jael for a drink of water; she gave him milk instead and comforted him so that he fell asleep in her lap. Quietly, Jael took a hammer and drove a tent peg through Sisera’s skull while he was sleeping, killing him instantly. Jael was the woman with the honour of defeating the enemy and their army.
Besieged by the Assyrians, the beautiful Israelite widow Judith went into the enemy camp of Holofernes to win his confidence. During a great banquet Holofernes became drunk, and later in his tent Judith seized his sword and cut off his head. Often an elderly female servant is depicted taking away the head in a bag or basket. Look at the Mantegna painting, you can see Holofernes on the bed, just by way of one of his feet! Their leader gone; the enemy was soon defeated by the Israelites. This ancient heroine was understood in the Renaissance as a symbol of civic virtue, of intolerance of tyranny, and of a just cause triumphing over evil. The story of Judith and Holofernes comes from the “Book of Judith”, a text that’s part of the Old Testament of the Catholic Bible. The Book of Judith is excluded from the Hebrew and Protestant Bible, but still considered an important additional historical text.
This is the story of the Israelite boy David and the Philistine giant Goliath. The Israelites are fighting the Philistines, whose champion – Goliath – repeatedly offers to meet the Israelites’ best warrior in single combat to decide the whole battle. None of the trained Israelite soldiers is brave enough to fight Goliath, until David – a shepherd boy who is too young to be a soldier – accepts the challenge. The Israelite leader offers David armor and weapons, but the boy is untrained and refuses them. Instead, he goes out with his sling, and confronts the enemy. He hits Goliath in the head with a stone from his sling, knocking the giant down, and then grabs Goliath’s sword and cuts off his head. The Philistines withdraw and the Israelites are saved. David’s courage and faith illustrates the triumph of good over evil. Donatello’s bronze statue is famous as the first unsupported standing work of bronze cast during the Renaissance, and the first freestanding nude male sculpture made since antiquity. It depicts David with an enigmatic smile, posed with his foot on Goliath’s severed head just after defeating the giant. The youth is completely naked, apart from a laurel-topped hat and boots, and bears the sword of Goliath. The phrase “David and Goliath” has taken on a more popular meaning denoting an underdog situation, a contest wherein a smaller, weaker opponent faces a much bigger, stronger adversary.
The biblical account states that Samson was a Nazirite, and that he was given immense strength to aid him against his enemies and allow him to perform superhuman feats, including slaying a lion with his bare hands and massacring an entire enemy army of Philistines using only the jawbone of a donkey. Holding the jawbone as his attribute, Samson looks upward, perhaps to God. The great strongman just slew a thousand Philistines with that jawbone. Overcome by thirst, he then drank from the rock at Lechi, a name that also means “jawbone” in Hebrew. Due to a mistaken translation in the Dutch Bible, some artists, like Salomon de Bray on the paining above, depicted Samson with a jawbone and water dripping out of the bone, rather than the rock issuing water.
Jael, Judith, David and Samson are just a few of the many heroes depicted in art. These four are exceptionally brave. Through their courage their people found victory and freedom. The message these four send, is to be brave in difficult times. Keep hope, keep faith, and set a step when there is the opportunity. It can change history, for oneself, and maybe for the world!
Jael, Judith, David and Samson; a print series.
In 1588 Hendrick Goltzius designed a series of four Heroes and Heroines from the Old Testament, after which Jacob Matham made the engravings. The print series could refer to events during the Dutch Revolt or The Eighty Years’ War (1568 – 1648), an armed conflict between The Netherlands under the leadership of William of Orange (“The Silent”) and Spain under King Philips II, the sovereign of The Netherlands. An end was reached in 1648 with the Peace of Münster when Spain recognised the Dutch Republic as an independent country. It’s the unlikely hero and heroine fighting and defeating the enemy; a print series with stories from the old bible books, translated into a contemporary political message.
On the drawings and the corresponding prints Jael, Judit, David and Samson are all portrayed full-length, in the foreground, with their characteristic attributes, while in the background their heroic deed is depicted. Jael holds the hammer and peg with which she killed Sisera, Judith displays the head of Holofernes and holds the sword with which she decapitated him, David leans on the gigantic sword with which he cut off the head of Goliath, that he carries in his left hand, finally Samson who holds the jawbone with which he slew a thoudanss Philistines. The preparatory drawings all still exist and are in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Hereunder on the left the drawings by Goltzius and on the right the prints as engraved by Matham. Once engraved into a copper plate and after printing, the print becomes a “negative” of the original drawing.