The Riddle of Jael

The History of a Poxied Heroine in Medieval and Renaissance Art and Culture


Winner of the 2019 SECAC Award for Excellence in Scholarly Research and Publication

In The Riddle of Jael, Peter Scott Brown offers the first history of the Biblical heroine Jael in medieval and Renaissance art. Jael, who betrayed and killed the tyrant Sisera in the Book of Judges by hammering a tent peg through his brain as he slept under her care, was a blessed murderess and an especially fertile moral paradox in the art of the early modern period.

Jael’s representations offer insights into key religious, intellectual, and social developments in late medieval and early modern society. They reflect the influence on art of exegesis, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, humanism and moral philosophy, misogyny and the battle of the sexes, the emergence of syphilis, and the Renaissance ideal of the artist.

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Peter Scott Brown, Ph.D. (2004), Yale University, is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of North Florida. He has published numerous articles on text-image problems, Biblical women, and religious iconography in medieval and early modern art.
List of Illustrations


The Riddle of Jael

1 Jael under Erasure

2 Jael in Medieval and Early Modern Art and Thought

Transformations of Jael (1400–1550)

3 Jan van Eyck and the Early Modern Re-imagination of Jael

4 Albrecht Altdorfer’s Jael, the Power of Women, and Syphilis in Sixteenth-Century Print

5 Lambert Lombard’s Jael, Poxied Penitents, and Northern Humanism

Jael among the Haarlem Humanists (1550–1600)

6 Maarten van Heemskerck and Dirck Coornhert’s Power of Women: A Pasquinade on the Perfectibility of the Imperfect Soul

7 Maarten van Heemskerck and Hendrick Goltzius on Jael’s Nail and the Artist’s Hand

8 Philips Galle and Hadrianus Junius’ Jael: A Biblical Circe and Her Eloquent Riddle



Readers interested in Jael, religious iconography, Biblical women, gender, sexuality, syphilis, and humanism in the early modern period; 16th-century artists including Albrecht Altdorfer, Lambert Lombard, Maarten van Heemskerck, and Hendrick Goltzius.
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