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The Book Judith

In Nebuchadnezzar’s reign over the Assyrians and Nineveh, Arphaxad reigned over the Medes in Ecbatana. Nebuchadnezzar gave battle to Arphaxad in the plains of Ragae. Although abandoned by his allies, Nebuchadnezzar routed Arphaxad’s army. He occupied towns and advanced on Ecbatana. He captured Arphaxad in the mountains of Ragae and killed him with his spears. His war with the Medes finished, Nebuchadnezzar wanted to take revenge on the allies that had not supported him. He sent for Holofernes, general-in-chief of his armies and told him to take over hundred thousand soldiers to advance against all the western lands that had disregarded his call. Holofernes advanced along the Euphrates, crossed Mesopotamia and he butchered the people of Cilicia who offered him resistance. He plundered the Midianites, set fire to the fields of Damascus, demolished the shrines and sacred trees of Sidon, Tyre, Sur, Ocina and Jamnia, Azotos and Ascalon – the coastal peoples. Then Holofernes reached the edge of Esdraelon in the neighbourhood of Dothan, a village that faces the ridge of Judaea.

When the Israelites that lived in Judaea heard of what Holofernes had done to the other nations, they trembled for their own fate. They had only just returned from captivity when this new scorn arrived. They alerted the people of Samaria, Kona, Beth-Horon, Belmain, Jericho, Choba, Aesora and of the Salem valley. They prepared for the war. Joakim the high priest of Jerusalem was in command. He ordered the people of Bethulia and of Betomesthaim to occupy the mountain passes that were the only access into Judaea through the great ridge of Judaea. Then all Israel prayed.

When Holofernes heard that the Israelites had prepared for war, closed the mountain passes, fortified the peaks and other high places in the plains, he was furious. Holofernes called all the other Canaanites and asked for their advice. All spoke out in Holofernes’ council. The Moabites and Ammonites told Holofernes that as long as the Israelites did not sin against their God they were an invincible people. But Holofernes would not listen to such talk. He said the Israelites were weak and powerless to resist to an attack of his armies. So he ordered his army to advance.

Achior, leader of the Ammonites had spoken for the Israelites so Holofernes reproached him for this, took him prisoner and brought him into the hill-country to leave him near one of the towns in the region, in the hands of the Israelites. Holofernes’ soldiers left Achior bound in front of Bethulia. Uzziah son of Micah, Chabris son of Gothoniel and Charmis son of Melchiel, the chiefs of Bethulia took Achior in. Uzziah questioned Achior and Achior told what had happened at Holofernes’ council and told all the people how Holofernes had ordered to advance into Judaea.

A few days later, Holofernes marched on Bethulia and he set siege to the town. A troop of Moabites and Assyrians penetrated the valley and occupied the water-points of the Israelites and their springs. The inhabitants of Bethulia soon had no water-jars filled anymore; their wells dried up and water was severely rationed. The Israelites of Bethulia then became desperate and wanted as much to abandon themselves to Holofernes than to die within the wakes of their city. But Uzziah asked them to hold out five days more.

Judith daughter of Mesari, whose husband Manasseh had died a few years earlier, heard of Uzziah’s plan. She immediately sent her serving women, who ran her household, to summon two elders of the town, Chabris and Charmis. She said that the elders should not have bound themselves by oath to surrender to their enemies and not to put God to the test, to demand guarantees from God. She urged them to plead for help from God. She reminded the elders that she intended to do something that would be handed down in the memory of Israel. She predicted that the Lord would make use of her to save Bethulia before the hour of surrender had come. Upon these words the elders left. And Judith prayed and called on the God of Israel.

Judith washed herself, dressed her hair, wrapped a turban around her hair, anointed, put on her best robe, sandals on her feet, necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, all jewellery she had and made herself so beautiful that the eye of any man would beguile her. She handed over to her maid wine and oil, various kinds of cakes, and loaves. Judith took all that and asked for the gates of the town to be opened.

