Tag Archives: Dutch Golden Age

Judith and the surname

This is the work of Gerrit Pietersz of the Dutch Golden Age – or is it?  Because what is art history without a little confusion.

Judith (1605) Gerrit Pietersz

Gerrit Pietersz (1566-1608), “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” 1605, oil on canvas, 122.5 x 107.5 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, NL


Gerrit is known to be the brother of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) – one of the first major keyboard composers of Europe who helped establish the north German organ tradition.  Their father, organist Pieter Swybbertszoon, died in 1573 – and their mother died in 1585 – leaving 23-year-old Jan Pieterszoon with responsibility for his younger brother and sister.  When Jan first began to publish music in 1594, he adopted his mother’s last name; “Sweelinck” for reasons that are unknown.  Because why would he not wish to be a Swybbertszoon?  For years, it was assumed that Gerrit Pietersz also took his mother’s name – and much of his work was attributed to “Gerrit Pietersz Sweelinck” (1) – when in fact, he never did use that surname and the correct name on his paintings should be Gerrit Pietersz.

Which brings into question the concept of surnames and its place in history.  The concept of a surname evolved from the medieval practice called a byname. In situations where more than one person had the same name, a byname would be used to distinguish the two – which happened more often as communities became more dispersed.  A byname was descriptive in order to facilitate the differentiation, and they were most commonly based on 1) occupation, 2) place name, 3) geographic feature, 4) familial relationship, 5) a personal characteristic, or 6) patronage.  Bynames or surnames were somewhat fluid in the Netherlands until 1811, when Napoleonic Code required registration of everything and thus standardization of names was required.  But in Jan and Gerrit’s lifetime of the late 16th and early 17th century , Jan went by Peterson (Pieterszoon) and Gerrit went by Peters (Pietersz) – both after their father Pieter. Until one day Jan got a wild hair and added his mother’s surname.

So now I am left to wonder:  what ever happened to the given name Swybbert and why did it decline in popularity?

And unfortunately that is the most interesting fact I could dig up on Gerrit Pietersz.   Looks like Judith may feel the same way.
(!) Haverkamp-Begemann, et al., Fifteenth- to Eighteenth-century European Drawings: Central Europe, The Robert Lehman Collection, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999, p 178.

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Posted by on January 29, 2015 in Cacciatore


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Judith in the toilet

Reyer Jacobsz Van Blommendael, “Judith Preparing Herself To Meet Holofernes,” 17th century, Oil on canvas, 122.5 x 139.3 cm , auctioned by Christie’s, Apr 17, 2002 (Lot 61)

Not that toilet.

\ˈtȯi-lət\ : the act or process of dressing and grooming oneself;  from the French toilette cloth on which items used for grooming are placed, from Middle French, piece of batiste, from diminutive of toile cloth

In other words, Judith is preparing for her opportunity to “wow” the General.    Apparently the red dress has been a timeless article of seduction.

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Posted by on February 7, 2013 in Story


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Judith follows instructions

Instruction #1:  After any encounter that involves decapitating a body, run like hell.

Instruction #2:  Drop the lifeless head in a bag before you leave.

Nicolaes van Helt Stockade, “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” 1634-69, Oil on canvas, 115 × 125 cm, auctioned by Hample 9/22/2006 (Lot 388)

At least van Helt Stockade got one thing right.

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Posted by on November 11, 2011 in Story


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Judith and the Jester

I know Holofernes is The General but, seriously, what is on his head?  And look at his girth and his silly expression.  He looks like… a Clown.

Willem Bartsius, “Judith and Holofernes,” 1657, Oil on panel , 60.3 x 80 cm, auctioned by Sotheby’s 6/3/2010 (Lot 40)

Since I cannot keep from laughing at this scene, let me defer to an expert:

“Bartsius could have gone for the obvious: the actual decapitation or Judith stepping away, carrying the head of Holofernes. But like a good director shooting a thriller he did not go for the obvious. The intensity of this painting lays in the details. Holofernes, who really looks bad, takes Judith by the hand. She is not a prostitute but she will sleep with him. And then of course there is the old maid. What is she doing? In those days you not only had to blow out a candle, but you also had to cut off the burned residue of the wick. The maid is holding a sort of special scissors for that purpose. So her gesture of cutting the top of the candle announces the dramatic culmination point of Judith decapitating Holofernes.”    a HA – foreshadowing. i love it when i finally understand the foreshadowing. since when i miss it … well … it’s just shadowing.

“The figure of Holofernes reminds of Polish mercenaries, who were used during the Eighty Years’ War (1568 – 1648), that is the war of independence of the Dutch Republic from Spain. Just like the famous sculpture of Judith and Holofernes by Donatello (1460) our painting refers to the courage of a community against tyranny. Judith was considered the symbol of liberty, virtue and victory of the weak over the strong in a just cause. That is why Bartsius did not portray her like the beautiful seducer-assassin that you see in sexually loaded works by other 15th, 16th and 17th century artists.”    sure, that makes sense. Judith is not a trollop so that is why Holofernes is leering at her, twirling his tremendous mustache and grabbing her hand while she gives him a wink.

