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The Judges Abimelech, Tola, Jair and Jephtah

After Gideon’s death the Israelites again served the Baals, taking Baal-Berith as their God. Abimelech, one of the sons of Gideon-Jerubbaal, asked the elders of Shechem what they preferred, to be ruled by one man or by all the seventy sons of Jerubbaal. The leading men of Shechem swayed towards Abimelech. Abimelech put to death all his brothers then and the men of Shechem proclaimed Abimelech king.

Jerubbaal’s youngest son, Jotham, had escaped from the massacre and from out of Mount Gerizim he addressed the leaders of Shechem. He said that of the men of Shechem had not acted in good faith then f ire should come out of Abimelech and fire out of the leaders of Shechem to destroy each other. Then Jotham fled to Beer, to be out of Abimelech’s reach.

Abimelech ruled as king of Shechem for three years. Then a group of men of Shechem rose against Abimelech. He attacked the town and killed all the inhabitants. He set fire to branches of wood piled up against a crypt in which the leaders of Shechem had fled. Abimelech then marched on Thebez. He besieged the town and he captured it. But all the leaders of Thebez had escaped into a tower in the middle of the town. Abimelech approached the door of the tower to set fire on it. At that precise moment a woman threw down a millstone on his head and cracked his skull. Abimelech died in this way and the prophecy and curse of Jotham had thus come true, both for Shechem and for Abimelech. This was the end of the first man who had been king in Israel for a short while.

After Abimelech was dead, Tola was a Judge of Israel for twenty-three years and after him ruled Jair of Gilead, who was a Judge for twenty-two years.

After these two judges the Israelites again began doing wrong and served many of the old gods of Canaan. They deserted Yahweh. Yahweh then let the Philistines and the Ammonites prevail over Israel. The Israelites were in distress. They prayed to Yahweh, gathered in Gilead and were looking for a volunteer to attack the Ammonites.

The elders of Gilead then fetched Jephtah, a valiant warrior. This was the son of a prostitute and his father’s wife as well as his father had driven Jephtah out from their house when other, legitimate sons were born. Jephtah fled and settled in the territory of Tob, where he assembled a group of adventurers that raided with him.

The Sacrifice of Jephtah

Sébastien Bourdon (1616-1671). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Lyon.

The elders of Gilead and the other people asked Jephtah to command their army against the Ammonites. Jephtah defeated Sibon and his army and Israel could take possession of the Ammonite territory around Johaz. But the king of the Ammonites still stood up to Israel. A final great and terrifying battle was to come.

Jephtah moved with the army of the Israelites into Ammonite land. He first tried to dissuade the Ammonite king from attacking Israel but when the king took no notice of Jephtah’s messages, he crossed further into Ammonite land. He asked Yahweh to deliver the Ammonites in his grasp. He made a vow to Yahweh. He told that if Yahweh delivered the Ammonites to him, he, Jephtah, when he returned from fighting the Ammonites victoriously, would sacrifice the first thing he saw coming out of the doors of his house to meet him. Jephtah indeed beat the Ammonites from Aroer to the borders of Minnith and to Abel-Keramim. He defeated the Ammonites severely.

When Jephtah returned to his house at Mizpah, his daughter came out to meet him, dancing at the sound of tambourines to welcome him. This was Jephtah’s only child. Jephtah remembered his rash promise, tore his clothes then and told his daughter what he had promised to God. He exclaimed his misery, but Jephtah’s daughter urged him to keep his promise to Yahweh. She asked her father for two months of respite and went with her companions to wander in the mountains and bewail her virginity.

When the two months were over, Jephtah did to his daughter what he had promised with his vow. He sacrificed his only daughter to Yahweh.

Since that time it is custom in Israel for the daughters to leave home every year and lament for four days over the daughter of Jephtah the Gileadite.

Later still, the men of Ephraim mobilised and stood up to Jephtah reproaching him of not having taken them to fight the Ammonites. Jephtah then had to make war to Ephraim and he defeated them. After these events, Jephtah still judged the Israelites for six years until he died.