Outside the gates, she was intercepted by Assyrians who stared in astonishment at such a beautiful woman. She told the soldiers she was on her way to Holofernes to give him trustworthy information. The Assyrians took her to Holofernes’ camp. There, she fell on her face and did homage to the general. She told Holofernes that the city of Bethulia was doomed because the Israelites had sinned, and would soon fall. Judith told that the elders had sent men to Jerusalem to ask for permission to surrender Bethulia. When Judith had heard that news, she had fled the town. She expected Holofernes to soon take Bethulia and she proposed then to be his guide right across Judaea until he reached Jerusalem, to enthrone Holofernes in the middle of the city.

Holofernes was pleased at these words. He brought Judith in his tent where his silver dinner service was laid out and he gave Judith of his food and wine. After that, Holofernes gave her a tent of her own where she stayed for three days. Holofernes ordered his guards not to prevent her.

On the fourth day, Holofernes gave a banquet for his staff and he also ordered his officer in charge of his personal affairs, Bagoas, to persuade the Hebrew woman to eat and drink in their company. Holofernes said the Assyrians would be disgraced to let a woman like Judith go without seducing her. Judith acquiesced to Bagoas’ invitation. When she entered Holofernes’ tent, his heart was ravished at the sight and his soul was stirred. Holofernes was so enchanted by Judith that he drank far more wine than he had ever done before.

After the banquet, Holofernes’ staff hurried away. Bagoas closed the tent from the outside. Judith was left alone with Holofernes who had collapsed wine-sodden on his bed. Standing beside the bed, Judith prayed to God. Then she went up to the bedpost at Holofernes’ head, took his scimitar, caught Holofernes by the hair and murmured, ‘Make me strong today, Lord God of Israel’. She struck two times with the scimitar at Holofernes’ neck with all her might and cut off his head. Then she rolled the body off the bed, pulled down the canopy from the bedposts and gave the head to her maid who put it in her food bag. Then the two left the Assyrian camp as they had done each morning to go to prayers. Once they were out of the camp, they climbed the slopes to Bethulia and towards the gates of the city.

The Bethulians opened the gates and welcomed the women. Judith then showed the head of Holofernes and said, ‘This is the head of Holofernes, general-in-chief of the Assyrian army. God has struck him down by the hand of a woman!’ Uzziah praised Judith and all the people prostrated themselves and worshipped God. Judith told everything she had done the previous days. Achior testified that the head was indeed of Holofernes, so that at daybreak the Bethulians hung the head of Holofernes on the ramparts. Then every man of Bethulia took arms and attacked the Assyrian camp.

Every leader of the Assyrian army sought his leader. Bagoas found Holofernes’ body without his head and he also found that Judith was gone. He shouted o the leaders that a simple Hebrew woman had brought shame on the house of Nebuchadnezzar. Then all the camp was panic-stricken. The Assyrians could not keep together and the Bethulians routed them. Uzziah sent word to Betomesthaim, Bebai, Choba, Kola and all the territories of Israel to urge them to throw themselves on the enemy. All Israel and Jerusalem fell on the Assyrians now. The men of Gilead and Galilee attacked them on the flank and pursued the Assyrians until they came close to the territory of Damascus. For three months, the people of Israel rejoiced with their high priest Joakim in front of the Temple of Jerusalem, and Judith stayed with them.

The people of Bethulia looted the camp of the Assyrians. Judith received Holofernes’ tent, all his silver and furniture. Then Judith took her place at the head of a procession of women who accompanied her, taking wands of vine-leaves in her hand and putting on with her companions wreaths of olive. Then Judith sang a song of thanksgiving to God. Never again were the Israelites troubled during Judith’s lifetime and even for a long time after her death.

Judith and Holofernes

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652). Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence. 1620-1621.

