In portraits, Jael's attributes are a tent peg and a mallet-style hammer. These refer to the story in Judges 4:17-22. Jael was the wife of Heber the Kenite, an ally of the Jews in their war against Jabin, king of Canaan. At Mount Tabor, the Jewish general Barak routed the army of Jabin's general Sisera. Fleeing from Barak, Sisera came upon Jael's tent and asked her to shelter him. She took him in and had him take a nap, but when he was asleep she killed him by driving a tent peg into his head.
In Judges 5 Deborah and Barak sing a victory song that includes praise of Jael. In this song she is said to have killed Sisera with a "nail" and a "workman's hammer" (5:26). On rare occasions, a portrait or narrative image follows this alternative by giving Jael a claw hammer, as in the third picture at right.
The King James version of Deborah and Barak's song says Jael "smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples," but decapitation is not in the Vulgate, which would have been the source for medieval images. I have seen only one image of Jael with a severed head, a privately held sculpture from Guatemala that appears to be from the era of Spanish rule. The head could refer to some variant reading of Judges 5:26, or more likely it is simply intended to emphasize Jael's similarity to Judith, who in a companion sculpture holds the head of Holofernes.
The artists usually put Jael in clothing typical of their own era – either as an aristocrat, as in the first and third pictures at right, or as a peasant, as in the second.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University