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The Judge Gideon

The Israelites soon did evil again, so Yahweh handed the over to the Midianites. The Israelites hid in caves and clefts but they had anyway to come out of hiding to sow and harvest. Then the Midianites would come and destroy the Israelites. The people were in such distress because of these pillages that they cried out for help to Yahweh.

The angel of Yahweh then appeared to Gideon, son of Oprah. Gideon took his bull and destroyed the altar of Baal in the township, as Yahweh had asked him to do. That same day, Gideon received the name of Jerubbaal. He assembled an army of Israelites and marched against Midian and Amalek. But Yahweh did not want any victory yet for the Israelites as a whole. He did want a victory only for Jerubbaal-Gideon. So he told Gideon to bring his army to the waterside. Some of the warriors drank with their tongue, hands clapped to their mouths. Others knelt down and drank that way. Yahweh told Gideon only to keep the three hundred men who had drunk as dogs do and he promised Gideon to rescue him with these only.

Gideon attacked Amalek and Midian with his three hundred men only, organised in three groups. The enemy’s camp was thrown in confusion and the Midianites fled away. The Israelites pursued them and killed many, among whom the Midianite chieftains Oreb and Zeeb. Then Gideon continued the pursuit of the Midianite kings Zebah and Zalmunna. He took also these two prisoners after having destroyed their army. Gideon also destroyed then the towns of Succoth and of Penuel because they had not wanted to provide him and his army with bread on the pursuit. Finally he killed the Midianite kings.

The Israelites asked Gideon to rule over them for generation after generation, which meant to rule as their king, but Gideon refused. He told that only Yahweh could rule over the Israelites. But he did ask one golden ring from everyone. He made an ephod, a cult object, out of these for Yahweh and set this in Oprah, his own town.

Gideon reviews his Army

Johann Heinrich Schönfeld (1609-1683/1684). Kunsthistorisches Museum. Vienna. Ca. 1640/1645.

Johann Heinrich Schönfeld made with ‘Gideon reviews his Troops’ a painting that is very much in the same style as ‘Joshua’s Battle’. This painting is much smaller however, but the epic breadth and the dreamy atmosphere are the same.

Schönfeld situated the scene near a pond inside Roman ruins. Gideon’s soldiers are assembled around the water. They seem exhausted and drink the water, but not eagerly. Many of the men are sitting down or even lying on the ground and Schönfeld made it clear that these are not really professional soldiers: few of the men wear armour, few have shields, and few wear boots. Many men only wear a loincloth or simple, short trousers, or an occasional feather in the hair instead of a helmet. Helmets have been thrown down, too heavy in the mountain and desert country. The men have gathered in a protected oasis and here they relax awaiting the battle with the Midianites.

Like Schönfeld did often, he painted the main figure of the theme in such a way that the viewer has to discover him. When the viewer reads the title of the painting, he or she will try to find Gideon and that takes some time. But when the viewer situated Gideon, the impression of epic grandeur increases and suddenly becomes more evident. Schönfeld rewards the viewer for finding the leader. In ‘Gideon reviewing his Troops’, the artist placed Gideon almost invisible in the haziness of the far end of the pond. There, in the middle, stands a man, seated on a horse, pointing with a commanding arm. The viewer understands that Gideon has arrived at the camp from out of the mist of the far and that he has been looking at his men to make his choice. Schönfeld painted the scene to represent the moment when Gideon, having too many men to lead, watches the men drinking and is choosing only those, like Yahweh told him, that drink the water by lapping with their tongue as dogs do. These were probably the fiercest and the poorest, the ones that could fight best. Gideon only chose three hundred men.

Schönfeld painted the scene situated in ancient ruins, as he had seen some in Rome. To the left are the ruins of the Forum and to the right is what could be a part of Rome’s Coliseum. These two architectures form an ‘Open V’ structure of composition, in the middle of which Schönfeld painted Gideon and his staff of officers. They enter the oasis like a staff of ghostly heroes, arriving from out of the lore of time, sent by Yahweh like warrior angels to save Israel. Here also Schönfeld could open the landscape to far mountains, increasing the impression of grandeur and of epic for the viewer. To the right and left, in front of the imposing ruins, Schönfeld placed the groups of men. Schönfeld had a keen sense of Classicist balance and composition. To the left we see the very high ruins of a Roman temple but the soldiers are lower there. So Schönfeld painted the soldiers on the right standing taller and he even showed a soldier on horseback there, to balance the high structure on the left. He further introduced such symmetries also in the areas of colours. To the front left we see a man drinking, dressed in a blue robe of which Schönfeld shows but a few, delicate blue patches. There also we see a man holding a high lance, seated and turning his back to the viewer. The blue and the flesh colour are almost the only truly chromatic areas of the left scene. To the right we see some of that blue also in a man drinking and another man stands there also turning his bare, muscled back to the viewer; These two man are coloured in the same hues as on the left.

Johann Heinrich Schönfeld applied hues in his picture that are marvellously suited for a scene of epic heroes. He painted in delicate hazy, pastel, light colours of blue-grey and sparingly added touches of diluted but pure blue, orange and flesh-yellow hues. The whole scene is flooded in an eery, bluish light. This use of colours evokes in the viewer an impression of a scene from an unreal world, from a world of dreams, a world of epic deeds and great heroes sent from God, suddenly appearing from out of the mist of miracle. Schönfeld’s painting is much more a mood than a scene of battle. He reached his aim marvellously by using the grey blue, delicate colours and by drawing only a few men in clear outlines and more striking colours.

Schönfeld was a master in creating such epic, romantic and melancholic mood of evoking scenes from old tales. That is probably the right way to remember Bible stories by, stories that were first told near campfires or in small houses of Canaanite villages by oral tradition before being written down by Israelite priests. These were the grand tales of epic deeds of the forefathers and they must have come to the minds of the listeners in the way Schönfeld showed them in his paintings.

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