Artemisia Gentileschi was a woman painter. She was born in 1593 in Rome, where her father worked. Her father was Orazio Gentileschi, a well-known painter. He taught his daughter to draw and at a young age already she worked with him. When her father partnered with another painter, Agostino Tassi, she also learned from the latter. But in 1612, Orazio Gentileschi accused Agostino Tassi for having seduced and raped his daughter. Artemisia was still only a girl of eighteen years then and Tassi was called before the judges. It was unclear who seduced who, and Artemisia had stayed a time with Tassi on promise of marriage. Tassi had already been convicted for having raped his sister-in-law incestuously, and had allegedly conspired to have his wife murdered. The trial lasted for seven months. The judges threatened Artemisia, even tortured her with thumbscrews and Artemisia had to allow herself to be examined by midwives, so she was publicly humiliated. Finally, Tassi confessed. But Artemisia also did not come out of the affair unscathed, her reputation suffered. Tassi had accused her of course of promiscuity. Agostino Tassi was thrown into prison. He never painted again. Although Tassi left prison rapidly, within the year, his career was now definitely broken and ended there. We do not know what happened further to Tassi. Around the end of the trial Artemisia married a Florentine painter called Pietro Antonio Stiattesi and she settled with her husband in Florence. She had a daughter, Palmira in 1618, and left her husband shortly after. She travelled much then, living of her art. She travelled probably to Genoa first and may have met Anthony Van Dyck there. She went to Venice. She was in Rome in 1624, and accompanied her father to Venice in 1627. In 1630 she was in Naples. She accompanied her father to England, to help her father who had been appointed painter at the court of King Charles I. Around 1641, when civil war broke out in England, she returned to Naples and died there in 1653.

Artemisia Gentileschi painted pictures of powerful, passionate women. She liked to paint scenes in which women played important roles, such as scenes from the life of Cleopatra, Lucrezia, Minerva, Mary Magdalene, Jael and Sisera, Susannah and the Elders, or Judith. There are two marvellous paintings in Florence on the theme of Judith in Florence; one is in the Uffizi and the other in the Pitti Palace. Another version that resembles much the Uffizi picture, but dates from about 1611 to 1612, is in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte of Naples.

Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi knew the paintings of Caravaggio in Rome. Caravaggio had truly transformed the art of roman painting with very realistic, obdurate images and sharp contrasts between light and dark in scenes that concentrated on the personages of drama and that hardly contained any background. Orazio Gentileschi also started to work this way, but his daughter surpassed him in power of representation. Her ‘Judith and Holofernes’ is a horrifying picture. We see two women, Judith and her servant, holding down with all their might the general Holofernes on his bed, while Judith cuts Holofernes’ throat. The act could not be represented more realistically and more gruesomely. Blood spreads on the white sheets of the bed and spurts from the man’s neck while Judith draws her sword slowly through the flesh. Judith tears at Holofernes’ hair and the servant has both her hands on his chest, pushing the man down with all her weight. In a last gasp, Holofernes draws at the head-cloth of the girl and tries to push her away, but it is too late.

Artemisia Gentileschi showed a fine lady in Judith clad in rich golden-coloured and heavy, courtly gowns, with her shoulders alluringly nude, dressed like she was at the feast held in her honour with all the officers of Holofernes. She strains her forehead, her face is in the stress of the horror of the murder but she does not waver. She stays as far from Holofernes as her arms permit, but she decidedly draws the long sword over Holofernes’ neck.

The light of the scene comes from the lower left. It seems to be rather a point source of light, maybe from the torches in the dark of the tent. Artemisia placed the three figures against a black background and all her attention was concentrated on the figures. The three heads of the personages form a triangle in between which is a tangle of nude arms so that the three figures are linked in oblique lines. Holofernes heaves one leg up in a last spasm, so that his body is parallel to the right diagonal of the frame. The servant and Holofernes’ head are along the middle vertical and Judith is along another oblique line. Artemisia Gentileschi used the oblique lines in her painting to give a strong impression of immediate, violent movement and she succeeded totally in that illusion of the act. We must admire the skill of this woman painter in the many details which are painted formidably. The folds of the red and white bed linen over Holofernes for instance are wonderfully drawn and coloured, and so is Judith’s rich robe. Artemisia rendered masterly the shadows thrown by the light on the arms and bodies of the figures. She used warm colours overall, red and golden and brown hues, which she worked upon in marvellous and exact chiaroscuro. Like in a true Baroque painting, she placed her figures in half-body so that they are closer to the viewer. The viewer is closer to the scene, hence more involved in the horror of the violence. Yet, Artemisia showed enough of the feelings of Judith on her face, the disgust and consciousness of the cruelty, maybe some feeling also of apology and regret, so that she can remain sympathetic to the viewer. She worked evenly on all details and displayed her considerable painterly talent. For instance, the white broken hues of the bed linen under Holofernes are marvellously rendered in all its tones.

