Judith, Joseph Campbell, and George Washington

02 Oct

Gaspare Traversi, “Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes,” 1760,                    Oil on canvas, 84.77 x 69.85 cm, University of Michigan Museum of Art,        Ann Arbor, Michigan, US

Traversi is best known for his genre paintings that parody the pastimes of the noble classes (such as The Drawing Lesson, Teasing a Sleeping Girl, Brawl during Card Game, The Secret Letter) with naturalism and humor.   Inevitably, these scenes include someone snickering in the background while the subject is engaged in earnest activity.   In other words, there are numerous stories being told in Traversi’s paintings.

Therefore, Judith is a departure.   And to make it even more complicated, she is often misidentified as Salome (that slut).   But relying on the authority of U of M, i am certain this is a portrait of Judith – missing the fauchion, which would have sealed the deal.

Instead of a humorous depiction of noble pastimes, this is a sensitive portrait of Judith cradling the head of Holofernes.   Her expression is difficult to interpret:  not proud or elated or scared or sad.    Rather, she seems to be saying ” yes, I did it.   I worked hard for this head.  I should probably be on my way before the guards catch me, so if you don’t mind I’ll be going.”   Captured in a moment on her departure to Bethulia and the crowds and the celebration.

And from this portrait, I image that she does not care so much for the adulation but is ready to return to her simple, boring life with the knowledge she completed her task.   It leads me to Joseph Campbell’s archetype of the Reluctant Hero:

  • An ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances which require her to rise to heroism
  • A person with extraordinary abilities that avoids using those abilities for the benefit of others

In either case, the Reluctant Hero is not seeking adventure or the opportunity benefit others;  the Reluctant Hero has a period of doubt about the negative consequences of her actions or the loss of personal safety.   In this archetype, Judith can be compared to Cincinnatus and to George Washington –  for the willingness to give up near-absolute power once the crisis had passed and victory had been won.

Yes, I know that is a lot of thinking for one day – a lot of extrapolation for one portrait.  But dang, I feel more patriotic for it!

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Posted by on October 2, 2012 in Distracted


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