Jael from Speculum humanae salvationis by Unknown, Northwestern Germany

Unknown, Northwestern Germany

Jael from Speculum humanae salvationis, c.1360, Illuminated manuscript, 350 x 200 mm, Universitäts-und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt, Germany, Hs 2505, fol. 56v and 57r, www.tudigit.ulb.tu-darmstadt.de/show/Hs-2505 and www.tudigit.ulb.tu-darmstadt.de/show/Hs-2505/0112

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A Temple Destroyed

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Sam Wells

Speculum humanae salvationis is an anonymous typological work that was popular from the fourteenth century. A figure from the New Testament is compared with three figures from the Old Testament or apocryphal literature.

In this illumination, Mary’s conquest of Satan is accompanied by depictions of Jael, Judith, and Tomyris.

In the eponymous book in the Apocrypha, Judith is a beautiful widow who makes herself subject to the advances of the Assyrian general Holofernes, who is about to destroy Bethulia, where Judith lives (Judith 7). Judith then enters the tent of the drunken Holofernes and cuts off his head (Judith 13).

Meanwhile Queen Tomyris is a non-biblical figure from east of the Caspian Sea who, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, defeated Cyrus the Great of Persia and his army in 530 BCE; she found Cyrus’s body, decapitated him, and dropped his head into a wineskin filled with human blood, saying ‘I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall’ (Histories 1: 214).

Mary is depicted piercing the head of Satan, while bearing a cross on her shoulders whose nails resemble Jael’s tent peg. Revelation 13:1–3 announces that the beast from the sea (later interpreted as the antichrist) also receives a mortal head wound. Meanwhile in Genesis 3:15, the serpent is told, ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel’ (NRSV).

Thus Satan appears snake-like at the feet of Mary, and the particular adversary of each of the other three female protagonists is shown in similar posture: at her heel. Each of them is reversing the sin of Eve and contributing to Mary’s conquest of evil.

Interesting by her absence from this sequence is Esther. Combatting Haman—a worthy companion to Holofernes and Sisera—Esther achieves her goals not via head-wounds but through wile, political nous, and physical beauty. She appears in the Speculum praying to King Ahasuerus for her people, alongside Mary who is petitioning Christ for humankind. Petitionary prayer is depicted alongside purgative violence as a way to share in the work of Mary.