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Artful Sin: Female Transgression in Art



In order to define female transgression in art, one must understand what said woman has transgressed from. How were “proper” women depicted in art, and why was it proper? Naturally, the standards of comporting oneself in society as a lady vary throughout the ages. Two of the artworks analyzed in this article, Masaccio’s 1425 The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1625 Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes stem from the Italian Renaissance. During this period, the “proper woman” was meant to be one of great grace and docility, and thus, this is what was reflected in their art. The characteristics of the ideal Renaissance woman are well depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s 1500-1505 Head of a Woman. Her downcast eyes, placed features, and tilted head suggest the utmost demureness. Not only were women’s lips shown in art as firmly shut, signifying silence and compliance, their bodies were restricted as well. Da Vinci wrote in the margins of one of his drawings that “Women should be represented with demure actions, their legs tightly closed together, their arms held together, their heads lowered and inclined to one side” (Berdini, 1998). It appears that the perfect societal woman during the Renaissance resembled that of their beloved sculptures: silent and unmoving.

Figure 1: Head of a Woman (da Vinci, 1500-1505)

While the Romanticism in John William Waterhouse’s 1896 rendition of Pandora does not fall into the Renaissance era, it shares the most significant factor with the previously mentioned pieces. Whether at Masaccio’s dawn of the Renaissance, Gentileschi’s conclusion of the Renaissance, or Waterhouse’s romanticized London, a female transgression means one thing: disobeying orders. However, despite this alleged “disobedience,” this article will delve deeper to explore if the blame of such transgressions is justifiable, or the result of ungovernable factors.



Eve: the original sin


Perhaps the most recognizable female transgression is the one that allegedly took place at the start of it all: the birth of Original Sin. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve were the first man and woman created and lived peacefully in the Garden of Eden. God warned them never to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but the Devil disguised as a snake tempted Eve into trying fruit from the tree, which she then shared with Adam. As a result of their disobedience, God casted them out of Eden and down to Earth. Now cursed with “knowledge,” they were ashamed of their nudity. Early Renaissance artist Masaccio captures this traumatic scene of a sword-wielding angel escorting Adam and Eve out of Paradise and into the harsh realities of the world in The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Both are depicted at the height of their grief, but only Eve’s facial expression is shown in full. Her face is contorted in agony in an almost inhuman way, ironic seeing as she is now completely human after being stripped of any celestial rights.



Figure 2 [cover image]: The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Masaccio, 1425)


Since there is very little evidence in the Bible regarding the emotions of the Expulsion, the scene is left up to interpretation by the artist (Clifton, 1999). With this being said, Masaccio would adhere to the societal norms of the time, outlined directly by da Vinci. Eve breaks all of da Vinci’s “guidelines” for a proper woman, as she is shown as anything but the docile lady. Her head is tilted upwards with her eyeline at the same elevated angle, eyebrows knit in anguish. She does not silently comply with God's orders, as her mouth is a gaping black hole, of which the observer can almost hear her wails of distress. Her legs are not “tightly closed” as she must walk towards her disgrace. Her arms are not “held together,” but rather, held firmly against her genitalia to shield them due to the newfound shame of her nude body.


Adam does not cover his genitalia, as one would expect, but uses both hands to cover his eyes. This may be perceived as shame, however it is also likely that he is attempting to stop himself from perceiving Eve’s naked body. Eve is attempting to not be seen, while Adam is attempting to not see (Berdini, 1998). Sexuality is one of the burdens that the pair must carry onto their life on Earth. The “bodily pleasure” that Eve partook in with the Tree of Knowledge’s fruit will translate into other bodily pleasures on Earth (Clifton, 2010). This concept funnels into a subcategory of sin that Eve commits, one that is more nuanced than the obvious defiance of God’s instructions. She and Adam are now “separate, sexual individuals” (Bodin, 2010). Women in Renaissance Italy were meant to be neither of those descriptors. They were mere extensions of their husbands, not their own entity. Furthermore, to label them as “sexual” would be scandalous. The same as da Vinci tells us what the ideal woman should be, Masaccio tells us what women should not be through Eve’s depiction in the Expulsion.


