Advent offering – 11 December

Today’s offering is a work entitled The Daughter of Jephthah by 19th Century French artist Édouard Debat-Ponsan. This painting has always been a favourite of mine, not least because, in his retelling of a truly grim biblical story (Judges 11.29-40 – also discussed in this blogpost), Debat-Ponsan seems to subvert more traditional readings of the text, which portray Jepthah’s daughter as an exemplary figure, accepting her father’s stupidity with a suitably feminine good grace. Instead, the artist offers us a portrayal of the young woman that allows us to imagine how else she might have responded to the news of her impending sacrifice. The scene depicted is narrated in vv.37-8, where Jephthah’s daughter spends two months before she is sacrificed wandering the mountains with her friends to “bewail” her virginity (the thing she’d be most upset about, in the narrator’s mind at least).

In Debat-Ponsan’s painting, Jepthah’s daughter sits centre-stage – her garments are rent in mourning, friends surround her, clearly sharing the grief of the occasion. Yet look at her face and read the emotion that is there. I don’t see resignation or acceptance; I can’t see any hint of the dutiful and subservient daughter we read about so often in the interpretive traditions of this text. Instead, I see a woman, staring straight at me, who is seething with a rage that is white hot in its intensity – a rage that is wholly justified but, tragically, also utterly impotent. Her father was the fool, yet she is the one who will suffer. Debat-Ponsan reminds us of the absolute injustice inherent within this story, depicting a woman who stares at us, daring us to join her on the mountain and rage along with her.

Édouard Debat-Ponsan, The daughter of Jephthah (1876)

One thought on “Advent offering – 11 December

  1. cedar51 December 13, 2013 / 8:57 am

    I also see a despair, not one of sadness but one of “having no choice but to give up” the arms also reveal that to me. Some of her friends are full of sadness whilst others have their faces away from us but their bodies and to some extent their clothing do the “talking” – there is emotions of different kinds but all linked to sadness.

    Interesting how when you think about sadness, it affects us in so many different ways and you realise just how individual we all are…What I might find sad, you might find some measure of joy in – although this picture doesn’t portray “joy” at all…


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