There are hardly any faults of style in this picture, which is one of the strongest images of the art of painting. Caravaggio did not better on this scene in his own picture of the slaying of Holofernes that dates from 1598-1599. Artemisia may have borrowed some elements from Caravaggio’s painting, such as the attitude of outstretched arms in horror of Judith, but overall Caravaggio’s painting is less powerful, right and stylistically sophisticated than Artemisia’s. Artemisia was still in her twenties when she made this picture. Yet, her painting is a very strong expression for a woman so young and it is perfect in composition, colours, lines and depiction of emotions. Was Artemisia the female Caravaggio or Caravaggio the male Artemisia?


Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1652). Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina – Florence. Ca.1614-1620.

The painting of ‘Judith and Holofernes’ by Artemisia Gentileschi that is in the Pitti Palace of Florence, depicts the scene of Judith and her maidservant after the killing of Holofernes. Judith has kept the sword with which she had decapitated Holofernes and her maidservant now holds a basket in which we see the severed head. Again, Artemisia Gentileschi painted a surprising picture. She did not show Judith in a simple poise. Judith’s figure is inclined from the lower left to the upper right, so that Gentileschi applied the oblique lines that always give a strong feeling of movement in a picture. The viewer believes instantly that Judith has been disturbed by a noise, maybe the finding of the corpse of Holofernes, and she anxiously looks over her shoulder to the right. Still, by that movement Artemisia could show Judith’s face in profile and show her string but fine traits. The maidservant is placed in front of Judith; she turns her head too in a direction parallel to Judith. This forms a kind of mirror-image of Judith in the servant.

This painting of Judith is a calmer version of course than the painting of the very slaughter of the general, but the posies of the personages are very original and a powerful representation. Again, Artemisia Gentileschi demonstrated her awesome gifts as a painter. Like Caravaggio she had no attention at all for the background, which remained in the picture entirely black. She painted also the personages in not complete bodies so that the viewer believes that he or she is very close to the scene. Artemisia Gentileschi painted in a masterly way the light falling from the middle left on the face of Judith and on the arms and robe of the maidservant. The chiaroscuro on the golden-coloured robe of the servant is simply perfect and worked out in patient detail. Gentileschi gave the servant a white headdress, like in the painting of the Uffizi and the way she painted the folds of the headdress in the play of light is just wonderful and right. Other details, such as the pommel of Judith’s sword and her dark, heavily brocaded dress with the white lace lining is masterly rendered. We are used to the original compositions and poises of Caravaggio’s figures, but Artemisia’s scenes are equally powerful in depiction, original, and a mark of a painterly genius as great as Caravaggio’s. Realism was complete in Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings and like Caravaggio she was first interested in the emotions of her personages, of the women Judith and the servant.

The Return of Judith from the Enemy Camp. The Discovery of Holofernes’ Corpse.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence.

Sandro Botticelli, probably the greatest master among the Florentine painters of the fifteenth century, also painted two smaller panels on the theme of Judith and Holofernes. Like Artemisia Gentileschi, he made these pictures when he was still young. The differences between Botticelli’s pictures and Artemisia’s are enormous however, and they allow us to wonder what had happened in views of the world and of the art of painting by artists between the late fifteenth and the early seventeenth century, for almost a hundred and fifty years separate the two pictures.

Botticelli’s paintings are of course grace and elegance first. For Botticelli, it did not matter much who Judith really was. Botticelli knew the story from the Bible, but his view of the tale was one of sophistication in pictorial representation of the characters without emotional participation in the scenes. In the first panel we see Judith returning from the enemy camp with her maidservant, who nonchalantly holds a basket on hr head with the head of Holofernes. Judith and her maid are dressed in robes with light, flimsy cloaks. Judith wears a blue robe, her maid one in orange-golden colours so that we recognise already in this scene of the young Botticelli his sure sense of complementary hues. Judith and her maid walk without anxiety, relaxed, elegantly and dignified. They will not run, even if danger threatens behind them. If the servant seems a bit more anxious, since Botticelli drew her as if she were running a little and entreating her mistress to hurry, Judith remains the fine, sweet young woman that walks and handles events at leisure. She still ears her curved sword, but also the twig en leafs of peace and victory. Everything in the two girls is elegance. Their shirts and robes flow around them. The wind plays n the shawl in which the servant hides Holofernes’ head, in the curls of Judith’s light-coloured hair. The girls are drawn somewhat curved also, not rigid, in gracious attitudes. The servant holds her robe with one hand, like a courtier or an aristocratic lady of Florence hurrying through the streets of the wealthy Italian town. Judith still wears her jewels and a band around her slim waist emphasises her femininity. Botticelli moreover also treated these panels with care and showed a fine landscape with the enemy camp and the city walls of Bethulia behind Judith. Botticelli painted Judith as the Muse of victory, like the symbol or allegory of a Republican hero that fights against tyranny. His vision was one of ideals, whatever the real scene of Judith’s violence.

