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Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Judith with Holofernes, 1596, Fede Galizia
Judith with Holofernes (detail),
of the dress, Fede Galizia
Fede Galizia Self-portrait, preliminary
drawing for Judith with Holofernes
It's not to uncommon for me to begin researching an artist and then get sidetracked by a far more interesting and important painting or topic I encounter along the way. Today I began looking at the work of the Italian Renaissance artist, Fede, Galizia. Female artists, especially during that period, are as rare as hen's teeth, so I began accumulating images of some of her work. Her most famous painting turned out to be her version of one of the most consistently popular figures since the early Renaissance--Judith (along with her co-star, Holofernes). Galizia's version is above. It's a typical rendition from the Mannerist era, exceptional primarily for the extreme detail Galizia renders in Judith's ornate frock (above, left). Her father painted miniatures. Also interesting is the fact that she apparently used herself as the model for Judith (above, right).

Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-99, Caravaggio--one of the bloodiest

Judith and Holofernes,
1431(?), Andrea Mantegna.
Judith and Holofernes,
1455-60, Donatello
Many people think the incident involving Judith and Holofernes is from the Bible. Actually, it's not (unless you're Catholic, that is.) It's from the Book of Judith in the Catholic Old Testament as accepted by the 5th century Bible scholar, Jerome, who chose to make it a part of the Latin Vulgate. Protestants consider the Book of Judith as part of the Apocrypha. It's just as well, the whole bloody incident is hardly the stuff of Sunday School lessons. Although a few artists may have latched onto the episode somewhat earlier, the earliest painted image of Judith I can find comes from the brush of Andrea Mantegna around 1431 (left, that date is not consistent with all sources). However, it seems to have been the sculptor, Donatello, whose bronze masterpiece dating from 1455-60 (above, right), most popularized the story for painters.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620-21, Artemisia Gentileschi
And precisely what is this story from the Book of Judith? Judith, is a beautiful widow able to enter the tent of Holofernes, an Assyrian general, because of his desire for her. He is about to destroy the Judith's hometown of Bethulia. Though artists have sometimes suggested otherwise, the Book of Judith insists there was nothing sexual between them. She gets him drunk, he passes out, she cuts off his head, whereupon it is taken away in a basket by an elderly servant, usually depicted as being female. Most artist renderings fall into one of two categories, the slaying itself, or the removal of the evidence from the scene of the crime (though, sometimes, both, as seen below by Michelangelo).

Michelangelo's Judith, her servant, and the headless Holofernes, Sistine Chapel, 1508-12.
Judith, 1927, Fran Stuck
Judith, 1901, Gustave Klimt
The list of artists who have jumped at the chance to depict such a traumatic scene is quite lengthy. It's said more than 141 different paintings have been rendered of the subject by almost that many different artists (a few have painted it more than once). Michelangelo saw fit to include the incident in one corner of his Sistine Chapel ceiling (above). The Germans and the Northern Renaissance artists loved the story  Lucas Cranche (the elder) painted it around 1530. Among the dozens of others who have tackled the subject are Caravaggio, and Artemisia Gentileschi (who seemed to be trying to outdo one another as to quantity of blood spilled), as well as Cristofano Allori, Sandro Botticelli and Giorgione (all 15th century), Veronese, Titian, Parmigianino, Rembrandt, Rubens, and a virtual "who's who" of other artists, big and small, good and bad. In modern times, Gustave Klimt (above, left) gave us his elegant take on the story (1901) along with Franz Stuck in 1927 (above, right). More recently (1997), the inimitable Russian pair, Vitaliy Komar and Alexander Melamed, produced a surprisingly uncontroversial Judith on the Red Square (below), which casts a shadowy, young, Russian girl as Judith holding up the head of Holofernes as played by Joseph Stalin.

Judith on the Red Square, 1997, Vitaliy Komar, Alexander Melamed--a bloodless coup.


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