Palma il Vecchio (“Old Palma” aka Jacopo Palma or Jacopo Negretti) frequently featured his daughter, Violante, in his sensual and tender portraits with soft Venetian colors. And it is likely this is one of those portraits.
This composition is a “soft-core” version of Judith. Not only is Judith herself softer than the muscular Mannerist Judith’s, but two of the harsh elements of the story – the sword and the severed head – are softened by placement in the left corners almost out of view. In fact, only the hilt of the sword can be seen resting on Holofernes’ forehead, who appears to be asleep in Judith’s lap.
Yes, this version is so soft that it might be acceptable to display in a room for relaxing. Might be.
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Judith Bearing the Head of Holofernes, an Ekphrasis by J. Allyn Rosser
In her place I wouldn’t be quite so casual: I’d probably put it down pretty quickly, somewhere level so it wouldn’t roll, as they always say heads are going to do when there’s trouble. You wouldn’t want actual rolling, which might add that touch of the comic we’re so terrified we might perceive in the dreadful. Almost every Judith holds him by the hair, risking the least contact with blood-slime. Though in Ghirlandaio’s case the maidservant carries the sword while Judith balances Holofernes’ head in a basket on her own, like a demented Carmen Miranda, the two of them strolling casually along, chatty in flowing robes. Botticelli, whose gods look like women and whose women look like angels, but who knew something about real life, has the maidservant bearing the basket. Giorgione’s Judith places her foot on his hair presumably in triumph, but clearly also to keep the head from rolling; in fact she gazes down too fondly at him, as if she were footstroking her cat.
A few artists show the shadowy servant stuffing him into a sack like a head of iceberg. Apparently in those portraits where she’s still holding the sword, she never let go of his hair in the first place, after hacking. But wouldn’t a sufficiently heavy weapon require two hands? In other contexts, the brawniest executioners are always pictured holding the sword aloft with both hands. It’s not easy cutting through bones, as any woman knows who’s quartered a chicken (or cooked it whole to avoid having to). She only had to smite him twice. But Judith had the adrenaline of the righteous, having prayed for strength. Still, you have to wonder. To look at Caravaggio’s pale-cheeked Judith you’d think she was watching her lab partner slicing a frog. She doesn’t seem at all sure she should be doing this, judging by her expression of utter disgust and the way she holds herself away from the act as if to pretend those ruddy arms and hands aren’t hers, or to avoid splattering her lovely white blouse, though the blouse was added later to cover her nudity. Important to remember Judith came to the tent of General Holofernes expressly to seduce him, a fact some centuries felt they should suppress. The Assyrian king had sent him to sack Israel, and the ultimate expression of any territory’s invasion, as we never tire of demonstrating , is the physical invasion of its women. So Judith knew he’d relax about the whole thing once she offered to take him in. In every version she also got him drunk—though she appears pretty enough not to have needed the wine as encouragement; a woman that insecure would surely need two hands to follow through. Even Artemisia Gentileschi had so little faith in her Judith that she supplied four hands— the maidservant is holding Holofernes down with her full weight while Judith gingerly saws at his neck with a cello-bow-angled wrist. Oh I suppose you could defend it as a show of heroism in sisterhood. But what about the divine individual and her sole sister self? That’s the Judith that makes the story sell.
In fact, the only Judith I’ve ever seen who could single-handedly have hacked through a man’s neck is that of Jacopo Palma the Elder— now there’s a woman with some heft!— whereas Cranach the Elder’s willowy gentlewoman (I’d kill for a jacket like that) in her gloves and velvet hat might be returning a mask too lifelike for her costume ball. Allori’s dreamy-lidded Judith seems to tell us over her shoulder that math was never her best subject—true, she’s the image of Allori’s most recent ex-mistress and it’s his own head she’s toting— and Saraceni’s Judith, holding the head as if it were a teapot with a hair handle, wants to know how many lumps. Unlikeliest of all, however lovely her lines, Veronese’s Judith lifts his head by the temples with aristocratically delicate hands, the way you’d treat a head you liked, one that was still attached to a nice person.
No, the only one I can believe is Jacopo Palma’s: his Judith firmly, efficiently grips both the hilt of the sword and a hank of hair in one hand, a fistful of beard in the other. These are chunky, Gauguin-size hands. Her shoulders are massive. Not much of a neck on her, which helps to make her appear invulnerable. She looks like she’d do it again if the head somehow reattached itself. She looks like she’s only a tiny bit surprised that she managed it. She looks like she knows her story will be told by painters who will mostly be men who are going to have trouble seeing this scene as anything but apocryphal, and she’s fine with that. That is, after all, what we need them to think.