Judith and a life cut short

24 Jul

Not so much Holofernes.  I am thinking about the artist, Adam Elsheimer.

Elsheimer was a German artist working in Rome who died at age 32.   He specialized in cabinet paintings – small scale typically no larger than about two feet in either dimension, showing full-length figures that are painted very precisely.   The term cabinet arose from the name of the small room where they were dispayed (originally in Italian) – not the piece of furniture.  Nearly all Elsheimer’s pieces were painted on copper plates. Although his body of work was limited, he was an influence on many other artists, including Rembrandt and Rubens due to his use of a variety of light effects and an innovative treatment of landscape.

In actuality, this painting is only 9 1/2 inches high and 7 1/2 inches wide – less than a sheet of paper.  It was the first work by Adam Elsheimer on a silver ground, a technical innovation that explains for the relatively small size.

Adam Elsheimer, “Judith beheading Holofernes,” 1601-03, Oil on silvered copper, 18.7 x 24.2 cm, Wellington Museum, Apsley House, London, UK

As Judith begins her righteous/violent act (depending on your point of view), Elsheimer places her in a highly decorated room – heavy with drapes and tapestry.  Just outside the doorway, her maid hovers in the darkness.  A large candle lights the room but there appears to be a shaft of light from another source on the left that illuminates Judith as she raises her sword.  From the right, more light reflects from the gilt of the pitcher.

This scenerio (as well as others in this story) is disturbing because Holofernes does not appear to be quite drunk enough. In other words: his eyes are open, his hands and leg are raised, and he is drooling.  In fact now that I look carefully at the poor photographic reproduction of this work, it looks like she may be going in for the second blow — she has already made the first cut.

And she looks mighty proud.

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JUDITH by Maria Gowen Brooks

Scarcely the chief his silken pillow prest,
Before his towering form reposed supine;
The fair so warmly wished his presence blest,
But love lay senseless in a sea of wine.
Watchful Bagoas, thou too wert in bed,
The Hebrew with thy lord was left alone,
And in the lamp-beam gleaming o’er his head
With fatal light, his glittering falchion shone.
“So, his dread folds unbraced, the sated snake
In his own den’s fell depths, unfearing lies!
Oh! for thine own, thy suffering people’s sake,
My God, nerve thou this arm and end my enterprise!”
She said, and wreathed her fingers in his hair,
Then, his last breath the proud oppressor drew;
The blade her right hand wielded high in air
Descends: his neck was bare, her hand was true.
Maria Gowen Brooks, Judith, Esther, and Other Poems. Boston: Cummings & Hilliard, 1820.
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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Gory


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