Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mirror, Mirror

The lectionary reading is only the tip of the Deborah story iceberg. Judges 4:1-7 introduces us to Deborah sitting beneath her palm tree and judging Israel. This is an important job that Deborah apparently takes seriously and for which Deborah is respected. But in this passage Deborah is stationary, when one of the more interesting things about the story is the action and movement. Barak goes to war (and we assume Deborah goes with him). Jael is moved to act and kills Sisera, the general leading hundreds of chariots against the army of Israel. None of that is in the reading for today. So for this week's art, we step outside the reading and into the story.
Mirror with Jael and Barak, 1672. English. Satin worked with silk and metal thread, beads, purl, mica, seed pearls; detached buttonhold variations, couching, satin, long-and-short, tent and straight stitches; wood frame, celluloid imitation tortoiseshell, mirror glass, silk, plush. 28 3/4" x 23 3/4". Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. 
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/39.13.2a

This piece of seventeenth-century embroidery features the figure of Charity at the top and a mermaid at the bottom. In the four corners are animals representing the known continents (the camel associated with Asia and the stag representing Europe as well as two mythological creatures - the griffin probably standing for Africa and the basilisk probably representing the Americas). That collection is eclectic enough, but there are also two figures. The two figures, a man and a woman dressed in full 17th-century garb, are Barak and Jael. Deborah is not present, nor is Sisera, though Jael holds the peg and mallet that she used in his death.

Jael has been interpreted in varied and often contradictory ways in the history of art. In medieval times she served as a prefiguring of Mary, the killing of Sisera a parallel to Mary's triumph over Satan. Jael has been a deceitful killer, the personification of sin*, a virtuous savior of the nation and everything in between. In the example here, there is no overt judgment or interpretation of Jael's character. She simply stands in sumptuous dress, holding a hammer and nail.

Barak is perhaps even less imposing. Rather than the armor in which he is clad in medieval images, here he wears fabric clothing with no visible metal armor. His hat is jauntily trimmed, his doublet has wildly full sleeves and his legs are encased in striped stockings. This is probably more decorative than how most of us imagine a general of the army of Israel.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is that the embroidery is the decorative element of a functional object. The embroidery is part of the frame for a mirror. So who was the original owner of this mirror? Was there a woman who gazed past Jael and Barak in order to see herself? A man who saw Jael and Barak every time he saw his own face? What was one supposed to see when seeing Jael and Barak to the left and right of the reflection of one's own face?

A mirror seems an object more suited to Sisera's mother - the only passive figure in this story. At the end of Judges 5, Sisera's mother stands at the window and waits for her son to come home from war and bring her some of the spoils of what she assumes will be his victory. She more than any other character in this story might be inclined to spend time gazing into a mirror to see herself.

What brought these images - mythical creatures, living animals, biblical characters and allegorical figures - together on this mirror? What do they mean together? It is perhaps a question that Deborah, prophet of God, mother of Israel, participant in the story, might be able to puzzle out if it were brought to her while she sat beneath her palm tree.


*From a sermon by Puritan minister Richard Gibbon: "When sin, like Jael, invites thee into her tent, with the lure and decoy of a lordly treatment, think of the nail and hammer which fastened Sisera dead to the ground..." (Puritan Sermons 1659-1689, [1661] 1981, I, Sermon V). The quote is roughly contemporary with the mirror.  

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