In the second scene, Holofernes’ officers find the headless corpse of their general. Holofernes’ body lies on the bed and we see the severed neck, the blood on the bed and the red bed linen, but Holofernes’ body seems fine and relaxed, more the body of a young Apollo than of a middle-aged fierce general and leader of savage troops. Botticelli knew the scene took place in the Orient, so he painted his figures in this scene with oriental headdresses, with Persian curls in their beards and long hair and dressed them in long, heavy robes and cloaks. Here also the various figures remain elegant, courtly aristocrats and they seem not to be the fierce warriors that have come to invade and devastate the country of Bethulia. Botticelli painted even a horse-rider at the entrance of the tent. The cavalier is elegant and both horse and rider incline their heads in mourning for the dead leader. This panel of the ‘Discovery of Holofernes’ also is painted in utmost detail and Botticelli showed his skills in drawing, his care for strong and bright hues, and his talent for cramming many figures with ease in on picture to a natural scene that does not lose attention for the main subject. He showed especially bright red and blue hues, and contrasted these with the golden hues of Holofernes’ body. The corpse should be white-blue to grey now, but realism was not Botticelli’s aim. He brought elegance and fineness of depiction. He showed the concept, the surface of the Bible story alone. He lived in a world in which apparently courtly manners in speech and depiction mattered more than the emotions of the personages, than the feelings of the viewers and the gruesomeness of the tragedy. Botticelli had to show a fine picture, considerable skills dedicated to grace and politeness, restraint and dignity. Such was the art of Florence’s fifteenth century, and art that sought gracious beauty, was looking to present ideal figures inspired by divine spirituality, was trying to prove that humans were indeed made to the image of God. That art could not reflect reality. The society of these artists was directed towards ideals and views that did not include the depiction of misery and violence in the arts.

Misery was in the streets, but was no part of the courts of the great families that had been rich since ever and had grown richer recently by trade and industry. These people wanted a new society of dignity, courteous behaviour towards ladies, republican government in which each could have its say or governance with a benign leader sometimes chosen by themselves for a period of times of war, and that in fact perpetuated the old Roman civic views. They were future-oriented, forward-looking, working at the next world always. Hence the images of Botticelli, for Botticelli worked for these men.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries much had happened to the views of the Renaissance. Wealth had come and gone and people had realised that working at the future did not secure that future at all. One was still, like in the ages before the Renaissance, prone to natural and economic disasters, to sudden and harsh dictatorship, to wars and devastation. Th misery in the streets had not disappeared but with the growing population it had grown too, and become more visible still. The foundations of faith and the authority of the Popes had been shaken. The heavens had not split open and punished the Protestant schism. The Protestant nations were on the winning and prosperous side now. People began to doubt that the could explain what happened in the world by religious reasons alone. The all-pervasive bright light of the Renaissance, its hopes and solaces had broken down in tension. It was time to look at the stark reality and to start new investigation from that reality to search for other answers. The bright light of ideals was quenched and artists like Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi and Rembrandt van Rijn painted in black now. They painted scenes in scarce light. It was only the background that was black however; the figures still sought the divine light, but the divine light was reduced to the light of a torch or of a candle. If one could less interrogate the heavens, less concentrate one’s hopes on the Gods, one might as well scrutinise the tangible living.

