Refining the Aura of Subversively Symbolic Castrations
As one of the most ambitious illustrated book projects of its time, Macklin’s English Bible (6 vols., 1790–1800; 7 vols., 1816) was subject to commercial, aesthetic, civic, and other ideological concerns that shaped its representations of beheadings in which domestic, public, religious, and gender codes are unsettled. Three of its engraved plates depict the biblical murderers Judith, Jael, and Jephthah, all of whom must act well outside the sphere of social order and ordinary historical expectations to fulfill providential missions. Responding to the demands of a polite artistic culture, John Opie, William Hamilton, and Phillipe-Jacques de Loutherbourg must draw on an unstable hierarchy of established and hybridized genres to “domesticate” these otherwise disturbing scenes. The symbolically castrating effect of Holofernes’s and Sisera’s beheadings, as well as the termination of the patriarch Jephthah’s line of succession after his daughter’s execution, is tamed by a number of factors, especially the commodification and popularization of high art in Britain. As constrained as the artists may have been by market demands, the auratic biblical scenes enabled them to reflect upon the “castrated” status of history painting in the public sphere and devise contemporary modes of signification that supplanted the legacy of traditional religious typologies and Grand Manner precedents.