Monthly Archives: April 2015

Judith has it covered

Yes, they are still in storage. And yes, the photos are black-and-white which means it is difficult to achieve a good perspective of the artistry.  And yes, we are talking about tableclothes.

While it could be easy to dismiss a tablecloth as mundane, it is actually a remarkable artifact when you consider:

  • any textile is subject to deterioration
  • these textiles is about 400 to 500 years old
  • they survived a time when dining was a free-for-all and the purpose of the tablecloth was to wipe greasy food from hands
  • and therefore they survived numerous rounds of primitive washing — at least, I hope they were washed

unknown from Flanders, Table cloth ‘Judith and Holofernes’, 16th century, linen damask, 111 x 107.5 in with 13.5 in repeat, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK


unknown from Netherlands, Table cloth ‘Judith and Holofernes’, 1600-1699, linen damask, 43.5 x 35.5 in, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK


For those who were not raised by Southern Belles, damask is a reversible figured fabric with a pattern formed by weaving with one warp yarn and one weft yarn, usually with the pattern in warp-faced satin weave and the ground in weft-faced or sateen weave. The traditional damask that most people envision today is a stylized symmetric design of florals, leaves and scrolls.  But in the 1600s, when weavers in Belgium and the Netherlands began making fine-quality white linen tablecloths and napkins, damask featured patterns as well as intricate scenes of famous battles or stories from the Bible.

The first tablecloth, as described by the V&A:

From the top: Holofernes is seated at a table with Judith beneath a tent of draped curtains, with hanging lamps and birds within, and on the roof of the tent is inscribed ‘OLIFERNIS’; Within another tent, Holofernes lies headless in an elaborate bed, while Judith with sword in her hand places his head in a bag held by her servant, and below her feet is the inscription ‘IUDIT’; Holofernes’ head is displayed between flags bearing the letter ‘D’ [possibly to be B] on the battlements of a town, and in front of the town, men are fighting and a bearded man in armour is chained to a tree.

So for this dining scenario, it would have been common to place your Judith handled fork next to your Judith maiolica plate atop your Judith tablecloth to enjoy a sumptuous meal.  Kinda like if you went to a “Gone Girl” themed occasion with all the matching partyware.  Bon appetite!


See you at the V&A!

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Posted by on April 16, 2015 in Exploring


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Judith looks good enough to eat

How droll. Tableware depicting a decapitated head.


unknown from Germany or Netherlands, Fork with Judith with the head of Holofernes, ca. 1650, Steel with carved ivory and silver mounts, 20.2 cm whole, (8.3 cm ivory alone), Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

This is not a first, however.  A different fork with Judith on the handle was presented in “Judith sets the table” and they are not from a matched set.  This fork is slightly more refined than the two-prong model. From the V&A description:

Knives have been used since prehistoric times, but the history of knives, forks and spoons for eating in Europe probably commenced in the fourteenth century, and their use became accepted by the sixteenth century. Until the late seventeenth century it seems to have been common practice for people to carry their own cutlery, often in a leather case. Ebony, ivory, fish skin, tortoiseshell, amber, bone, horn and shell were all popular for decorating cutlery… Although cutlers were required by their guilds to be able to make a complete knife, handles of carved ivory, silver, bronze and glass were usually imported or made by specialist craftsmen.

A quick search of the internet for “renaissance ivory fork” yields fewer results than imagined — but did inform me that the first fork to bear an English hallmark and engraved with a coat of arms belonged to the Earl of Rutland (1632) and is displayed at the V&A (1).  So now I feel prepared to appreciate the cutlery section as I have never appreciated it before. See you at the V&A! (1) Suzanne Von Drachenfels, The Art of the Table, (retrieved April 6, 2015)

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Posted by on April 15, 2015 in Exploring


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Judith the model returns

Alfred George Stevens has graced these pages twice before.  Once with a beatific portrait of Judith (“Judith is beautific“) and once with this same model shown today (“Judith the model“).  He obviously had a high opinion of the heroine.


Judith (1862) Stevens

Alfred George Stevens, Model of “Judith” for the Dome of St Paul’s, c.1862, Bronze, 42.5 x 22.5 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England, UK


I still cannot find any confirmation that Judith ever made it to the dome of St. Paul’s, so I am assuming she did not.  And then to be stuck back in storage … how sad. The V&A also owns the 24 cm plaster cast sketch model, also in storage.  But hey! At least she gets remembered here.

See you at the V&A!

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Posted by on April 14, 2015 in Exploring


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Judith dries out

My advance planning for the V&A visit has revealed one disturbing fact: there is A LOT of Judith in storage.  Not that I am feeling persecuted (there is probably a LOT of David in storage as well) but just disappointed that the museum visit will not be All Judith All The Time.  So for the remaining posts about the V&A, they will have to be about works of art I will not see, at least on this visit.  And there ends my narcissistic rant … for the moment.

But I will especially miss this painting, the one I wrote about unkindly in “Judith is put to bed wet” (October 18, 2011).