Pandora: the sin of curiosity


The story of the next wayward woman is a close parallel to Eve herself, simply with a different religious backdrop. According to Greek Mythology, Pandora was the first woman to inhabit the Earth. While a Catholic god created Eve, the Greek gods created Pandora. Each bestowed her with a special gift, such as curiosity and beauty, and she was dubbed "Pandora," meaning “all-gifted.” She was created through malicious intentions by the god Zeus to exact revenge on Prometheus for stealing fire to provide for mankind. She was presented to Prometheus’ brother as a wife and Zeus gifted her a box as her dowry, which he then instructed her not to open. Due to her curious nature courtesy of the gods, she could not resist temptation and opened the box, unleashing evils like illness and death to riddle the world for all eternity (Panofsky, D. & Panofsky, E., 2019).

Figure 3: Pandora (John William Waterhouse, 1896)

In John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting Pandora, Pandora is caught in the act of opening the mysterious box. Waterhouse choses the background of a peaceful forest with a trickling stream, highlighting the harmony of the world before Pandora’s fateful choice wreaks havoc forever. Pandora kneels in front of an ornate chest as she hesitantly cracks it open. The encrusted gemstones, lavish gold, and elegant clawed feet of the chest suggests that whatever is stored inside could be nothing but good. It shines against the muted forest, which only piques Pandora’s curiosity more. There never was a more welcoming invitation, beckoning even the most disciplined individual. The Tree of Knowledge is to Eve what the box is to Pandora; a source of untapped, forbidden knowledge divulged by human curiosity (Gromkowska-Melosik, 2014).


In Pandora, the subject’s face is tilted upwards in an inquisitive, childlike manner. This is certainly fitting, considering the characteristics of a child often include a lack of self-restraint and comprehension of the rules. These are concepts that are only cemented as adults, and even then the nature of humans is not infallible. Pandora’s pale skin glows against the dark browns and greens of the forest, underscoring her youth and purity. Her robe has fallen carelessly off one shoulder in a rather seductive manner (Gurney, 2023). Along with the insubordination of a higher power, this exposed flesh of a married woman alludes to another transgression similar to Eve’s – a woman’s sexuality.


Judith: the heroic sin


The final depiction is a strain of transgression that is often considered the ultimate sin: homicide. Italian baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi paints the Bible story of Judith, in Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes. Depending on both the religion of Christianity or Judaism and the time period, there are several ways in which the story is told. All variations dictate that Judith, a beautiful widow, enters enemy territory in order to decapitate the Assyrian general Holofernes. His army had been sent to besiege her home of Bethulia, and thus with this casualty, Judith is her city’s salvation and she is given the title of heroine (Lucas, 1992). Committing a cardinal sin seems like it should not be cause for extolment, yet despite this, every rendition is spun in a positive light. This decapitation scene is a wildly popular topic in art due to Judith’s intrepid actions and selfless intentions (Stone, 2019). The pattern of finger-pointing blame that Eve and Pandora suffered is broken by Judith as she is lauded for her transgression.

Figure 4: Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (Gentileschi,1625)

Gentileschi created several versions of this particular scene, including the 1625 work Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes. Judith is painted directly after the brutal slaying, sword firmly grasped in her right hand. Her maid crouches on the ground, stuffing Holofernes’ head in a sack. Judith is seen standing, leaning towards the left presumably to listen for any guards who might have overheard the lethal struggle. Gentileschi exhibits great skill of chiaroscuro, a technique using the stark contrast of dark and light mastered by the famous Italian artist Caravaggio, of whom Gentileschi was a pupil. The only source of light in the painting is the singular candle on the table, light that Judith partially blocks with her hand. Often symbolic of truth, Judith obstructs the flame to hide her crime, as Holofrenes’ decapitated head is shrouded in darkness on the floor. The flame only reflects on Judith herself, the light casting a crescent moon on her face. A symbol of Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt, this crescent is an apt indicator of Judith’s strength.


