Susanna Avery‐Quash (ed.), Ayla Lepine (ed.), Isobel Muir (co‐editor), Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart, digital edition (London: The National Gallery, 2022).
The first time I viewed Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses (The National Gallery, London), I became more aware than ever of how our readings, of the Bible and of art, are framed by context. For it is surrounded by, and in conversation with, the other (carefully curated) paintings it has been hung alongside. One jumps out at me: another painting by Orazio Gentileschi, The Rest on The Flight into Egypt, that also features an infant, this time Jesus, nursing at Mary’s breast.1 And I bring to my viewing my own context – not just as a woman applying my female gaze to the work of a male painter, but as a literate Jew whose reading of the Hebrew Bible stories, and the accompanying Rabbinic commentaries (known as Midrash), shapes my response to this Christian art.
In biblical Hebrew, the word for ‘faith’, emunah, comes from the verbal root letters aleph, mem, nun or ‘amen’, as you might spell it in English, whose range of meanings includes to support, to affirm, to fix, to sustain. The Hebrew word for the Temple’s pillars comes from the same root – its meaning has an architectural physicality, a grounded stability – as does omenet, which translates as a foster mother or wet‐nurse, giving sustenance to the child suckling at her breast.
So, there is huge irony when Moses complains to God in Numbers 11: ‘Why have you dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed your favour, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me? Did I produce all this people, did I engender them, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom as a caregiver (om’en) carries an infant?”’2
Moses, who is (in Orazio Gentileschi’s art, literally) the biblical poster child for foundlings cared for by foster‐mothers and wet‐nurses, is reluctant to return the favour. The Midrash comments on his sense of privilege and lack of faith. It is seen as a failure in his character, and one of the reasons he will not be allowed by God to leave the wilderness and lead the people into the promised land.
The adult Moses’ solipsism and sense of entitlement, rejecting his duty to nurture all but his biological children, are contrasted by use of this carefully chosen noun, with the women who not only raised him, but also protected the other children enslaved in Egypt. And when I view Orazio Gentileschi’s painting, especially in dialogue with The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, where Joseph falls asleep in the desert, leaving his wife alone to care for their child, it seems to me to be not just a tribute to mothers but a commentary on the abdication of responsibility by fathers.
Gentileschi’s boys have a clear sense of their value and identity: who they are is circumcised on their flesh, as one of the silk‐clothed women points out with baby Moses. However, biographically, Orazio Gentileschi is best known as the father not of his three sons but of his daughter, the great painter Artemisia, whom he failed to protect from harm: she was raped by the student he had brought into their home. While the characters in Orazio’s paintings look everywhere but at us, the viewer, Atermisia’s self‐portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (The National Gallery, London) with its heavy‐lidded eyes, compels us to meet her gaze.3 His biblical characters traverse geographical borders but hers challenge metaphysical, societal and artistic norms. As I cross the gallery floor towards Artemisia’s Saint Catherine, I notice how beautifully she has painted her own elegant fingers. Orazio’s women use their hands to point and gesture but Artemisia’s thumbs are hidden. Not long before making this painting, she had given testimony against her rapist in a famous trial and was tortured with thumbscrews to test the veracity of her allegations – especially painful for an artist of her ability, who created with her hands.
While her father put the boys at the centre of his pictures, with the women in service to them, Artemisia makes herself the subject, and breaks out of the frame he, and others of the time, would have used to contain her: a challenge to those of us whose lives have been shaped by the gendered power structures inherent in most interpretations of biblical narratives.Orazio
After ‘The Finding of Moses’ and ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ by Orazio Gentileschi
I am looking for his daughter, but what I find
in his art are baby boys – their succulent flesh,
their kicking legs. I am looking for his daughter,
Artemisia, but he paints mothers: birth mothers,
borrowed mothers, mothers giving suck to their own
and to others, sisters who hide in the reeds
to find a royal mother for their little brother.
I am looking for his daughter but am captured
by the failures of these ancient fathers – Joseph,
exhausted by the flight, flings back his head
and sleeps, soothing himself while his wife feeds
the baby and, when Moses is found, Pharoah
is nowhere to be seen. Yet there is love here,
surrounding these wriggling boys, confident
in who they are, identity engraved on their flesh
from the start: the women hold them, encircle them,
O holy boys. The women, haloed by the sheen
of silk dresses, point in every direction except
towards us for, biblically, all borders are porous,
meant to be crossed, except the fourth wall …
Ah yes, there she is, hanging opposite, self‐portrait
as Saint Catherine clinging to a sheaf, her broken
thumbs hidden beneath a torturer’s wheel, eyes staring
out of the frame because, when our knowing is drawn
from pain, Father’s rules are no longer fit to apply. © Aviva Dautch. Commissioned by the National Gallery, London, 2022.
1. Orazio Gentileschi’s The Rest on the Flight to Egypt was on display in spring 2022 at the National Gallery, London, on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust on behalf of Birmingham City Council (L1311). (Back to text.)
3. See Artemisia Gentileschi, Self‐Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (NG6671), about 1615–17, oil on canvas, 71.4 × 60 cm, The National Gallery, London. (Back to text.)
List of references cited
- JPS Hebrew–English Tanakh 2000
JPS Hebrew–English Tanakh, second edn, Philadelphia 2000
About this catalogue
This online born‐digital catalogue accompanies the National Gallery’s virtual exhibition Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart. It is downloadable for free, and any part of the catalogue can be easily accessed or printed. This format maximises the flexible ways in which these texts can be used, enjoyed and shared. Any mistakes or omissions are the editors’ own.
The exhibition has been curated by Ayla Lepine in close collaboration with Susanna Avery‐Quash. Fruits of the Spirit pairs nine paintings from the National Gallery’s collection with nine paintings from regional partner collections from across the UK. The catalogue and virtual exhibition are accompanied by a series of UK‐wide events, a Smartify audioguide and, from November 2022 until April 2023, an in‐person tour through the National Gallery’s collection.
The catalogue has been co‐edited by Ayla Lepine and Susanna Avery‐Quash, with assistance from Isobel Muir as part of her Student Development activity supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The catalogue’s structure places the nine themes of the Fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self‐control – in dialogue with the exhibition’s 18 paintings. Each theme features short essays by a National Gallery curator, a UK partnership museum curator, and an individual or group connected with the regional partner. These community voices provide an exciting and dynamic layer within the project and the catalogue structure. Community contributors include art therapists, artists, refugees, people from Quaker, Jewish and Methodist backgrounds, children, and climate change activists.
Additionally, the London‐based Jewish poet Aviva Dautch was commissioned to write a poem responding to the Fruits of the Spirit themes. Dautch is also a participant in the National Gallery’s new Interfaith Sacred Art Forum, which has been focusing on the theme ‘Crossing Borders’. She selected the Fruit of the Spirit’s theme of Faithfulness in relation to Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses. Her words connect this painting to the importance of women in scripture and the significance of Artemisia Gentileschi (Orazio’s daughter) as an artist with her own story to tell. Dautch’s poem also makes a profound connection with the Foundling Museum’s contributions to the Faithfulness theme and the biblical account of Moses’ birth. Dautch’s work speaks of faith in uncertain times, the enduring strength of women in painful circumstances, and the enduring qualities of faith, hope and love in every person’s life.
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