Tag Archives: beheading

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Paul Delaroche  Oil on Canvas  1833

On this day, February 12, 1554, teenage former queen of England Lady Jane Grey was beheaded at the Tower of London.  Her cousin, Edward VI, named her as his successor on his deathbed in 1553.  He was bypassing both of his half-sisters, Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn.

Many historians believe the king was pressured by his advisor, who happened to be Jane Grey’s father-in-law, the Duke of Nuthumberland.  And although that may have played a role in his decision, I think he genuinely believed Jane Grey was the right choice for the role.  She was well-educated and well liked, having lived with his step-mother and sixth wife of Henry VIII, Catherine Parr.  It’s said her husband, Lord Guidford Dudley, was the most well liked man in all of England.  And most importantly, she was Protestant.

Of course, she also had a very strong claim to the throne.  She was the granddaughter of Mary, King Henry VIII’s younger sister.  According to his will and the line of succession she was third in line.  Had it not been for a change of heart to add his daughters back in line late in his life, she would have been the first in line.  Many at the time refused to recognize the change in succession, making Jane Grey the most legitimate candidate in their eyes.

However, the line of succession set forth by Henry VIII was clear.  More importantly, Jane Grey’s supporters abandoned her as soon as it was clear that the tide was turning in Mary’s favor.  The young queen, only 16 or 17 years old, was left to face a charge of treason, along with her husband and father.  The treason charge was based on the fact that she signed papers “Jane the Queen” during those nine days.  Although there was an unsuccessful rebellion, Wyatt’s Rebellion, to fight for her cause, it’s generally believed she was not involved in any way.

There is an amazing account of the execution of Lady Jane Gray called The Chronicle of Queen Jane, and of Two Years of Queen Mary.  Below is an excerpt from this anonymous work.

The hangman went to her to help her of therewith; then she desyred him to let her alone, turning towardes her two gentlewomen, who helped her off therwith, and also with her frose paast” and neckercher, geving to her a fayre handkercher to knytte about her eyes.

Then the hangman kneeled downe, and asked her forgevenesse, whome she forgave most willingly. Then he willed her to stand upon the strawe: which doing, she sawe the block.

Then she sayd, booke, good mayster lieuftenaunte, therefore I shall as a frende desyre you, and as a christian require you, to call uppon God to encline your harte to his lawes, to quicken you in his waye, and not to take the worde of trewethe utterlye oute of youre mouthe. Lyve styll to dye, that by deathe you may purchase eternall life, and remembre howe the ende of Mathusael, whoe, as we reade in the scriptures, was the longeste liver that was of a manne, died at the laste: for, as the precher sayethe, there is a tyme to be borne, and a tyme to dye; and the daye of deathe is better than the daye of oure birthe. Youres, as the Lorde knowethe, as a frende, JANE DUDDELEY.”

Here is a link to the book in its entirety: Chronicle of Queen Jane

Paul Delaroche was a highly lauded and critically acclaimed French history painter.  His tendency to paint British historical events made him very popular in England as well as France.  His scholarly dedication to historical accuracy made him popular with art critics and academics alike.

This painting, although showing one brief moment, has the ability to tell such a story.  The former queen’s ladies wail at the loss of their mistress.  One had been her maid since infancy.  Lady Jane Grey reaches her hand out for the block, unable to see.  Her white dress seems to remind the viewer of her youth and innocence, as well as her willingness to accept the punishment of her cousin, the queen.  The executioner looks calm and patient, ready to do his duty.

It’s such a beautiful painting for such a dark moment.  I find it so striking and lovely, and much more powerful than a gruesome, bloody painting would have been.  And although Delaroche took some liberties with the setting, he did a superb job of depicting an important historical event accurately and wonderfully.

When you think about it, Lady Jane Grey is just another person destroyed in the wake of Henry VIII.  His muddled succession wishes, the division between not only his counrtymen, but his own children in their views of religion, and his overall disregard for human life he seems to have passed down to his heirs.  So today we remember Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Day Queen, her life given in the service of sovereign and country.

Advertisements

Judith Slaying Holofernes

Artemisia Gentileschi  Oil on Canvas  1620

I have to admit, until recently, I had no idea the story of Judith slaying Holofernes had anything to do with Hanukkah.  I’m awfully glad that there is a connection, because I’ve been wondering how I was going to work this painting into my calendar.  It’s really not clear if it has any actual relation to Hanukkah at all, but it seems that in some cultures, the story of Judith (or Yehudit) is told on Hanukkah as an example of Jewish faith and courage overcoming a larger force.

The story of Judith can be found in the Apocrypha, as she didn’t make the cut in either Jewish texts or the Protestant Old Testament.  The Book of Judith is considered canon by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.  It’s easy to jump to the “it was excluded because it’s about a female hero” reasoning, but it’s more likely because it is incredibly historically inaccurate (even for the first or second century BCE), and is generally considered a parable or possibly even the first historical fiction.  (She says Nebuchadnezzar is the King of Assyria, but he was actually Babylonian.)  Regardless, it’s a wonderful piece of literature and a great heroine story.