“The dark background and the Rembrandtesque light bring out perfectly the three figures and the beautifully rendered still life elements, not only on the table, but also on the left and right hand side (the armour of Holofernes) of the painting. Although Bartsius was not a pupil of Rembrandt he was clearly influenced by him.” (1)

Oh. That explains it. Rembrandt really loved a ridiculous hat. What a jokester.


(1) Jean Moust for 17th century Flemish and Dutch Old Master Paintings in Bruges in Belgium

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Posted by on July 11, 2011 in Cacciatore


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Judith goes to dinner, part 3

This depiction of Judith has been in-and-out of my files because it is unclear whether this is Judith or Artemisia.  In some sources, the official title in the Museo di Prada is Artemisia Receiving Mausolus’ Ashes.  Also known as Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Cup.  It was reported that when the Prado used radiography in 2009 to determine where areas were retouched or painted over, it showed Rembrandt was actually telling the story of Judith, and not Artemisia.   I cannot verify that report, but the most recent catalog of their collection titles the work as Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes.  Additionally, I can verify that the National Gallery of London did x-ray the Rembrandt painting Portrait of Saskia as Flora (1635) and found evidence that the portrait began as Judith.

Thus with dubious identity, I decided to put these two portraits in this blog with a big caveat:  I KNOW THE TITLE SOMETIMES INDICATES THESE ARE NOT JUDITH, BUT ON THE SLIM CHANCE THAT ONE OF THEM IS, THEY GET A PAGE.

Plus they are Rembrandt’s.  Plus they are really pretty.

Rembrandt is generally considered one of the greatest painters and printmakers in European art history and the most important in Dutch history, contributing to a period of art known as the Dutch Golden Age.  In his paintings and prints he exhibited classical use of “image writing”, which he adapted to his own experience: so a biblical scene was influenced by his knowledge of the text, his employment of classical composition, and his observations of everyday people.  Other prominent characteristics of Rembrandt’s work are chiaroscuro – the theatrical employment of light and shadow (no, not a filling from Chipotle) – and naturalistic placement of subjects replaced by rigid formality.

During his early years in Amsterdam (1632–1636), Rembrandt began to paint dramatic biblical and mythological scenes in high contrast and large format.   Artemisia (or Judith or Sophonisba or whoever she is) and Flora (or Judith) were painted during this time – with Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, as the model.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, “Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes,” 1634, Oil on canvas, 143 x 154.7 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

If this is a portrait of Artemisia, she was the wife of Masolus, the satrap of Caria in Asia Minor who died in 353 B.C.  She symbolizes a widow’s devotion to her husband’s memory for two acts.  First, she erected a monument to his memory at Halicarnassus (the first Mausoleum) that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  Second, she made herself “a living breathing tomb” by mixing the ashes of Masolus in liquid and then drinking it every day.

Errrr … that is beyond icky, so I am quite glad that did not catch on like the mausoleum.

If this is a portrait of Sophonisba, she was a Cartaginian noblewoman who lived during the Second Punic War (218 to 202 BC).   Her husband lost to Roman’s ally, Masinissa King of Numidia, and she was destined to be paraded through Rome in a Triumph procession.   Masinissa fell in love with her but could not free her, so he asked her to drink a cup of poison – escaping the degradation and humiliation of the Triumphal parade.

If this is a portrait of Judith, we know what comes next.

The depiction is both beautiful and ominous.  The opulent dress (though mammoth), the lavish tapestry, the ostentatious goblet, the kneeling servant against the portentous presence of the maid in the dark corner.  Holofernes does not know what he is in for.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, “Flora,” 1635, Oil on canvas, 123.5 × 97.5 cm, National Gallery, London, UK

If this is a portrait of Flora, she is the goddess of flowers and the season of spring, one among several fertility goddesses.

If this is a portrait of Judith, she is a terminator – hiding Holofernes’ head under those flowers in her left hand and letting a vine grow over the sword in her right hand.   Clever girl!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Book of Judith, Chapter 12

1 THEN he commanded to bring her in where his plate was set; and bade that they should prepare for her of his own meats, and that she should drink of his own wine.
2 And Judith said, I will not eat thereof, lest there be an offence: but provision shall be made for me of the things that I have brought.
3 Then Holofernes said unto her, If thy provision should fail, how should we give thee the like? for there be none with us of thy nation.
4 Then said Judith unto him As thy soul liveth, my lord, thine handmaid shall not spend those things that I have, before the Lord work by mine hand the things that he hath determined.
5 Then the servants of Holofernes brought her into the tent, and she slept till midnight, and she arose when it was toward the morning watch,
6 And sent to Holofernes, saving, Let my lord now command that thine handmaid may go forth unto prayer.
7 Then Holofernes commanded his guard that they should not stay her: thus she abode in the camp three days, and went out in the night into the valley of Bethulia, and washed herself in a fountain of water by the camp.
8 And when she came out, she besought the Lord God of Israel to direct her way to the raising up of the children of her people.
9 So she came in clean, and remained in the tent, until she did eat her meat at evening.


Posted by on July 10, 2011 in Cacciatore


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