Some images never go out of date. They remain endlessly urgent. Where most viral photos enjoy a fleeting flash of fame, flaring up like a rash across social media, there is a cache of imperishable images that have lingered longer and strike a deeper chord. They stay forever part of the mind’s permanent collection of archetypal signs.

Predating by decades the instant-reaction platforms of Facebook and Twitter, an edgy image captured on the streets of Växjö, Sweden in April 1985 during a demonstration by the Neo-Nazi Nordic Reich Party succeeded (without today’s propulsive power of ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’) to imprint itself on the cultural consciousness. Snapped at the instant when a Polish-Swedish passerby, whose mother had reportedly been sent to a Nazi concentration camp, could no longer contain her irritation at having to share civic space with fascists, the black-and-white photo of Danuta Danielsson clocking a Neo-Nazi with her handbag continues to resonate for many as a silent rallying cry.

Over the past few weeks, amid a spate of protests in America and throughout Europe in response to the outcome of elections and referenda, the image of the 38-year-old Danielsson lashing out in full swat has experienced a fresh resurgence, accompanied by the call to arms: “Be the woman hitting a Neo Nazi with a handbag you wish to see in the world”. 

Inviting readers to debate when even mild forms of violence are socially acceptable, the photo – taken by Hans Runesson – belongs to a long tradition of depictions of female figures pushed to breaking point. Artemisia Gentileschi and Caravaggio both explored the subject in their respective portrayals of the gruesome biblical story of Judith, who beheaded an Assyrian general planning to destroy the city of Bethulia. The Baroque painter Elisabetta Sirani was likewise drawn to Plutarch’s story of Timoclea, who pushes the man who raped her into a well.

Long before these more famous scenes of female vengeance is the vision of quiet come-uppance meted out by a spinning rod-swinging wife on her abusive husband found in the 14th-Century manuscript The Luttrell Psalter, a sacred tome that innovatively intertwines biblical illustrations with scenes of ordinary life. The Medieval wallop doodled in the margins of the Psalter seems more a display of exasperation than a lethal blow. Created in an age when it was legal for a husband to beat his wife, the illustration is more courageous than slapstick. Like the photo of Danielsson, it sticks in the mind as an illustration of the difference between behaviour we might understand and behaviour we can applaud.

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