Sébastien Bourdon was one of the artists that best represented the French Baroque period of the seventeenth century. He was born in 1616, in a Protestant family of Montpellier, but very soon he was sent to his uncle in Paris, as the French Royal and Catholic armies besieged Montpellier. In 1634, a few years before Louis XIV was born, he left for Rome and lived there for five years. Then he returned to Paris. His fame grew in the French capital, mainly in its Protestant circles. At times he returned briefly to Montpellier and he worked for two years in Stockholm for Queen Christina of Sweden. His fame as a Protestant painter may have helped him to be introduced to the Swedish Queen. Much later, in 1654, Christina would convert to Roman Catholicism, abdicate and go to live in Rome.

Bourdon remained however a Parisian painter, closely linked to the artistic sphere of Paris. In 1648 the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was founded. Bourdon was one of the twelve founding members, together with other famous French painters such as Charles Le Brun, Eustache Le Sueur, Laurent de La Hyre, Jacques Stella and Philippe de Champaigne. He even became the Rector of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1655. Louis XIV took over the reign of France from Cardinal Mazarin in 1661. Bourdon died in Paris in 1671. The ‘Sacrifice of Jephtah’ dates from around 1645, from right after his first major works that established Bourdon’s fame in Paris. His first work in Paris to gain him renown was for the goldsmiths of Notre Dame in 1643. This commission showed some of the tendency to reconciliation of French society late in the reign of Louis XIII, as a Protestant painter could gain such acceptance from the Roman Catholic court of France, even though there were occasional remaining strives between Protestant and Catholics. Cardinal Richelieu had won France for Catholicism, it was time to tolerate what remained of Protestantism. It proves also the great admiration and appreciation of his art by the Parisian nobility and its well-to do merchant families.

Sébastien Bourdon had married in 1642. He was famous, well settled. He painted many great paintings in this period. He was a Baroque painter, but he belonged to the French Classicist tradition of Simon Vouet (1590-1649) and Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Bourdon had met Poussin in Rome and seen his paintings. Laurent de La Hyre (1606-1656), Jacques Stella (1596-1657), Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674) were all painters in the Classicist style of the Baroque period and their style perfectly matched the stern, exacting, precise spirits of the times of the Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, who governed France. The state needed to be put to order and the Cardinals wanted logic and rigour and this naturally showed in architecture and the arts. French academism brought the rigour also in the art of painting and although Sébastien Bourdon’s ‘Jephta’s Sacrifice’ dates from a few years before the founding of the Academy of Paris, Bourdon’s painting is an example – we would say a classic example – of French academicism. So when you start looking at a Bourdon picture, start looking at the composition first.

In the scene of ‘Jephtah’s Sacrifice’ an old temple priest leads forward Jephtah’s daughter to the altar where she will be offered to Yahweh. Sébastien Bourdon used the left diagonal to depict an ascending line of drama. Below left, a friend of Jephtah’s daughter kneels before the offering and weeps. Jephtah’s daughter looks at her from higher up and still further along the diagonal we find the priest. Bourdon also used the right diagonal of the frame. On the lower right we find another kneeling woman, a maidservant holding a silver platter with the water that cleans the offering. The direction of images grows then over the head of Jephtah’s daughter to the upper left corner. The priest’s head lies on the left diagonal; the head of Jephtah’s daughter lies on the right diagonal. The two kneeling women, the priest and Jephtah’s daughter form a very solid triangle or pyramid, the base of which is the entire lower border of the frame. This fundamental structure – the two diagonals and the triangle beneath them – is the very robust composition of the scene. If that structure had been the only construction however, the composition would have suffocated the artistic and visual value of the painting. It would have been too strong a view, too strict, too austere.

Sébastien Bourdon needed to break the strength of the composition that he started with. His problem was how to bring in variety without destroying his basic structure.

First, Bourdon broke the rigour of the left diagonal. He made it stop at the priest’s head. Beyond the priest, Bourdon drew lines parallel to the other, right diagonal. Thus he drew the direction of the white smoke rising from the altar. Then he drew the direction of the Roman emblems of imperial power and the folded flag in the upper right part. The left diagonal was extremely strong because it held the main figures of the theme, the central view of the theme to which the viewers’ attention would always be drawn. So Bourdon needed to break this diagonal to a certain extent and to emphasise the right diagonal again. He did that by drawing four lines or directions parallel to the right diagonal, but higher up so that his pyramid structure not be destroyed. Also lower down, he drew a direction parallel to the right diagonal. To find this direction, look at the other friends of Jephtah’s daughter higher up, on the left. Take the line starting from the lowest Roman stone in the middle of the lowest border, and pass over the middle of the picture over the head of the knelt friend of Jephtah’s daughter to the other girl friends of the daughter, and you have another line parallel to the right diagonal. These lines that recall the right diagonal, by their repetition, brought enough variety to be a counterweight to the strength of the left diagonal direction.

