Except for the name of the artist. That is rather complicated
Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato. After his birthplace, Sassoferrato. Which sounds like sassafras tea, to me. I tried to translate it in Italian and came up with “stone shoes.” Which could be related to the position of the town in the foothills of the Apennines. Or perhaps to the original “cement overshoes”?
Sassoferrato portrays Judith as a simple woman. Well … with the exception of the severed head held by the hair in her right hand. But everything else in this composition is clean and bright and clear. Gone is the dark tent with all the drapes and tassels. Gone is the maid with her bag of meat. Gone are the candles and the contorted poses and the elaborate clothing. This was his forte: to strip away the artifices and depict his subjects as honest and approachable with crisp realism.
In the seventeenth century the Blessed Virgin was too frequently portrayed with a cold dignity, and reserve so austere towards the Child Jesus that it is difficult to realize her motherhood. “Consequently, men grew more fond of Sassoferrato whose Madonnas, tender, lovely, carefully painted, all reveal the mother’s heart, as men more readily forgive certain errors when they are lofty, and certain weakness when they are picturesque” (1). Sassoferrato gave to his compositions a pleasing air of intimacy, and a certain naivete, in happy contrast to the melancholy expression too frequently found in the paintings of his time. (2)
So he gives us a simple Judith. Happily showing Holofernes’ head to the Bethulians. Preparing to stick a pike through the neck and mount it on the city wall.
(1) Burckhardt, Jacob. “The Cicerone: An Art Guide to Painting in Italy for the Use of Travellers and Students. London: J. Murray, 1879.
(2) Sortais, Gaston. “Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912.