The Scaffold

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The Execution of Robespierre
The executioner's working conditions were all but impossible during the Reign of Terror. Blood soaked the scaffold, leaving Sanson and his assistants liable to slip and fall. A pond of blood pooled beneath the scaffold causing a disgusting stench. Rivers of it ran down the cobbled streets. Indeed, in 1792 Charles-Henri saw his own son Gabriel tumble to the ground, sustaining fatal injuries, after skidding in a pool of blood. Afterwards, railings were put up around the scaffolds to safeguard executioners.

The Halifax Gibbet

The Halifax Gibbet
The most notable forerunner of the guillotine was in use in Halifax, England, from 1286 until 1650. Convicted criminals - those who stole goods assessed by four constables to be worth over 5p. - were taken to the gibbet on market day for execution. When the offender was placed with his head on the block every man nearby took hold of the rope and gave a mighty pull to unleash the pin and allow the blade to crash down, thereby placing justice into the hands of the people.

The Early History

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The Scottish Maiden, 16th Century
Contrary to popular conception, there were many fore-runners of the guillotine throughout history. The Halifax Gibbet (below), the Scottish Maiden, and the Italian "Mannaia" used to execute Beatrice Cenci in the sixteenth century. And it was just these instruments that Dr. Guillotin had in mind when he recommended a design to Dr. Antoine Louis of the Academy of Surgery (in fact, the guillotine was originally known as the Louisette ... pretty pretty, don't you think?). The prototype and subsequent improvements were carried out by a German harpsichord maker, Tobias Schmidt.

The Guillotine

Place de la Révolution
Guillotine , n. A machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason. — Ambrose Bierce, "The Devil's Dictionary"

In 1789 Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed to the newly formed National Assembly of Paris a humane alternative to the then barbarous method of separating one's head from one's body. "The mechanism falls like lightning; the head flies off; the blood spurts; the man no longer exists." He explained. "Gentleman, with my machine, I'll take off your head in a flash, and you won't even feel the slightest pain," his words were greeted with nervous laughter. Much to the Doctor's chagrin, the machine was christened in the imagination of the populous as "le Guillotine", an association the good Doctor was never able to distance himself from.

Yet it was not until 1792 that the dread machine was implemented, not until the Assembly had received a request from the Executioner Sanson that some sort of mechanical facilitation was required in order to meet the new revolutionary quotas; i.e. the "Enemies of the Republic". During what is aptly known as The Reign of Terror, 1793-94, between 20,000 and 40,000 people lost their lives under the blade of Madame Guillotine, ending only with the death (aptly by guillotine) of the virtual dictatorship of Robespierre.

JUDITH: a Poem

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Gustave Klimt
Judith has chosen to devote her body to her country, She has prepared her breasts to tempt her dreadful lover, Painted her eyes and brightened their somber scintillation, And she has perfumed her skin ~ destined to return much faded.

Pale, she has stepped forward to stage her massacre ~
Her large eyes crazed with ecstasy and terror;
And her voice, her dance, her lean, hypnotic body
Have served the dark Assyrian as dread intoxicants.

In the arms of her triumphant master, suddenly
She has cried out, closing her eyes as if she were a child.
Afterward the man, relaxed, descends into a bestial slumber:

Caught as much witin a horror of love as of dark death,
Her conscience free, woman has lashed out at man:
Coldly and with slow determination she has sliced off his head.

— Jean Lahor c. 1886

Holy Strumpet

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Jan Massys c. 1565
Judith, as an exemplar of civic virtue triumphant over tyranny, more often than not was depicted as the reluctant assassin. The Decandents had a little fun with her, but they could turn even the Holy Virgin into a strumpet, bless 'em.

"The late nineteenth-century painters, however, unmasked her as a lustful predator and anorexic tigress. Painters and sculptors showed how she had taken man's head and had stomped on it maliciously with her dainty foot." (Bram Djikstra, Idols of Perversity) But Judith's story is a fantastic tale, worthy of the best heroic fiction, she is a post-modern biblical She-Ra, raging against her oppressors, sword in hand.


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Judith, Painted Marble
Conrad Meit 1510-15
"Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes' head, and took down his fauchion from thence, And approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day. And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him. And tumbled his body down from the bed, and pulled down the canopy from the pillars; and anon after she went forth, and gave Holofernes his head to her maid."

— The Book of Judith 13:6-9

In a nutshell, Judith (meaning jewess) is the story of a fetching widow who tarts herself up to seduce the enemy, gets him drunk, cuts off his head as he snores, and marches back to town triumphant, head in bag.

Oscar Wilde's "Salome"

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The Kiss
Illust. for Salome
Aubrey Beardley 1894
"She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things." — Salome, by Oscar Wilde

This vision of Salome remains more or less intact to the present day. Exemplified in Oscar Wilde's "Salome" of 1894, which was so iconic and archetypal that almost any version of Salome that has been done in the past hundred years is either a direct descendent — or a bastard child. Wilde explored the beauty of heightened biblical language to exquisite effect. The rhythm of the play reverberates long after the words were spoke. Oscar doesn¹t invent anything new; he merely draws on centuries of church repressed sex, expressed thru the pantomime of ritual assassinations. Especially poignant to the Victorian English, as they were the most socially repressed of all.

Huysman on Gustave Moreau's "Salome"

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Gustave Moreau
Des Esseintes saw realized at last the Salome, weird and superhuman, he had dreamed of. No longer was she merely the dancing girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old ice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs the flesh and steels her muscles, ~a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like Helen of Troy of the Classic fables, all who come near her, all who see her, all who touch her.

— Huysman waxes masochistically ecstatic over Gustave Moreau's painting of Salome Joris-Karl Huysman c. 1884

"Herodias" by Gustave Flaubert

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by Paul Delaroche (1797 - 1856)
The girl depicted the frenzy of a love which demands satisfaction. She danced like the priestesses of the Indies, like the Nubian girls of the cataracts, like the bacchantes of Lydia. She twisted from side to side like a flower shaken by the wind. The jewels in her ears swung in the air, the silk on her back shimmerred in the light, and from her arms, her feet, and her clothes there shot out invisible sparks which set the men on fire. A harp sang, and the crowd answered it with cheers. Without bending her knees, she opened her legs and leant over so low that her chin touched the floor. And the nomads inured to abstinence, the Roman soldiers skilled in debauchery, the avaricious publicans, and the old priests soured by controversy all sat there with their nostrils distended, quivering with desire.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), click here for the e-text (original in French).

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