It is typical how in the early Renaissance figures were mostly painted in full, like Botticelli painted Judith in the pictures we look at, and how in the seventeenth century Baroque period figures were drawn closer towards the viewer and painted only in half-body to encourage that illusion. The art and views of Botticelli had evolved into the views of Artemisia Gentileschi. Which was the better art? Both Botticelli and Artemisia were great geniuses of the art of painting. When one passes before a painting by Botticelli, the feelings evoked in the viewer are still the feelings of the Renaissance. They are the feelings of the illusion of an ideal, spiritual society that the Renaissance sought. We feel the longing for grace and elegance and admire the sophisticated, easy harmony of Botticelli’s work. But when we look at Artemisia’s paintings we see humanity, even fighting humanity, when Judith walks with her sword nonchalantly over her shoulders. We feel the hatred for tyranny and the violence that was part of the society but now as seen for what it really was. Ideals had made way for coping with the issues of the day.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). Kunsthistorisches Museum. Vienna. Ca. 1530.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, a painter that worked in the early sixteenth century in Saxony of Germany, made several paintings on the subject of Judith and Holofernes. In the painting of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, he showed a fine Judith in portrait mode, so in half-body alone, holding Holofernes’ head. Judith is a fine lady of a German court and Cranach presented her dressed up with a wealthy brocaded robe and wearing an elegant, red felt hat with the dash of feathers of an adventurer. The hat brings to the girl an air of daring, of defiance also and a touch of affirmation of her individuality and freedom. This lady has a will of her own and will defend her independence. Her affirming stance is emphasised by the long, straight sword, which very obviously declares her determination. Her thin mouth shows tenacity and resolution. Judith looks dreamingly in the far, but she thinned her lips in an otherwise determined line. She has not the sensual, swollen lips and small mouth of a courtesan. Still, her profuse hair flows on all sides of her shoulders, enhancing her femininity and she did not hide her shoulders in heavy shawls but displays her seduction. Yet, here also, we see the feminine jewels that diminish elegantly the length of her neck and also the heavy chains that evoke bondage, which evoke the harness of war and which add a rough, warlike element in her adornment. Judith wears many rings around her fingers and holds the sword with one hand while with the other she seems not so much to hold as to caress Holofernes’ head. But for this object in the picture, we might have found an elegant portrait in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting. Lucas Cranach the Elder lived in Germany and that country was a little rougher, a little less sophisticated, a little less devoted to idealised fineness than Italy. So Cranach placed Holofernes’ head in the picture, but he showed a terrifying head. Holofernes is dead all right, so his face is ashen-grey. He still keeps on his dead face the expression of surprise, of excruciating pain from the moment his throat was cut and his eyes still look upwards, towards Judith. The contrast between the elegant, fine, rosy-cheeked, young, seductive lady and the horror of Holofernes’ face could not be greater. Moreover, Cranach took well care to show the severed arteries of Holofernes’ neck, a gruesome detail in the picture, and which should also be considered in comparison with Judith’s own nice, bejewelled, delicate and charming neck and bust.

Lucas Cranach painted the Judith in the surest, most true way that a reader of the Bible story might understand her: the free, undertaking, self-determined, intelligent, independent and good-looking woman that was better than all the men of Bethulia in decisiveness, gifted with an unwavering will to cut the chains that adorn her seductive neck.

Lucas Cranach’s painting dates from half a century after Botticelli’s work. Cranach painted an entirely black background, like also Artemisia Gentileschi used, but like in renaissance pictures we see hardly any effect of light and shadows on Cranach’s figure. Cranach hardly applied chiaroscuro on the face and body of Judith so that the viewer has to rely on the round lines of Judith’s bodice and arms alone to get an illusion of the volume of Judith’s body. Cranach often painted in such lat compositions of colour but he always diligently used other means of creating volume and space. In his composition of Judith’s portrait he showed the straight vertical lines of the sword and the straight horizontal line of the table, which add to the sense of determination of the personage.

Lucas Cranach the Elder made a picture that can be situated in style between Botticelli’s and Gentileschi’s Judith. Botticelli painted an elegant young lady and so did Cranach. But Cranach’s strong lady with the dishful hat resembles the natural elegance of the young woman that fights for her independence as painted by Artemisia. Botticelli painted a fine landscape behind his Judith; Cranach did not and neither did Artemisia. Cranach’s painting is pictorially between Botticelli’s immaculate charm and Artemisia’s powerful lady. Whereas Botticelli originated from the austere Tuscany, from Florence, Cranach was a German and Artemisia a Roman. Sensitivities, characters and cultural backgrounds of the painters differed as much as the times in which the paintings were made.

