October 4, 2010

Judith with the head of Holofernes

Judith with the head of Holofernes, Lucas Cranach The Elder. (c. 1530)

In the apocryphal Book of Judith, the Jewish heroine enters the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes, seduces him, gets him drunk and chops off his head.

Cranach's Judith is a court beauty with pink cheeks, an almost Mona Lisa enigma to her expression, flowing golden locks and white cleavage visible beneath three rich necklaces. Her rakishly angled velvet hat and tight bodice make her the height of fashion - except that in one of her white-gloved hands she holds a wide-bladed sword aloft, and lifts a handkerchief to expose Holofernes's severed head.

The warrior's head is bearded and its dead eyes roll: the muscles and tubes in his neck are opened for our inspection in a red mass. Judith takes all this in her stride. The red, yellow and white hues of her skin, hair and clothes are unblemished, her richly textured sleeves unruffled - even her sword is clean of blood. It's as if she is acting out the part of the seducer-assassin in some courtly entertainment.

It's a far cry from earlier images of Judith that went out of their way to deny the story's sexual content. Donatello's 15th-century sculpture of Judith gives her a hood, robes and a narrow collar, so that almost no flesh is visible. Botticelli's painting from the 1470s has her dreamily pure as she walks home, sword in hand, a servant carrying the head.

These virtuous Judiths clearly gave nothing of themselves and took no pleasure in Holofernes's tent. Cranach's Judith is more paradoxical; 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.

No comments: