Sanctuary: Blog

The Healing Power of Expression

Submitted by: Joseph Benamati, Senior Faculty, Sanctuary Institute

NOTE: The following may contain language and images that may be difficult to view.


Her mother died when she was 12 years old, a very crucial time for a young woman. She missed her mother very much but her father loved her and was a great comfort to her. He was a painter and saw in his daughter a spark of genius that he nurtured and encouraged. When she was just 16 years old she produced her first painting called Madonna and Child. The painting looked like many others of its genre, Mary holding the Christ child, but this painting was different. On closer examination Mary's hands never touch the child, Mary's eyes are closed, while the child's eyes looking searchingly at the mother's face while caressing the mother gently almost sadly. According to the girl this was her way of expressing her sorrow of having lost her mother. Mary not being able to hold the baby, her eyes closed (meaning love not reciprocated) all were symbols of the girl's sadness.


She was on her way to becoming a great artist in her own right but there was a special technique her father couldn't teach her. He asked a friend to tutor her. Her father's friend was a genius at painting perspective; the ability to draw something as if from a great distance such as a door at the end of a long hallway. So at 18 years of age she went to study with him but his intentions were darker and more sadistic. He raped her repeatedly over many months promising that he would marry her (although already married) and threatening to kill her if she told anyone. Finally she told her father, who had his friend arrested, and they went to trial. The Court, not believing the girl, had her tortured. They thought if she could stick to her story through the pain of torture perhaps she was telling the truth. The rapist was convicted and sentenced.

Torturing the victim seems barbaric to us today but this was 17th century Rome and the girl was Artemisia Gentileschi. Through time she has become one of the most important and famous painters of the Baroque era. Her perseverance and courage through adversities such as traumatic bereavement, rape, torture, humiliation, and ostracism have been an inspiration to millions of women from around the world. She went on to paint five versions of the rape, each more sophisticated and integrated than the last. She used the theme of the biblical figure Judith to represent herself. Each painting dealt with Judith slaying a general named Holofrones who was attempting to kill Judith's family. The paintings depict a strong and courageous Judith capable of taking care of not only herself but of being the protector of others. A wonderful replacement metaphor for someone who had experienced what Artemisia did a few years previously.


Once again we see the power of expression to heal. After painting her fifth Judith Slays Holofrones Artemisia painted a self-portrait using an angle artists today agree would be difficult to paint without possessing superior skills. It was almost as if Artemisia was proclaiming to the world, "See, I am a good painter and I have survived."


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