Monday, 25 October 2010

Venus with a snake 4: Lilith by John Collier

Lilith by John Collier (1887)

We have examined the paintings of John Collier previously:

However, one painting we did not look at was Lilith (1887).  This painting, which is currently in the Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport, is quite a large canvas (200cm x 104cm).

Lilith's mytholgical background is complex.  Ultimately it is thought that her background is in Sumero-Babylonian legend which tells of a winged female demon who kills children and endangers women giving birth. 

Babylonian terra cotta relief thought to depict llith (circa 2000BC)

In turn she is close to Lamashtu a Mesopotamian female demon who in turn is very similar to the Libyan Lamia; a female serpent demon we looked at in our piece on Herbert Draper.

Things get more complicated when later Jewish literature known as the midrash (designed to explain inconsistencies in the Old Testament) posits her as Adam's original wife created at the same time as him from the earth.  In these stories Eve only appears on the scene later after Lilith walked out on Adam (Eve was a replacement, in essence). A 13th century Kabbalah text, the Sefer ha-Zohar ("The Book of Splendour") written by the Spaniard Moses de Leon (c. 1240-1305), is coy about why Lilith abandoned Adam.  An earlier 11th century text (the Alpha Betha of Ben Sira (Alphabetum Siracidis, or Sepher Ben Sira)) is more explicit and says that it is because Lilith refused to have sex with Adam as he wanted to be on top.  She said that she was equal to Adam and was not going to be submissive (sounds very like a particular Jewish young lady we used to know!). 

It can be seen how such a woman would appeal to the Victorian appetite for evil women who attempt to dominate men.  Later, in medieaval times she became more associated with the idea of a succubus and personified licentiousness and lust.  Succubi would have sex with men in their sleep causing them to ejacualte in their sleep.  This was used a as way of explaining wet dreams: how else could chaste members of the clergy wake up covered in spunk?  Monks would sleep with a crucifix held over their genitals to ward of these succubi.

Lady Lilith (1864)

Lilith is, much more than Eve, the personification of destructive female sexuality.  Music to the ears of Collier and his contemporaries who loved a bad woman. Dante Garbriel Rossetti had also done a painting of Lilith but she has nothing of the indulgent sensuality of Colliers version. Rossetti's symbolism is more subtle than Collier's.  His painting, which depicts a modern Lilith not the mythological version, shows her surrounded by white roses, symbols of sterile passion and poppies, symbols of death.  More tellingly, she is combing her  long hair.  To Victorians luxuriant, unbound hair on a woman was a symbol of vigourous sexuality; even wantonness.  Rossetti's Lilith is spreading it and displaying it.  Finally, she is presented as uncorsetted; the corset representing discipline and control over a woman's own sexuality

Colliers painting, from two decades later, doesn't feel the need for this symbolism as his Lilith is literally being embraced by sin, in the form of the snake.  The log, unbound hair remains however.

More women with snakes soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment