This depiction of Judith has been in-and-out of my files because it is unclear whether this is Judith or Artemisia. In some sources, the official title in the Museo di Prada is Artemisia Receiving Mausolus’ Ashes. Also known as Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Cup. It was reported that when the Prado used radiography in 2009 to determine where areas were retouched or painted over, it showed Rembrandt was actually telling the story of Judith, and not Artemisia. I cannot verify that report, but the most recent catalog of their collection titles the work as Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes. Additionally, I can verify that the National Gallery of London did x-ray the Rembrandt painting Portrait of Saskia as Flora (1635) and found evidence that the portrait began as Judith.
Thus with dubious identity, I decided to put these two portraits in this blog with a big caveat: I KNOW THE TITLE SOMETIMES INDICATES THESE ARE NOT JUDITH, BUT ON THE SLIM CHANCE THAT ONE OF THEM IS, THEY GET A PAGE.
Plus they are Rembrandt’s. Plus they are really pretty.
Rembrandt is generally considered one of the greatest painters and printmakers in European art history and the most important in Dutch history, contributing to a period of art known as the Dutch Golden Age. In his paintings and prints he exhibited classical use of “image writing”, which he adapted to his own experience: so a biblical scene was influenced by his knowledge of the text, his employment of classical composition, and his observations of everyday people. Other prominent characteristics of Rembrandt’s work are chiaroscuro – the theatrical employment of light and shadow (no, not a filling from Chipotle) – and naturalistic placement of subjects replaced by rigid formality.
During his early years in Amsterdam (1632–1636), Rembrandt began to paint dramatic biblical and mythological scenes in high contrast and large format. Artemisia (or Judith or Sophonisba or whoever she is) and Flora (or Judith) were painted during this time – with Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, as the model.
If this is a portrait of Artemisia, she was the wife of Masolus, the satrap of Caria in Asia Minor who died in 353 B.C. She symbolizes a widow’s devotion to her husband’s memory for two acts. First, she erected a monument to his memory at Halicarnassus (the first Mausoleum) that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Second, she made herself “a living breathing tomb” by mixing the ashes of Masolus in liquid and then drinking it every day.
Errrr … that is beyond icky, so I am quite glad that did not catch on like the mausoleum.
If this is a portrait of Sophonisba, she was a Cartaginian noblewoman who lived during the Second Punic War (218 to 202 BC). Her husband lost to Roman’s ally, Masinissa King of Numidia, and she was destined to be paraded through Rome in a Triumph procession. Masinissa fell in love with her but could not free her, so he asked her to drink a cup of poison – escaping the degradation and humiliation of the Triumphal parade.
If this is a portrait of Judith, we know what comes next.
The depiction is both beautiful and ominous. The opulent dress (though mammoth), the lavish tapestry, the ostentatious goblet, the kneeling servant against the portentous presence of the maid in the dark corner. Holofernes does not know what he is in for.
If this is a portrait of Flora, she is the goddess of flowers and the season of spring, one among several fertility goddesses.
If this is a portrait of Judith, she is a terminator – hiding Holofernes’ head under those flowers in her left hand and letting a vine grow over the sword in her right hand. Clever girl!
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Book of Judith, Chapter 12
1 THEN he commanded to bring her in where his plate was set; and bade that they should prepare for her of his own meats, and that she should drink of his own wine.
2 And Judith said, I will not eat thereof, lest there be an offence: but provision shall be made for me of the things that I have brought.
3 Then Holofernes said unto her, If thy provision should fail, how should we give thee the like? for there be none with us of thy nation.
4 Then said Judith unto him As thy soul liveth, my lord, thine handmaid shall not spend those things that I have, before the Lord work by mine hand the things that he hath determined.
5 Then the servants of Holofernes brought her into the tent, and she slept till midnight, and she arose when it was toward the morning watch,
6 And sent to Holofernes, saving, Let my lord now command that thine handmaid may go forth unto prayer.
7 Then Holofernes commanded his guard that they should not stay her: thus she abode in the camp three days, and went out in the night into the valley of Bethulia, and washed herself in a fountain of water by the camp.
8 And when she came out, she besought the Lord God of Israel to direct her way to the raising up of the children of her people.
9 So she came in clean, and remained in the tent, until she did eat her meat at evening.