Lucas Cranach the Elder was born in Kronach. He received his first lessons in drawing from his father and from 1500 to 1505 he was active in Vienna, in Austria. After that period, he became the court painter of the Elector of Saxony and he had a workshop in Wittenberg. In Wittenberg also lived and wrote Martin Luther. Lucas Cranach knew Luther and became his supporter. In the period between 1519 and 1545 Cranach was a Councillor of the town of Wittenberg and also at times it Mayor. For Luther, such a man worthy of respect was important to have on his side. Cranach worked both for the Electors of Saxony, who were sympathetic to Luther, and for the very Catholic Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg. This Cardinal was the main Catholic Cardinal of Germany, at first not deaf for some of the reforms that Luther proposed, and not inclined to let Luther preach outside Catholicism. The schism between Lutherans and the Catholic Church took many years to be consumed. In 1547 Cranach lost his appointment as court painter but when the Elector Johann Friedrich of Saxony had to go to prison from 1550 to 1552, Cranach went with him and followed the Elector also to Weimar, where he died in 1553.

Judith and Holofernes

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Österreichische Galerie Belvedere. Vienna 1901.

About three hundred years after Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of the theme of ‘Judith and Holofernes’, Gustav Klimt equally took up the subject. Klimt was born in Vienna in 1862 and he made ‘Judith I’ when he was thirty-eight years old, in 1901. He had been an early revolutionary of Austrian art. He had studied art in Vienna at the School of Arts and Crafts there, but worked already from around 1880 together with his brother Ernst – who died young in 1892 – and Hans Makart and another friend on decorations of palaces and public buildings of Vienna. Klimt was at first a member of the ‘Genossenschaft bildender Künstler Wiens’, the Society of Artists of Vienna, also called the ‘Künstlerhaus’. In 1897 a group of forty painters, led by Klimt, left this association to found the Vienna Secession. Klimt became the appointed president of the Secession and organised with his friends the exhibitions of the group until 1905. From 1900 on Klimt was a renowned painter of Vienna, painting many portraits from the more open-minded Viennese aristocracy and wealthy jet-set. The establishment around the Austrian Emperor rejected him however several times when he appealed for a professorship at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. Until he died in Vienna in 1918, together with the imperial regime, Klimt participated in many exhibitions and was one of Vienna’s most famous artists of the Symbolist movement, the Jugendstil.

Gustav Klimt’s Judith is of course very different from Cranach’s, Botticelli’s and Artemisia’s Judith. We see how the woman also holds the severed head of Holofernes, but the style of the painting is totally dissimilar.

Gustav Klimt’s Judith is naked and gold motives surround her. She wears a bunch of golden victory trophies, the palm leafs of victory and Klimt also painted behind her a hint of a landscape in the trees, which all bear fruit. Klimt’s Judith is in the trance of victory, which is almost an orgasm for her. Judith has her eyes closed, her face directed upwards in ecstasy, swollen lips in an open mouth as she seems to cry out gently and privately. She is still naked, as if she has just stepped back from the bed in which she has slept with Holofernes, but Klimt leaves doubt as to whether Judith is in ecstasy of that moment or of the gold of Holofernes’ treasures that now encircle her. Holofernes is slain. Judith holds his head, but there may be doubt in the viewer whether the general’s head is yet severed. Judith wears heavy, protective golden jewels around her neck and her head is crowned with thick, dark hair. She has not the hanging, flowing hair of Cranach but the profuse, hard hair made up in voluptuousness to support and surround her face.

The difference with the images of Botticelli, Cranach the Elder and Artemisia Gentileschi are still more striking. Society evolved. Wealth augmented still over the centuries, industry and the sciences delivered their first spectacular economic results so that a part of society had amassed such richness that its children could call themselves the elite and live without working, without even having to speculate further about finance and about tomorrow. This was a part of the society of Imperial Austria and especially of its capital Vienna. Gustav Klimt painted for this society and to express the glitter and leisure of wealth, he had the idea to use in his paintings the very symbol of this wealth: gold. The gold colour contributes greatly to the mood of the picture.

