Judith in alabaster

26 Jan

Alabaster is the common name for soft, smooth, fine-grained sedimentary gypsum rock – popular because it is soft and easy to work or carve.

Alabaster has been used since the beginning of time to carve decorative items, both large and small.

Alabaster can be worked to show varying degrees of low and high relief such that “the luminous alabaster surface highlights the powerful folds of fabric and accentuates the elegant movement of the figures.” (1)  And the death-clutch of the headless body in the bed.

Oval alabaster relief

Oval alabaster relief of Judith and Holofernes, c. 1600, alabaster in a later gilt wood frame, 31 x 26.7 cm, auctioned by Christie’s, New York, January 28, 2009 (lot  #21)


This example of alabaster carving comes from the late 1500s to early 1600s in Germany, probably designed to adorn the interior of a residence or to exhibit in a collection.  As described by Aleksandra Lipińska in the essential text on alabaster from Northern Europe, this alabaster seems to be typical of the pieces produced in that time and place:

Old Testament stories were usually selected for their potential to be construed as allegories of secular virtues (e.g. the Judgment of Solomon as a allegory of just government) or as scenes with the potential for exploiting erotic suggestion (Lot and his daughters). Such scenes tended to be stylised in the antique fashion: scenes peopled with figures dressed in tunics and issued with Roman armour were played out against backgrounds of ancient ruins, with distant panoramas of towns featuring buildings resembling Greek temples or Italian palaces. (2, p268)

But the description in Otto Naumann’s art house catalogue uncovered something truly unique about this piece and the previous owners.

The present work once hung in the library of Clifford Ambrose Truesdell (1919-2000), a professor of Rational Mechanics at Johns Hopkins University and an influential figure in twentieth century science.  Evidently, this subject was of particular interest to Professor Truesdell and his wife, who had their own likenesses represented as Judith and Holofernes in a portrait on the opposite wall.(1)

Wow. I would love to know what Mrs. Truesdell did to convince Dr. Truesdell to assume that role – and whatever happened to that painting.  It would make a great addition to my collection.

(1) Otto Naumann Ltd.

(2)  Aleksandra Lipińska, Moving Sculptures: Southern Netherlandish alabasters from the 16th to 17th centuries in central and northern Europe. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2014.

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Postscript:  Once I found the story of the re-creation of Judith and Holofernes with the images of the owners of this alabaster,  I was fascinated.  Who WERE these people?  My investigation revealed: not just idle rich with too much time on their hands,

Clifford Ambrose Truesdell III is regarded as the founder of the modern science of rational mechanics and a leader in the study of thermodynamics.  He wrote or co-wrote 26 books, 268 papers and many book reviews, and was the winner of numerous international prizes and medals in mathematics.  In his spare time, Truedell was an ardent student of the Renaissance.  From his obituary in the Baltimore Sun (Jan 19, 2000)

Dr. Truesdell collected paintings and silver. He invited musicians and dancers to perform in his home, a granite and brick Palladian structure on a slight hill in Guilford, and often invited friends to attend candlelight musicales. For these soirees, Dr. Truesdell dressed in 18th-century attire, including a lace collar that had been made by his grandmother. His wife would be similarly attired. “They were a seamless totality and complimented each other. Their home was an ongoing work of art, and if you were there for an event, it was not easily forgotten,” said Gary Vikan, director of Walters Art Gallery.

And when I really poked around for a minute or two, I found images in the collection of The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History of Clifford and Charlotte Truesdell standing before the the study of their home “il Palazzetto.”  And in the background i swear is a Manneristic portrayal of Judith lifting the fauchion – that I would bet has the likenesses of Clifford and Charlotte.


Clifford and Charlotte Truesdell, photographed by the former in front of his study in Il Palazzetto, 1975, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

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COULD IT GET ANY BETTER!!!   Through a series of emails with the grandson of the Truesdell’s, he produced a photo of the painting!!!!    I noted that the selection of chose Judith and Holofernes was “not the most functional interaction to depict … but must have said something about their sense of humor and vision of their own relationship.”  And I received this very kind response from Cliff:

This painting was prominently in his study/office, so he basically lived with it every day. The word above the painting is “STRUIMUS” which is latin for “we build,” which was some sort of motto for them.

I think you’re right about their vision of their relationship and I appreciate the insight. I didn’t know them very well but in the limited time I spent with them it was clear that they were two of the most connected people I’ve ever met.
Judith Truesdell detail

Dr. and Mrs. Clifford Truesdell III as Judith and Holofernes, photographed over the fireplace of his study in Il Palazzetto, Baltimore, MD – courtesy of Cliff Truesdell



Yes, I do believe this has been the most edifying and entertaining posts to write.  I hope you enjoy it as well!


Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Glory


Tags: , , , , ,

4 responses to “Judith in alabaster

  1. lentonist

    January 26, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    Very much enjoyed it, thanks. An interesting story.

    • judith2you

      January 26, 2015 at 3:14 pm

      Thank you so the feedback. This was truly a fun exercise in making internet connections.

  2. Peg Pond

    May 12, 2015 at 8:40 am

    My husband’s father, a Hopkins professor, was Dr. Truesdell’s friend. The family ate with Dr. and Mrs. many times. This painting was in the master bed room. We were talking about Joe Sheppard’s work and decided to see what we could find of the Truesdell collection on line. Joe grew up with my mother. Small world. Thank you.

    • judith2you

      June 6, 2015 at 1:12 am

      Thank you for sharing that remembrance. Nice that the small world gives us the opportunity to be close.


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