Judith’s chest

29 Jun

Get your mind out of the gutter.

This work of art is not about boobs. It is about the depiction of the story of Judith on a decorated cassone – or bridal chest. The gift of a cassone was often decorated with scenes of virtuous women from mythology, the Bible, or medieval literature. The primary motive of the painting was to beautify the furnishing – but there was also the reminder to the bride to monitor her behavior to meet the current standard of virtue.

More than the effect on the bride, I wonder how her groom felt about staring across the room at this bloody scene of a drunken man being decapitated in bed.

The Master of Marradi, “The Story of Judith and Holofernes,” 15th century, Tempera on wood panel, 15.75 x 58.5 in., Dayton Art Museum, Dayton, Ohio, USA

Sadly, this image is very small so it may take some ‘splaining.  The same characters are shown repeatedly in different scenes from the story in sequence from right to left in a panorama.

  • On the right side are soldiers with spiked helmets and long spears with their tents. One tent is open to show Judith in a lacy white dress, covering Holofernes’ mouth with her left hand as he lies in bed – and raising a bloody sword in her right hand.
  • Next, Judith’s maid is placing something into a bloodstained basket.
  • To the left of this scene, the women walk along a curving path, Judith still holding the sword and her maid carrying the basket on top of her head.
  • Above this scene, the two walk through the arched gate of a walled city. the left half of the panel shows a battle scene on both sides of a pale blue river that winds past the town.

The Master of Marred, who is credited with painting this scene, is a mystery.  He remains unnamed but numerous cassone are thought to be painted by the same man. I like the usual description of him as “active in Florence during the second half of the 15th Century” – as if to say “this guy gets around!”  He did appear to have a prolific career in painting scenes on cassones, since there are many of these works in major museums. I bet at this point he wishes he had copyrighted his real name.

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Book of Judith, Chapter 7

1 THE next day Holofernes commanded all his army, and all his people which were come to take his part, that they should remove their camp against Bethulia, to take aforehand the ascents of the hill country, and to make war against the children of Israel.
2 Then their strong men removed their camps in that day, and the army of the men of war was an hundred and seventy thousand footmen, and twelve thousand horsemen, beside the baggage, and other men that were afoot among them, a very great multitude.
3 And they camped in the valley near unto Bethulia, by the fountain, and they spread themselves in breadth over Dothaim even to Belmaim, and in length from Bethulia unto Cynamon, which is over against Esdraelon.
4 Now the children of Israel, when they saw the multitude of them, were greatly troubled, and said every one to his neighbour, Now will these men lick up the face of the earth; for neither the high mountains, nor the valleys, nor the hills, are able to bear their weight.
5 Then every man took up his weapons of war, and when they had kindled fires upon their towers, they remained and watched all that night.
6 But in the second day Holofernes brought forth all his horsemen in the sight of the children of Israel which were in Bethulia,
7 And viewed the passages up to the city, and came to the fountains of their waters, and took them, and set garrisons of men of war over them, and he himself removed toward his people.
8 Then came unto him all the chief of the children of Esau, and all the governors of the people of Moab, and the captains of the sea coast, and said,
9 Let our lord now hear a word, that there be not an overthrow in thine army.
10 For this people of the children of Israel do not trust in their spears, but in the height of the mountains wherein they dwell, because it is not easy to come up to the tops of their mountains.
11 Now therefore, my lord, fight not against them in battle array, and there shall not so much as one man of thy people perish.
12 Remain in thy camp, and keep all the men of thine army, and let thy servants get into their hands the fountain of water, which issueth forth of the foot of the mountain:
13 For all the inhabitants of Bethulia have their water thence; so shall thirst kill them, and they shall give up their city, and we and our people shall go up to the tops of the mountains that are near, and will camp upon them, to watch that none go out of the city.
14 So they and their wives and their children shall be consumed with fire, and before the sword come against them, they shall be overthrown in the streets where they dwell.
15 Thus shalt thou render them an evil reward; because they rebelled, and met not thy person peaceably.
16 And these words pleased Holofernes and all his servants, and he appointed to do as they had spoken.
17 So the camp of the children of Ammon departed, and with them five thousand of the Assyrians, and they pitched in the valley, and took the waters, and the fountains of the waters of the children of Israel.
18 Then the children of Esau went up with the children of Ammon, and camped in the hill country over against Dothaim: and they sent some of them toward the south, and toward the east over against Ekrebel, which is near unto Chusi, that is upon the brook Mochmur; and the rest of the army of the Assyrians camped in the plain, and covered the face of the whole land; and their tents and carriages were pitched to a very great multitude.


Posted by on June 29, 2011 in Story


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