The result would still have been too rigorous. Bourdon now needed to look at his colours.

All the figures we have discovered so far are painted in the same hues, in shades of grey and yellow tints and flesh colours. Jephtah’s daughter is in white, yellow-grey and she wears a cloak of light blue. The kneeling woman on the right was painted in shades of grey. All these hues and shades match harmoniously. The greys match the blue of Jephtah’s daughter; the white and the light flesh colours agree well. The magnificent yellow-brown cloak of the daughter’s friend matches the central blue cloak. These colours on their turn match the hues that are higher up: the grey tones of the smoke, the grey-yellow and light blue of the flag, and the greys of the Roman architecture in the upper background. Remark how these colours support the composition. Jephtah’s daughter is painted in a central area of blue that forms a vertical support for the triangle or pyramid and this colour mass strengthens that structure. The lady on the lower right is in dark shades of grey, leading to the blue cloak of Jephtah’s daughter, also strengthening by colour the right diagonal and finding itself a response in the grey cloak of the priest. The weeping women on the left are painted in shades of yellow and white and thus form a compact mass of almost similar colours, supporting a line parallel to the right diagonal, and this yellow goes to a yellow-golden vase down below in an uninterrupted line. We find moreover yellow-light hues in a left triangle, in the gathering weeping women, and darker grey to the lower right so that Sébastien Bourdon also brought effects of light into his scene. The light, although no dramatic effects of contrasts between light and dark are used, seems to fall on the left scene of women. The light seems to come from the upper left and does not reach the lower border. Bourdon enhanced this effect by painting the woman on the lower right in darker shades of grey.

So far we have seen the emphasis on the left diagonal, broken up halfway by several lines parallel to the right diagonal. We remarked the centre pyramid, which is somewhat balanced by the triangle of the weeping women on the left. But since these forms were all painted in harmonious colours – blue and yellow are complementary hues and the hues are all in light tones – they formed still a homogeneous, strong mass of form and colour. How could Sébastien Bourdon break up still this strong structure? How could he bring still more variation in liens and colour? Well, there remained Jephtah, the great warrior himself. We have not yet looked at the second main actor of the theme, at the father of the offered girl. And we still have the right part of the picture, an unfilled right triangle formed by the space between the crossing two diagonals (right diagonal lower half and left diagonal upper half) and the right border of the frame. How to bring variation in oblique lines and in the harmony of grey-blue-yellow light hues?

Sébastien Bourdon again underscored the vertical direction and he brought in a colour that did not at all easily and harmoniously fitted with the light grey, yellow and blue hues used in the rest of the painting. Bourdon placed Jephtah in the right triangle, and he clad Jephtah in red. One vertical mass alone would not have been enough to break up lack of variety and would have really been too out-standing in the picture. Luckily the vertical red area of Jephtah answers the vertical blue cloak of Jephtah’s daughter. Father and child are painted in the same vertical directions, whereas all other figures are painted in oblique poises; so father and daughter are obviously linked. Jephtah’s red cloak is long and Jephtah is tall along the right border. Thus this are supports the large right triangle made by the left diagonal and the right border. Bourdon now had two counterweights to the central pyramid. He had a left triangle of weeping women and a right triangle with Jephtah’s imposing figure.

Sébastien Bourdon started his picture with a basic structure formed by the two diagonals and the pyramid under their crossing-point. He introduced variation and complexity to lessen the weight of this strong visual effect that was too simple, obvious, monopolising and heavy. He built up complexity logically, unwaveringly, intelligently and inexorably. Ultimately the viewer has to conclude that the complexity was naturally imposed and could not have been otherwise. That is the working of the mastery of a great genius.

We wrote about lines and colours in the composition of ‘Jephtah’s Sacrifice’ by Sébastien Bourdon. We saw also how he brought in an effect of aerial perspective by concentrating the brighter colours to the left. We gave little attention however to the scene itself. Bourdon was a painter of the Baroque period. So we should expect theatrical show and ostentatious display of emotion in gestures and in expression of faces. Bourdon showed that indeed. Look at Jephtah on the right, look at the weeping women on the left. Emotions are on the extremes of the canvas. Calm determination, wisdom, resignation and acceptance of fate’s vagaries are in the middle of the picture. Baroque display of feelings was relegated to the sides, whereas Classicist repose, order and tranquil state of mind are in the middle. But then, of course, if Jephtah’s daughter remains calm and if she innocently looks at her crying friend, the priest – who is the executioner – lures very ready from behind the girl. He raises his long butchering knife all too eager to perform the crime. In this act, Jephtah’s daughter seems to offer her breast to the thrust. Remark how in this small scene within the larger image, the priest and executioner is painted in dark grey shades, like a predator stands dark upon its prey. The man is also enveloped in the fumes from the altar and thus, like a dark ghost he encroaches on the innocence of the girl.

Many other details can be discovered in Sébastien Bourdon’s painting.

Look at the altar. The stones are decorated with the heads of sacrificial lambs. The vertical lines of the square altar continue higher up in the vertical lines of a round tower or large column. At the feet of Jephtah’s daughter is a grey stone vase with the menacing head of a devil or satyr.

Jephtah’s daughter is dressed in white and blue, which are the Virgin Mary’s colours. Jephtah is dressed in flaming red, colours always used for Jesus. Did Yahweh not in some way honour Mary but also sacrifice her?

Jephtah was a fierce warrior; therefore look at the golden hint of his terrible sword. Bourdon painted Roman imperial emblems in similar golden colours above Jephtah’s head, and these almost form a saintly halo above his head.

The figure of Jephtah’s daughter is central and vertical. The stone very down in the middle of the lower border below points upward, towards Jephtah’s daughter. So there is a rising force to support he verticals. Bourdon enhanced this rising impression by painting a pyramid grey roof just above the central figures. These features add to the impression of spirituality, of elevation of the spiritual act of an offer to Yahweh.

The picture uses a theme from the Bible. But the theme of a father who sacrifices his daughter is a very old theme of Greek tragedy. We think of course of Iphigeneia, offered by her father before his departure for Troy. The theme is as well a Classicist theme as a religious one form the Old Testament.

The figure of the priest is on the right of Jephtah’s daughter and set obliquely to the girl, drawing the sub-scene into loss of balance, skewed to the right. So Bourdon situated a man half hidden on the left, behind Jephtah’s daughter, also painted in dark colours. This dark mass balances the lighter form of the priest.

The four weeping women on the left, above the knelt girl, form yet another triangle in the picture.

Sébastien Bourdon created a very strong spatial perspective in the architecture of the antique building, the Roman or Greek columns in the upper right corner. Every part of the canvas was thus used to contain some element of design that added to the meaning or the visual enhancement of the picture.

He wanted to keep emphasis on the verticality of Jephtah’s daughter, so he drew the horizontal lines of a roman arch in the upper left corner. Here also we find a bit of blue sky.

Sébastien Bourdon painted in ‘Jephtah’s Sacrifice’ a rare masterpiece that stands at the top level of academic design. It would be very difficult for a twentieth century or contemporary painter, who now would have full knowledge of all the elements of visual design, to better the composition of Bourdon in lines, shapes, composition and balance and counterweight of colours. Bourdon’s painting stood already at the top of the learning curve even though it is a seventeenth century picture. The marvel of such a complex, sophisticated, geometric and logical design is that in a viewer unaware of the design, the picture can inspire immediate emotion. Who would not be touched by compassion for the resigned and determined innocent young girl, for the tortured father who tears his clothes in oriental show of passionate misery? Who would not be touched by the outcry of the weeping women? But this was all for the greater glory of Yahweh and the pleas and the sadness rise with the smoke of the altar. The glory of victory at war symbolised by the ancient Roman emblems of its legions in the upper right, mean only torment and despair for the women on the left.

Sébastien Bourdon’s work thus plays on the viewer’s feelings and on his mind. Very, very few painters reached this mastery of their medium.

Other Paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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