Judith goes soft

25 Jan

Palma il Vecchio, “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” 1528, Oil on wood, 90 x 71 cm, Uffizi, Florence, Italy

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.


Posted by on January 25, 2012 in Cacciatore


Tags: , , , , , , ,

6 responses to “Judith goes soft

  1. histobov

    February 13, 2014 at 6:08 am

    Dear Judith,

    I’m nearly finished with a book which I write together with the granddaughter of Ernst Proehl about his live. Proehl was a German banker living in Amsterdam. He collected art which was partly confiscated by the Nazi regime while he was brought to a concentration camp.

    One of his paintings was a Judith by Palma il Vecchio. So I guess this one.

    Would it be possible to use the photo of the painting for my book?


    Achim Bovelett

  2. Paul

    September 18, 2014 at 7:40 am

    This Judith looks almost exactly like my wife! We discovered the original painting in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and were hugely amused by the uncanny resemblance. Although She’s not called Judith, and I’m not Holofernes, should I be worried when plied with drink?

    • judith2you

      January 2, 2015 at 10:25 pm

      Yes, you should always worry when a woman plies you with drink! But as long as you are not planning to kill all her kinfolk, I guess you are safe.


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