You should definitely take the time to read the story of Judith yourself, but here is the super abridged version.

Judith was a widow living in the Israelite town of Bethulia.  Holofernes and his army of Assyrians besieged the town by cutting off the mountain pass and access to water.  In thirty four days the town ran out of water.

The townspeople gathered and tried to persuade the town elder, Uzziah, to surrender.  Surely they would all die if not.  A devout man, Uzziah persuades the townspeople to have faith for five more days,  their God would provide.

When Judith heard the Uzziah put a timeline on her God to rescue them, she was appalled.  In chapter 8:12 she says, ” 12 What right do you have to put God to the test as you have done today? Who are you to put yourselves in God’s place in dealing with human affairs? 13 It is the Lord Almighty that you are putting to the test! Will you never learn?” She actually tears into the leaders with a very lengthy speech, but you get the idea.

So Judith takes matters into her own hands.  She vows that before the five days have passed, the Lord will use her to rescue her people.  One little thing–no questions asked.  Uzziah agrees.

She prays (again, quite lengthy).  She says in chapter 9:9 “I am only a widow, but give me the strength to carry out my plan. 10 Use my deceitful words to strike them all dead, master and slave alike. Let a woman’s strength break their pride.”

Judith had been in mourning for her husband for three years and four months.  She wore ony a sackcloth.  Although she was very beautiful, she did not adorn herself.  That is, of course, until the night she went to the camp of Holofernes.  You can guess what happens next.

She put on her most beautiful clothing and jewelry, adorned herself with ribbons in her hair.  Although she had fasted while in mourning, she and her slave now carried wine, roasted barley, dried figs and delicious bread.  She convinced the guards, not only with her beauty, but with her wit and wisdom, that she was indeed Hebrew, but was running away because their God had abandoned them.  Surely they would all perish any day now.

Over the course of the next four days, Judith beguiled not only Holofernes, but his guards and servants as well.  They were not guarded and could do as they wished.  All the while, Judith was careful to keep with her faith, praying and eating only what her slave prepared for her.

So of course, the time came for action.  It’s an old story.  Woman meets man.  Man lusts for woman.  Woman plays along.  Man gets drunk.  Woman slices off man’s head and saves her city from certain destruction.  Again, the actual Book of Judith is probably where you should read the story.  It really is a great story of faith, conviction, bravery, and well, gore.

Artemisia Gentileschi has an equally riveting story.  The daughter of an artist in early 17th century, it was soon apparent her talent outshined that of her father, who himself was a well-respected painter and contemporary of Caravaggio.  Although not unheard of, it was rare for a female artist to succeed.  Her father recognized her great talent and did what he could to help in her success.

When she surpassed him in skill, he arranged for an apprenticeship with Agostino Tassi, another well-respected artist.  However, Tassi raped the 17-year-old Artemisia,  at which time the girl yelled out for her female chaperone, the only adult female figure in her life.  The woman ignored her cries, and many believed had even colluded with Tassi before the rape.

What followed was a very long, drawn out, gruelling  seven month trial when Tassi refused to marry Artemisia after taking her virginity.  Apparently, the gynecological examination she was forced to endure wasn’t proof enough.   She was subjected to torture, actual, literal torture of thumbscrews to “verify” her testimony.  At the time, there was only a case if the victim was a virgin.

Tassi was sentenced to one year in prison.  He never served any time.  Many people look at her paintings and see the anger, the bitterness, the hurt, the betrayal.  But what I mostly see in this painting is resolve.  The expression of Judith’s face isn’t menacing, it’s determined.  In her mind, he’s getting exactly what he deserves.

Artemisia Gentileschi actually did two versions of this painting.  This is the second, and I believe the superior of the two, now found in the Uffizi.  Although both have the amazing Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro, she just seems to have worked it out a bit more in the later version.  The proportions are better, the shadows are deeper, and the blood, oh, the blood.  Notice in the second painting the blood spraying from Holofernes’ neck.  Yeah, I’m betting she also believed he was getting what he deserved.

af5c34b5f0596e74c472735f44940eb8ab6eeda4

Left-1611  Right 1620

In addition to these two paintings of Judith, she also painted the glorious Judith and Maidservant in 1613.  And truly, this is my favorite of all Judith paintings by any artist.  Although it doesn’t show the act of slicing his neck, it shows something better–Judith’s wisdom.

Most paintings of this moment show Judith or her servant holding the head by its hair, ala David and Goliath.  However, that’s not how it happens in the story.  Although Judith had the run of the camp, I don’t think she could have made it back to town swinging the head of the leader of the army around.

That’s why her plan was so genius.  The guards were used to her slave carrying a basket, as Judith would only eat her food.  No one even noticed when they strolled out of camp with a little something extra.

Not your typical Hanukkah story, I know.  But I hope you’ll enjoy learning more about Judith and Artemisia Gentileschi on your own.  Maybe you can add (possibly a less gory version) to your Hanukkah tradition.  Happy Hanukkah!

393px-gentileschi_judith1