Judith in the Sistine Chapel

30 Oct

I give up … now Michelangelo did it.   Put the bag in a basket On Her Head.   (sigh) If Michelangelo painted it on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, then it must be okay.

Appearing on the Sistine Chapel is the height of fame in the Renaissance World of art.  In the World of Art at any point in the timeline of Western history.  And here is Judith with God and everybody.   Not only that, but Michelangelo supposedly used his own likeness for the head of Holofernes.  Just a little Renaissance humor (yuk, yuk).   But that personal touch gives Judith a special significance.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Ceiling and South Wall, 1508-12, fresco , Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Italy

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Judith (L) and David (R), South Wall,” 1508-12, fresco pendentive , Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Italy

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” 1508-12, fresco pendentive , Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Italy

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Judith with the head of Holofernes (detail),” 1508-12, fresco pendentive, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Italy

The Sistine Chapel is the large Papal Chapel built between 1477 and 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV.   Painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512 at the commission of Pope Julius II, the ceiling is one of the most renowned artworks of the High Renaissance.  The paintings on the ceiling are part of a decorative scheme within the Chapel, which includes the large fresco The Last Judgment on the North sanctuary wall.  Nine scenes from the Book of Genesis are central to the ceiling decoration – the Creation of Adam being the best known and most often imitated.   The scheme is completed by four large corner pendentives illustrating dramatic Biblical stories, that includes Judith along with Moses, David and Haman.  The pendentive of Judith is located on the left corner of the South Wall – opposite the Day of Judgement.

The other two stories, those of David and Judith, were often linked in Renaissance art, particularly by Florentine artists as they demonstrated the overthrow of tyrants, a popular subject in the Republic. In this image, the shepherd boy, David, has brought down the towering Goliath with his sling, but the giant is alive and is trying to rise as David forces his head down to chop it off… The depiction of Judith and Holofernes has an equally gruesome detail. As Judith loads the enemy’s head onto a basket carried by her maid and covers it with a cloth, she looks towards the tent, apparently distracted by the limbs of the decapitated corpse threshing about. (1)

Yup, even stuck high up in an obscure corner, Judith is disturbingly brutal.

(1) O’Malley, John, The Theology behind Michelangelo’s Ceiling in The Sistine Chapel, 1986. ed. Massimo Giacometti.

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Posted by on October 30, 2011 in Glory


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