Matteo Ponzoni, "Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes," c.1650, oil on canvas, 90.3 x 79.4 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

Matteo Ponzoni, “Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes,” c.1650, oil on canvas, 90.3 x 79.4 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

It is possible that seeing this painting in the flesh would incline me to be more kind about the depiction of Judith — but I would not bet on that.  Judith’s slack jawed expression would not change, nor the beefy appearance of her forearm and the uncomfortable compression of her breasts.  Perhaps she would not appear to be bathed in perspiration and maybe the details of her gown and toilet would be more pronounced.  Perhaps.  But now I will never know.

Maybe that’s why she is in storage.

See you at the V&A!

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Posted by on April 13, 2015 in Exploring


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Judith weaves another tale

This looks familiar.  Oh wait … August 10, 2012.  “Judith weaves a tale”  — I already wrote this.



unknown, “Sheldon tapestry: Judith with the head of Holofernes,” 1600-1610, silk and wool on wool warp, 48 x 48 cms, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England, UK


Except for one problem:  IT IS IN STORAGE.

So see you at the V&A – in the storage room!

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Posted by on April 12, 2015 in Exploring


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Judith on the head of a pin

Actually, I have no idea what size this is — and it is probably larger than the head of a pin.  But not much.


Jan Bellekin (ca. 1636-1665), “Judith with the head of Holofernes,” ca. 1600-1625, Mother-of-pearl engraved relief, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

This is an example of a carved Mother-of-pearl medallion.  Much like the cameo and intaglio discussed in the previous posts, this object was likely part of a collection of curiosities.  These small items were probably purchased as souvenirs and easily transported home to collect dust.  Some things have not changed over the centuries.

I searched extensively for other engravings by Jan Bellekin, only to find his brother Cornelius — so they appeared to have a family business.  The most prolific surviving artworks from the brothers are (oddly) engraved Nautilus Cups.  Yes, cups fashioned from nautilus shells, mounted on elaborate pedestals and carved with intricate figures.  No, these were not functional cups for drinking but they were instead more items for the curiosity cabinet.  Here is a small sampling of the work of the Bulletin (no that’s Bellekin!!) brothers:

Nautilus Cup   ,   1746-1758  poland1966.137, 9892 van Bellekin, Nautilus Shell Cup, 2003.2

Dutch artists made a number of nautilus cups during the 17th century, when shells of the chambered nautilus were imported from Indonesia. The Dutch East India Company established one of the first large multinational corporations there, resulting in millions of tons of goods shipped on thousands of vessels. This trade enriched the Netherlands and is reflected in the exotic seashells and other imported objects seen in many Dutch still-life paintings of that century. (1)

And people think the things we collect in the 21st century are strange.

See you at the V&A!

(1) ArtNC, Work of Art: Nautilus Shell Cup, (retrieved April 5, 2015)


Posted by on April 11, 2015 in Exploring


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Judith makes a cameo

Deflate and inflate. Ascend and descend.  And today … intaglio and cameo.

Yesterday was about carving into a hard surface to create an image, today is about carving out of a hard surface with a flat plane where two contrasting colors meet.  In contrast to the intaglio, the cameo is created by removing all the first colour except for the image, leaving a contrasting background.  So the latter is much more difficult to produce than digging into the stone because it requires visualizing the image before it appears..

During the Renaissance, cameos were “hard stone” — made from semi-precious gemstones with contrasting color bands such as onyx and agate. But also during the 15th and 16th centuries, shell came into prevalent use for cameo carving as access to mussel, cowry, and tropical mollusk increased with exploration and travel.   These Renaissance cameos are typically white on a grayish background.


unknown French, “Judith” cameo, ca. 1530-1550, Shell with isinglass (fish glue) backing, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

This cameo of Judith represents that typical style.  And in this tiny space — less than 5 cm — the artist has perfectly captured Judith’s glee with the completion of her task. Hips forward, shoulders back, severed head held high with a smile on her face.  It is easy to see how she is pleased with herself, right down the the frilly trim on her flimsy gown.

I can almost hear her chortle “Tee Hee! Look at me!”

See you at the V&A!

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Posted by on April 10, 2015 in Exploring


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Judith Intaglio

Yin and yang.  Convex and concave. Stalagmite and stalagtite. And today … cameo and intaglio.

In the carving of gemstones, cameo means carving a raised image or relief while carving in intaglio means engraving into the surface of the stone. The art of gemstone carving was known in ancient Greece and Rome and revived in Renaissance Italy.  During that revival, connoisseurs formed vast collections of engraved semi-precious gemstones, especially various types of onyx and agate.


Unknown artist, “Judith with the head of Holofernes,” ca. 1500, Intaglio banded agate, 4.3 x 3.3 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

This appears to be a very small intaglio carving of Judith holding Holofernes’ head.  For some reason, it reminds me of pogs — which then makes me wonder why I remember pogs AT ALL!  Which then reminds me that fads have been around since the beginning of time, that artifacts of our passing fancies still remain — and that someday I may be looking at a pog in the museum case.

