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This article discusses the development of the iconography of this scene in Western sculpture and painting. For details, see the account in the Book of Judith; for its depiction in other media see, Judith in later artistic renditions.
Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530.

The account of the beheading of Holofernes by Judith is given in the Old Testament book of Judith, and is the subject of numerous depictions in painting and sculpture.

Contents

Summary and iconography

In summary, Judith, a beautiful widow and chosen by God, has used her charms to enter the tent of Holofernes, an Assyrian general out to destroy Judith's hometown. Overcome with drink, he passes out and is decapitated by Judith; his head is taken away out in a basket (often carried by an elderly female servant). Artists have mainly chosen one of two possible scenes (with or without the servant): the decapitation, with Holofernes prone on the bed, or the heroine holding or carrying the head.

In European art, Judith is normally accompanied by her maid at her shoulder, which helps to distinguish her from Salome, who also carries her victim's head on a silver charger (plate). However, a Northern tradition developed whereby Judith had both a maid and a charger, famously taken by Erwin Panofsky as an example of the knowledge needed in the study of iconography.

For many artists as well as scholars, Judith was a character whose sexualized femininity interestingly and sometimes contradictorily combined with her masculine aggression. Judith was one of the virtuous women whom Van Beverwijck mentioned in his published apology (1639) for the superiority of women to men,[1] and a common example of the Power of Women iconographic theme in the Northern Renaissance.

Renaissance depictions

Judith and Holofernes, the famous bronze sculpture by Donatello, bears the implied allegorical subtext that was inescapable in Early Renaissance Florence, that of the courage of the commune against tyranny. Early Renaissance images of Judith tend to depict her as fully dressed and de-sexualized; besides Donatello's sculpture, this is the Judith seen in Sandro Botticelli's The Return of Judith to Bethulia (1470-1472) and in the corner of Michelangelo's Sistine chapel (1508-1512). Later Renaissance artists, notably Lucas Cranach the Elder, showed a more sexualized Judith, a "seducer-assassin": "the very clothes that had been introduced into the iconography to stress her chastity become sexually charged as she exposes the gory head to the shocked but fascinated viewer," in the words of art critic Jonathan Jones.[2]

Italian painters of the Renaissance who took up the theme include Botticelli, Giorgione, Titian, and Paolo Veronese.

Especially in Germany an interest developed in female "worthies" and heroines, to match the traditional male sets. Subjects combining sex and violence were also popular with collectors. Like Lucretia, Judith was the subject of a disproportionate number of old master prints, sometimes shown nude. Barthel Beham engraved three compositions of the subject, and other of the "Little Masters" did several more. Jacopo de' Barberi, Girolamo Mocetta (after a design by Andrea Mantegna), and Parmigianino also made prints of the subject.

Baroque depictions

Judith remained popular in the Baroque period. Italian painters (Caravaggio, Leonello Spada, Bartolomeo Manfredi, and Artemisia Gentileschi) depicted Judith and Holofernes; and in the north, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, and Eglon van der Neer[3] used the story. When Rubens began commissioning reproductive prints of his work, the first was an engraving by Cornelius Galle, done "somewhat clumsily,"[4] of his violent Judith Slaying Holofernes (1606-1610).[5] Other prints were made by such artists as Jacques Callot.

Modern depictions

The allegorical and exciting nature of the Judith and Holofernes scene continues to inspire artists. In the late nineteenth century, Jean Charles Cazin made a series of five paintings tracing the narrative and giving it a conventional, nineteenth-century ending; the final painting shows her "in her honored old age," and "we shall see her sitting in her house spinning."[6]

Two notable paintings of Judith were made by Gustav Klimt. The story was quite popular with Klimt and his contemporaries, and he painted Judith I in 1901, as a dreamy and sensual woman with open shirt. His Judith II (1909) is "less erotic and more frightening." The two "suggest 'a crisis of the male ego,' fears and violent fantasies all entangled with an eroticized death, which women and sexuality aroused in at least some men around the turn of the century."[7]

Very modern versions often freely reinterpret the elements. For instance, in 1997, Russian artists Vitaliy Komar and Alexander Melamed produced a Judith on the Red Square which "casts Lenin [sic] in the Holofernes role, conquered by a young Russian girl who contemplates his severed head with a mixture of curiosity and satisfaction."[8] The painting actually depicts Stalin's head. In 1999, American artist Tina Blondell rendered Judith in watercolor; her I'll Make You Shorter by a Head is explicitly inspired by Klimt's Judith I, and part of a series of paintings called Fallen Angels.[9]

Gallery

References

  1. ^ Loughman & J.M. Montias (1999) Public and Private Spaces. Works of Art in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Houses, p. 81.
  2. ^ Jones, Jonathan (2004-01-10). "Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Lucas Cranach the Elder (c1530)". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2004/jan/10/art. Retrieved 2009-09-09.  
  3. ^ "Judith, about 1678, Eglon Hendrik van der Neer". National Gallery, London. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/server.php?show=conObject.1931. Retrieved 2009-09-09.  
  4. ^ Duplessis, Georges (1886). The wonders of engraving. C. Scribner & Co.. p. 135. http://books.google.com/books?id=c3prAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA135.  
  5. ^ Russell, H. Diane (1990). Eva/Ave; Women in Renaissance and Baroque Prints. Washington: National Gallery of Art/The Feminist Press. ISBN 978-0894681578.  
  6. ^ Child, Theodore (May 1890). "Some Modern French Painters". Harper's Magazine: pp. 817-42. http://digital.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=harp;cc=harp;idno=harp0080-6;node=harp0080-6%3A1;frm=frameset;view=image;seq=839;page=root;size=s. Retrieved 2009-09-09.   p. 830.
  7. ^ Whalen, Robert Weldon (2007). Sacred spring: God and the birth of modernism in fin de siècle Vienna. Eerdmans. p. 81. ISBN 9780802832160. http://books.google.com/books?id=3EzCxN6O8-kC&pg=PA81.  
  8. ^ Harrison, Helen A. (1997-06-22). "Works Invoking Christian Ritual". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/06/22/nyregion/works-invoking-christian-ritual.html. Retrieved 2009-09-09.  
  9. ^ Sarah Henrich, "Living on the Outside of Your Skin: Gustav Klimt and Tina Blondell Show Us Judith," in Jensen, Robin M.; Kimberly J. Vrudny (2009). Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community Through the Arts. Liturgical Press. pp. 13-27. ISBN 9780814653999.  

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