Klimt seems to tell in his Judith foremost however about the power of femininity, of the dangers that are in a woman that can play with men, about the seductiveness and the independence from men, now gained entirely. Despite a relaxed Judith, who is not present for the viewer but lost in ecstatic dreams, the viewer is practically a voyeur of intimate poises and thoughts. There is a mood of menace in the picture. The feelings expressed are of heavy eroticism, of gloom and lack of caring for any value, of preference for the defiance of gratuitously malign acts. Judith can play with men like a cat with a bird and she can take pleasure from the game that she dominates. No wonder another part of the Viennese public, the conservative government officials found Klimt’s views decadent. They also were very frightened that Gustav Klimt would spread a fashion of life that had remained hitherto confined to a smaller circle of the bourgeoisie of Vienna.

For Gustav Klimt, Judith represented the symbol of a society. Hence he underscored that concept and had to abandon the simple realism of Artemisia Gentileschi and of Lucas Cranach, and even more so the idealism of Botticelli. Judith was only the symbol, but another symbol. In the style of painting also, the means of depiction had become entirely free. Abstraction was not yet discovered, but one could bring golden patterns in an otherwise figurative painting. One could also emphasise the painting with a gold frame. The frame of Klimt’s Judith was made by his younger brother, the goldsmith Georg Klimt (1867-1931), but after Gustav Klimt’s own design.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s work was rich in the representation of emotions. So was Klimt’s work. It was also highly individualistic, and very expressive. Klimt expressed his own feelings and impressions of certain women of Vienna’s high society. So, that society may have shaped Klimt’s images and he might have merely been showing in an original, special way the sentiments evoked in him by that society. But Klimt’s might also have shown his particular views of women, independent of any society. Then he might indeed have been shaping his society, like the Imperial Court of Vienna feared. Was Gustav Klimt out at making an original painting with extravagant and extremely striking elements of style, such as all the artists of the previous centuries had not been able or had not dared to discover? Did Klimt merely arrogantly, dandy-like wanted to impress his viewers with daring originality and innovation in depiction? Had he been calculating how best to shock, surprise his audience and thus delivering this striking image? Probably all of these feelings and calculations came realised to a certain degree in Klimt’s enigmatic painting. It is certain however that of all existing Judith pictures the one from Gustav Klimt is the strangest and the one viewers forget the least. Gustav Klimt turned Judith into an ornament, into an element of decoration, like Vienna had become outward show and an ending society of gold.

Sandro Botticelli, Cranach the Elder and Artemisia Gentileschi presented Judith as the courageous woman that certainly up to a point shamed the men of Bethulia. After all, she defeated the enemy army on her own. But she was still the symbol of liberation only, and the image of a woman that saved her town from odious tyranny. She was the decisive mother of the nation, who leisurely returned to her own people with the sword over her shoulders. Gustav Klimt presented an altogether quite different view of Judith. For Klimt she was the archetype symbol of the dangerous female, of the vamp, of the man-eater and man-slaughteress. With the centuries, such a view of women could develop and was brought open in art, especially in the Jugendstil of the end of the nineteenth century. The Jugendstil or Art Nouveau trend in Symbolism was obsessed with the concept of woman and no one better than Gustav Klimt showed this image in bright gold. Woman was not only now the strong independent creature but the creature that could be an adversary, an enemy to man, a creature that existed to consume man. This fascination with the aspect of the battle of the sexes was typical for the Jugendstil, which often showed the enigmatic, mysterious and perverse attraction of men to the superiority in character of women.

In the Bible are many strong characters of women and in that the Bible stories are also remarkable when compared to the books of other religions. The Koran for instance largely suppressed these images of strong women. European Christianity also suppressed the concept of strong-willed females to a degree, because the images of women saints and of the Madonna are pictures of either tortured and martyred or of suffering women. The Virgin Mary is most often presented as the sweet, gentle, caring mother and the unrelenting intercessor with God. The painters have shown the stronger features of Judith and of other women of the Bible such as Sisera. So the Bible stories, however ancient, remain a prime source for the depiction of types of characters that are universal, non-temporal and that could be interpreted differently in each century. Botticelli, Cranach, Artemisia and Gustav Klimt showed each different aspects of the one type that was Judith.

Other paintings:

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