It has probably already happened somewhere.

See you at the V&A!

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Posted by on April 9, 2015 in Exploring


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Judith … and not much else

Some days, you just run out of things to say.  This is one of those days.


Unknown artist, “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” ca. 1550, Carved marble statuette, 48 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK


The V&A website describes this as a statuette (a little statue) made of marble (a metamorphic rock) and carved in the round.  “The sculptor has paid great attention to detail, both on the front and back, where he has continued the fine floral pattern on the robe. He apparently used chisels for finishing the surface of the carving … The face and proportions of Judith’s figure reflect the decorative work at Fontainbleau.”

Decorative work at Fontainbleau?  What does that mean and how do they know that?

So I will take a stab at fleshing it out.  “Fontainbleau” (I assume) refers to the Château de Fontainebleau — the 12th century medieval castle and later residential château of French monarchs from Louis VII (1120-1180) through Napoleon III (1808-1873).  It was the center of two periods of artistic production in France during the late Renaissance that formed the French version of Northern Mannerism known as Ecole de Fontainebleau.  The first (and most influencial) period began in 1531 when King François I brought Italian artists Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio for extensive decoration of the palace — later joined by Niccolò dell’Abbate.  Their style was characterized by erotic figures with long limbs and sharply defined elegant profiles, imbued with an elaborate and sometimes mysterious iconography from allegories and mythology.  One of the best examples of the first Ecole de Fontainebleau is Diana the Huntress, found in the Louvre.


Ecole de Fontainebleau, “Diana the Huntress,” ca. 1550 and 1560, oil on canvas, 192 x 133 cm, Louvre, Paris, FR


So somehow from looking at the statuette of Judith — the turn of her head, the shape of her breasts, the design chisled into her gown — an art historian can connect her to this style.  I sort of see it … and I sort of don’t, so I will take their word for it.  And hope that seeing her in person adds more to what can be said.  Until then …

See you at the V&A!


Posted by on April 8, 2015 in Exploring


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Judith commands an audience

Yesterday, Judith was linked to the literary genre of Gothic Romance.  Today, Judith is back on the stage as a sexualized heroine of the First World War.

Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was an English writer, best known as a novelist but also a journalist and playwright. Well … actually he was not well-known as a playwright:  he had nine plays produced between 1919 and 1931, but only Mr. Prohack received moderate critical and popular acceptance. He wrote the three-act play Judith as a “star vehicle” for his friend Lillah McCarthy, but it was not a success — possibly because it relied too heavily on McCarthy’s physical attributes and possibly because it was not inspired writing.(1)

I wonder what made him want to write this play (in a hurry, in January 1919). Was it to get away from wartime Britain, which I think he had found it difficult to write about, though The Pretty Lady had been a success on most levels. Did he want to present a female warrior, and found it easier to do this within a Biblical story whose veracity none would dispute? Or had he rather enjoyed the mild scandal caused by The Pretty Lady‘s treatment of sexual themes, and was he trying for another kind of eroticism? If that is the case, he unfortunately did not go far enough. His audience may have been titillated, but the play’s treatment of sex stays on the level of conventional melodrama.(2)

Hmmm … titilated.  Which brings me to the costumes.  The production employed  Charles de Sousy Ricketts (1866-1931) as costume designer — probably due to his success with Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1906).  I am a sucker for a good costume.  And here we have the vivid complementary colors of orange and blue that pop off the page … and this design is just for the attendant.



Charles de Sousy Ricketts (1866 – 1931), “Design for a theatre costume: Attendant on Holofernes in ‘Judith’ by Arnold Bennet,” 1919, 14.75 x 10.25 in, Victorian and Albert Museum, London, UK


But alas, there are no such watercolor of a costume for Judith in the V&A collection.  However, I was able to find an image online!


Charles de Sousy Ricketts (1866 – 1931), “Design for a theatre costume: Dress for Judith in ‘Judith’ by Arnold Bennet,” 1919, watercolor on paper, 51 x 35.5 cm, Petroz Fine Art Gallery, Geneva, CH


Arnold Bennett described the costume in his journal:

Above a line drawn ½ inch or 1 inch about the “mont de Venus” she wore nothing except a 4 in band of black velvet round the body hiding the breasts and a similar perpendicular band of velvet starting from between the breasts and going down to the skirt and so hiding the navel… She looked a magnificent picture thus, and a police prosecution would not have surprised me at all.

And for an Edwardian audience, that was probably titilation enough to sell a few tickets.

See you at the V&A!


(1) Roy Terence Morgan, The Plays of Arnold Bennett, Thesis Submitted to the School of Graduate Studies, McMaster University, January 1983

(2) George Simmer, Arnold Bennett’s “Judith”, Great War Fiction, January 8, 2011 (retrieved April 5, 2015)

(3) Nicholas Frankel, Charles Ricketts, Everything for Art: Selected WritingsRivendale Press, 2014

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Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Exploring


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