Dangerous Women, the current exhibition at The Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College, is a collection of artworks on loan from the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. Primarily from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the works in this exhibition offer an intense and insightful exploration of the way women are portrayed in art.

With an emphasis on biblical stories, the exhibition includes a variety of artistic interpretations of Esther, Salome, Hagar, Mary Magdalene, Judith and others. One wall of the gallery is dedicated to Judith with three wildly different interpretations of the biblical figure. Each artist includes the key characters in the story—Judith, her maidservant, and the severed head of Holofernes—but their individual representations of Judith’s emotional state range from stoic and cold to spiritual ecstasy to pride and accomplishment.

The curators have loosely grouped the artwork into four categories: Heroines, Temptresses, Vice, and Virtue. By doing so, it’s quickly apparent how frequently the female subjects exist in more than one category at a time. This subtle organizational technique is a bold way to encourage the viewer to question the oversimplified debate of good vs. evil and hero vs. villain. Can a woman commit an act of vice such as murder and still be considered a heroine? Can a woman become a temptress and use her seductiveness for virtuous purposes?

The intriguing part of this exhibition is that it provides no clear, definitive answers. With expertly researched and well-written museum labels and an accompanying book, the curators challenge the viewer to answer one specific question: Why are these women dangerous? In her essay included in the exhibition book, art historian Mary D. Garrard offers an answer: “All art is dangerous, in the sense that it has the power to awaken dormant ideas and beliefs, [just] as the caged tiger can awaken primitive fears.”

Adrienne H. Lee of Orlando is an art historian and a contributing writer for ArtScene Press
Salome, Robert Henri, 1909
Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Francesco Cairo, c. 1633-1637
Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Vincenzo Damini, late 1720s
Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Fede Galizia, 1596
Photos:  Adrienne H. Lee