Tag Archives: relief

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 and the stoney stare

I love the face above the relief, don’t you?

Judith (1500s) Jerónimos Monestary

Unknown, “Judith and Holofernes,” 1500s, Stone carving in cloister, Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, PT; photo by Paul Dykes

Jerónimos (aka St. Jerome, nee Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus) was the inspiration for the hermit movement in 14th-century Italy, the catalyst for number of religious orders.  (Who knew there was a hermit movement?)  Jerome was best known for outlining the lifestyle for Christians living in urban “melting pots of cultures” – especially the lives of women, based on close patronage with devout female members of prominent Roman senatorial families.

Social and religious upheavals after his peaceful death contributed to growth in the hermit lifestyle, and ultimately to the founding of the Hieronymite Order in Iberia (read carefully: not Hermaphrodite).  Through connections with the Portuguese monarch Manuel I and with the Pope’s consent, construction of the monastery and church for the Hieronymite Order began in 1501 and was completed 100 years later – in a style known as Manueline architecture.  Manuel I selected the Hieronymite monks to occupy the monastery “to pray for the King’s eternal soul and to provide spiritual assistance to navigators and sailors who departed from the port of Restelo to discover lands around the world. This the monks did for over four centuries until 1833, when the religious orders were dissolved and the monastery was abandoned” (1). (So altruistic, no?) After falling into disrepair, the monastery was restored from 1860 to 1880, and Vasco da Gama’s remains were transferred there to celebrate the starting point of his first journey around Africa to India and back.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The original cloister where Judith is found was designed to be an “agreeable and serene place for prayer, meditation and leisure for the monks.” (2).  The two stories, with vaulted ceilings and quadrangular layout, reflect the Mauline style – richly ornate combinations of –

  • religious symbols (images from the Passion, among others)
  • royal imagery (the Cross of the Order of Christ, the armillary sphere, the royal coat of arms)
  • naturalist elements (ropes and plant-inspired motifs that cohabit with late Mediaeval imagery of fantastic animals)
  • maritime elements and objects discovered during naval expeditions

And to the left of the entrance between the third and fourth arch, there sits Judith, mounted on a clamshell – a ship’s wheel on one side and a decapitated head on the other.  (Oh, you can’t see her?  Squint real hard.  Not yet?  Then you will probably have to enlarge the photo like I did.  But trust me, it’s her.)  She looks rather bored.  But consider: she only had monastic hermits to look at for 230 years.  Your face would probably turn to stone, too.



(1) Jerónimos Monastery,

(2) Government of Portugal, Department of Cultural Heritage,  Mosteiro dos Jerónimos,

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Posted by on February 12, 2015 in Distracted


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Judith in alabaster

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


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Judith and the Renovation

After all the symbolism of the past few days, I need to get my hands on something solid.  Like a stone wall.

Like the stone walls of Narni in the Umbria Region of Italy.  Back in the day – meaning during the Roman Empire – Narni, Italy was an important city along the roads to the Center of the Universe.  Unfortunately, it was the road that Barbarian tribes used to reach Rome in 546 for the sack by the Gothic king Totila – who also stopped to tear down the first stone walls built to protect the city of Narni.

After back-and-forth over the centuries, a Cathedral was built just outside the ancient Roman city walls in 12th century.  Radical changes were made as Narni became an influential religious center: the Roman Forum was replaced with the Platea Major (the main square) where the Palazzo del Podesta and the Palazzo dei Priori were created (1273) – and where they still sit today.  To the right of the entrance to the Palazzo is where the Cappella del SS Salvatore once stood and a false loggia was created around 1495.  But original carvings from the chapel remain: Judith and Holofernes, fantastic animals, a hunting hawk and knights jousting.


Facade of the Palazzo del Podestà, Narni,

Minolta DSC

Facade of the Palazzo del Podestà, Narni,











Does anyone else find the arrangement of Judith on the wall to be a little strange?  Never mind, it’s just my OCD. I can only assume that the story was added to the wall as a political warning to somebody about small, unassuming forces rising up to conquer Medieval super-powers.

One could say the years have not been kind to Judith and her maid, unless you consider they at least 740 years old in which case they appear to be in fantastic shape!  On the other hand, Holofernes still looks a little puny.

Judith (1273) Palazzo dei Podestà, Narni

Detail of Facade of Palazzo del Podesta, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1273, Narni, Italy – photo by nicnac1000


Many thanks to nicnac1000 for sharing the detailed photo of Judith and to Lynda Evans for sharing a description of Narni in her Key to Umbria.  I felt like I was almost there.

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Posted by on January 15, 2015 in Exploring


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Judith is cloistered

Giovanni della Robbia, “Judith,” 1523, terra cotta, Certosa del Galluzzo cloister,Florence, Italy

This is some weird shit.

Once upon a time in Tuscany (1341) on a hillside south of Florence, Niccolò Acciaiuoli built the Certosa of Galluzzo as a monastic center and site for education of the youth of Florence.   The cloister of the monastery was added during the Renaissance – a large terra cotta courtyard of 18 cells in which the Carthusian monks spent most of their lives.   The cloister is elegantly divided by arches with three dimensional terra cotta busts by Giovanni della Robbia dating from the early 16th century.

Big Cloister of Certosa del Galluzzo, Florence, Italy

What that means is:   where you see each dot above the nave capital, there is a life-like terra cotta head sticking out.   Imagine waking up each day and going to bed each night with this crew watching your every move.   Especially Judith, with Holofernes peeking over her shoulder.

Here are only half of the characters who would greet you.   Dang, I would hide out in my cell and become a recluse just to avoid their prying eyes!


Mary Magdalene

St. Cecelia




St. Paul

St. James

St. George

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Posted by on December 6, 2012 in Glory


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Judith in the haus

Leibnizhaus building (left), Holzmarkt, Hanover, Germany

This Renaissance townhouse in Hanover, Germany is named after philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who lived here from 1698 until his death in 1716.   The building was destroyed in WWII but re-erected in its present location on Holzmarkt in 1981-1983 with the original facade.

bas relief on street level, 1499, Leibnizhaus building, Holzmarkt, Hanover, Germany

The facade presents a series of biblical themes:  the creation of Eve, Adam and Eve under the tree (including watchdog), the expulsion from Paradise, Cain and Abel, the sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob’s dream, Venus and Cupid(?!), Christ in Gethsemane, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, the judgment of Solomon, Samson and the Lion, David and Goliath.   Once again, Judith keeps good company.

“Judith” in bas relief on street level, 1499, Leibnizhaus building, Holzmarkt, Hanover, Germany

Except I do not recall which book of the Bible tells the story of Venus and Cupid. I must have missed that day of Sunday School.

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Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Glory


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Judith at the Gates to Paradise

Must be nice when Michelangelo describes your works as “the Gates of Paradise” because he thinks they are worthy to stand at the entrance to heaven.

Lorenzo Ghibertu , “Gates of Paradise,” 1425-1452, Gilt bronze relief panel, ht: 5.64 m, Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, Italy

And must be nice to have your portrait front and center along the border of “the Gates of Paradise.”

Lorenzo Ghibertu , “Judith, Gates of Paradise,” 1425-1452, Gilt bronze relief panel, Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, Italy

Of course, underneath Judith, it must be nice to use your own head as door knobs.   i guess?

Lorenzo Ghibertu , “Self-portrait as door knobs, Gates of Paradise,” 1425-1452, Gilt bronze relief panel, Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, Italy

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Posted by on September 10, 2012 in Glory


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