Judith by a woman

14 Jul

Not literally standing by a woman. Rather, Judith painted by a woman.

And please tell me your mind was not in the gutter again.

Giulia Lama, “Judith and Holofernes,” c. 1730, Oil on canvas, 107 x 155 cm, Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice, Italy

This is one of my favorite depictions of Judith – not because it was painted by a woman but because of the emotion and the light and the breath-taking decision-making moment.   It is an amazing composition, considering Giulia Lama painted during the Baroque period that was so flamboyant and filigreed.

Guilia’s father was probably the Venetian painter Agostino Lama (unrelated to Dalai), and she most likely trained with Giovanni Battista Piazzetta – due to her dramatic compositions and figures. She lived in great seclusion, so there is scant information on her life.  Lama painted numerous altarpieces and religious subjects for churches in Venice and northern Italy, few of them dated.  From Terminartors:

“In ‘Judith and Holofernes’ the moment preceding the bloody event is charged with expressionistic accents through the violent effect with which the sudden aggressive light evokes the supine body of Holofernes, the figure of Judith intent in propitiary prayer and the figure of the old serving woman almost wholly enveloped in shadows. Such calculated and skilful scenic arrangement as seen in the foreshortening of the figures and the masterly control over the light, create an effect which is definitely not naturalistic but which aims rather at pleasing melodramatic intensity.”

With Holofernes’ face thrown into the shadows, you forget the character he plays and instead focus on the body of a man.  Any man.  And Judith seems to hesitate without a sword in her hand.  Her action at this moment is not about violence or self-defense but it is about asking God for … what?  Guidance?  Strength?  Forgiveness?  All this and more?  Her stance reminds the viewer:  this act is about her relationship to her God and not about blood-thirst or anger or revenge.

I also have a sense that Holofernes is a sacrifice – as if he lays across an altar. No fancy posts or drapes or bedcovers. No elaborate clothing or armor or helmet.  Even Judith is dressed simply, and her beauty is in the light.

Unfortunately, the maid is given a bad hair cut and placed in a dark, servile position.  She provides the third corner of the triangulated composition, but otherwise she seems detached and forgotten.  Her gaze is distant, taking in neither Judith or Holofernes.

Maybe I like this portrayal because I really don’t want Judith to kill Holofernes.  He has been very hospitable to her, he was not a brute … well … okay, he IS trying to starve all her family and friends into submission but that’s just a professional obligation to Nebuchadnezzar, right?   And she is a widow who can appreciate a leader.  So I am glad she is taking a moment to reconsider – even if I know how it turns out.

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Book of Judith, Chapter 13

1 NOW when the evening was come, his servants made haste to depart, and Bagoas shut his tent without, and dismissed the waiters from the presence of his lord; and they went to their beds: for they were all weary, because the feast had been long.
2 And Judith was left along in the tent, and Holofernes lying along upon his bed: for he was filled with wine.
3 Now Judith had commanded her maid to stand without her bedchamber, and to wait for her. coming forth, as she did daily: for she said she would go forth to her prayers, and she spake to Bagoas according to the same purpose.
4 So all went forth and none was left in the bedchamber, neither little nor great. Then Judith, standing by his bed, said in her heart, O Lord God of all power, look at this present upon the works of mine hands for the exaltation of Jerusalem.
5 For now is the time to help thine inheritance, and to execute thine enterprizes to the destruction of the enemies which are risen against us.

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Posted by on July 14, 2011 in Story


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