Today’s advent offering is a wee bit of a cheat, as the image I’ve chosen isn’t strictly biblical. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Lady Lilith, portrays the woman who, in Jewish traditions, was Adam’s first wife, before Eve. According to 13th Century Rabbinic literature, Lilith was created from the soil, like Adam, but refused to be subservient to him and left Eden after she started a tryst with archangel Samael. Often associated with night demons (her name in Hebrew is sometimes translated as ‘night creature’), she is commonly depicted as a woman of dangerous power and deadly potential.
Rossetti’s Lilith is certainly beautiful, but she also conforms to the artistic traditions of the day that often depicted women as femmes fatales – sources of danger, enigma and death. The woman in the picture is a fascinating mix of femininity and androgyny; her luxuriant hair, bare milky shoulders and ruby lips clearly show us her feminine allure, yet at the same time, observe her square masculine jaw and rather large hands, which hint at her confusing gendered otherness and her anxiety-provoking strength. Her languid pose and heavy-lidded eyes soak the picture in a miasma of indolence, accentuated perhaps, by the opium-producing poppy in the right hand corner.This fascinating figure, who stares at herself vainly in a hand mirror, may appear to us as a source of beauty and desire, but her name – associated as it is with the deadly and demonic of religious traditions – should warn us to stay away from her. For fin de siècle artists such as Rossetti, this was the danger the fatal woman could pose. Erotic, alluring, and desirable they may be, but he did not wish us to forget their lethal potential.