During this time, depictions of Judith's bloody victory were mainly portrayed by men, including Gentileschi’s own father. Gentileschi’s rendition offers unique insight into the female psyche concerning Judith’s actions in a manner that could never be achieved by the previous male artists (Straussman-Pflanzer, 2013). At the age of seventeen, Gentileschi was raped by her father’s friend, Agostino Tassi. Her father initiated a trial against Tassi, but ultimately no repercussions came to pass (Cohen, 2000). Given this personal history, the subject of a female slaying a powerful male intent on taking carnal liberties would be of particular interest to Gentileschi, deepening the significance of the artwork. Falling into the ranks of artists that categorize Judith’s action not as sin, but as victory, Gentileschi is among the many that exonerate the heroine from blame.


Conclusion


Apparent from the hundreds of works of art portraying the transgressions of Eve, Pandora, and Judith, female wrongdoing has been a topic of great intrigue throughout the ages. It is titillating; scandalous. As much as art is meant to teach, it is also meant to entertain and enthrall. However, the reputation of these “entertaining” women should be considered. Eve and Pandora go down in infamy for their disobedience, the repercussions of their actions drastic and permanent, while Judith glides through history as the hailed exacter of justice. The God that damned Eve for disobeying his orders is the same God who rewarded Judith for shattering one of his Seven Commandments. The difference is that Judith was viewed as being a servant of God, fulfilling his celestial wishes through terrestrial actions in order to thwart the Assyrians who were “hateful to the Savior,’ and “lacking God.” When she asked for courage, “the highest Judge immediately inspired her with courage” (Lucas, 1992). Both Eve and Pandora are denounced for submitting to their own earthly weak will, which is negatively compounded by Judith’s divine bravery. However, it is explicitly stated many times that God created Eve and therefore Judith, and the Greek gods created Pandora. Any of these women’s shortcomings and failures can be attributed to the very higher powers that they have irrevocably disappointed. These female transgressors in art are merely the victims of capricious deities who created imperfect entities, and doled out punishments or absolution as they deemed fit.

Bibliography

Berdini, P. (1998). Women under the gaze: a Renaissance genealogy. Art History, 21(4), 565-590. URL: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-8365.00130


Bodin, G. (2010). Expulsion from the Garden of Eden: The pain of growing wiser. The Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review, 33(2), 96-105. URL: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01062301.2010.10592867


Clifton, J. (1999). Gender and Shame in Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Art History, 22(5), 637-655. URL: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-8365.00180


Cohen, E. S. (2000). The trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: a rape as history. Sixteenth Century Journal, 47-75. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2671289


Gromkowska-Melosik, A. (2014). Editor’s Preface: Pandora’s box. Gender and Power. Wydawnictwo Naukowe UAM. URL: https://repozytorium.amu.edu.pl/bitstream/10593/12686/1/Journal_2-2_2014%20wstep_Gromkowska-Melosik.pdf


Gurney, T. (2023). Pandora. Art Guide. URL: https://www.artguide.org/john-william-waterhouse/pandora/


Lucas, P. J. (1992). 'Judith' and the woman hero. The Yearbook of English Studies, 22, 17-27. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3508373


Panofsky, D., & Panofsky, E. (2019). Pandora's box: the changing aspects of a mythical symbol (Vol. 737). Princeton University Press. URL: https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=JW2DDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=pandora%27s+box+greek+mythology&ots=_FXpsiLCs0&sig=IwUOA4q_G9E4x5ayz0fiHl_OSSo#v=onepage&q&f=false


Stone, N. (2019). Judith and Holofernes: Some observations on the development of the scene in art. In Studies in Armenian Art, 49-69. Brill. URL: https://brill.com/display/book/9789004400504/BP000017.xml


Straussman-Pflanzer, E., & Art Institute of Chicago. (2013). Violence & Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes. Art Institute of Chicago. URL: https://www.artic.edu/print-publications/141/violence-and-virtue-artemisia-gentileschis-judith-slaying-holofernes

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Elena Miceli

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