judith and the head of holofernes

Judith and the head of holofernes
Judith’s face exudes a mixed charge of voluptuousness and perversion. Its traits are transfigured so as to obtain the greatest degree of intensity and seduction, which Klimt achieves by placing the woman on an unattainable plane. Notwithstanding the alteration of features, one can recognise Klimt’s friend (and, possibly, lover), Viennese socialite, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of another two portraits respectively done in 1907 and 1912, and also painted in the Pallas Athena. [9] The slightly lifted head has a sense of pride, whereas her visage is languid and sensual, with parted lips in between defiance and seduction. Franz A. J. Szabo describes it best as a “[symbol of] triumph of the erotic feminine principle over the aggressive masculine one”. Her half-closed gaze, which also ties into an expression of pleasure, directly confronts the viewer of all this. In 1903, author and critic Felix Salten describes Judith’s expression as one “with a sultry fire in her dark glances, cruelty in the lines of her mouth, and nostrils trembling with passion. Mysterious forces seem to be slumbering within this enticing female”. Although Judith had typically been interpreted as the pious widow simply fulfilling a higher duty, in Judith I she is a paradigm of the femme fatale Klimt repeatedly portrayed in his work. The contrast between the black hair and the golden luminosity of the background enhance elegance and exaltation. The fashionable hairdo is emphasized by the stylised motifs of the trees fanning on the sides. [10] Her disheveled dark green, semi-sheer garment, giving the viewer a view of nearly bare torso, alludes to the fact that Judith beguiled the general Holofernes before decapitating him.
When Klimt tackled the biblical theme of Judith, the historical course of art had already codified its main interpretation and preferred representation. In fact, many paintings exist describing the episode in a heroic manner, especially expressing Judith’s courage and virtuous nature. Judith appears as God’s instrument of salvation, but the violence of her action cannot be denied and is dramatically shown in Caravaggio’s rendering, [2] as well as those of Gentileschi and Bigot. [3] Other representations have depicted the subsequent moment, when a dazed Judith holds Holofernes’ severed head, as Moreau and Allori anticipate in their suggestive mythological paintings. [4]

Judith and the head of holofernes
The account of the beheading of Holofernes by Judith is given in the deuterocanonical Book of Judith, and is the subject of many paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. In the story, Judith, a beautiful widow, is able to enter the tent of Holofernes because of his desire for her. Holofernes was an Assyrian general who was about to destroy Judith’s home, the city of Bethulia. Overcome with drink, he passes out and is decapitated by Judith; his head is taken away in a basket (often depicted as being carried by an elderly female servant).
Modern paintings of the scene often cast Judith nude, as was signalled already by Klimt. Franz Stuck’s 1928 Judith has “the deliverer of her people” standing naked and holding a sword besides the couch on which Holofernes, half-covered by blue sheets [15] —where the text portrays her as god-fearing and chaste, “Franz von Stuck’s Judith becomes, in dazzling nudity, the epitome of depraved seduction.” [16]

Judith and the head of holofernes
Jans Sanders van Hemessen, Judith with the Head of Holophernes, ca. 1540. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1530. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Judith was the biblical heroine who seduced and then decapitated General Holofernes in order to save her home city of Bethulia from destruction by the enemy, the Assyrian army. The subject was quite popular from the Middle Ages onwards, as an example of virtue overcoming vice. However, this work is not timeless allegory, since Judith and the Head of Holoferness depicted as a Viennese society beauty. The model was Adele Bloch-Bauer and if we compare it with her portrait it is easy tosee the facial similarity. There seem to have been two principal Klimt types. The first was this dark-haired woman of angular build, also seen in Judith and the Head of HolofernesI. The other favorite was the fleshy, Rubenesque beauty portrayed in Danae. Judith’s sensuality and her orgasmic expression as she hholds up the head of Holofernes shocked Vienna. the Viennese could not bring themselves to see this brazen femme fatale, who is clearly taking pleasure in her actions, as the pious Jewish widow how risked her virtue in order to save her city. A far more acceptable solution was to insist that this was a picture of the murderess Salome, despite its being titled on the frame, and for a long time the painting was erroneously known as ‘Salome’.
Judith herself has in a sense been decapitated. The heavy gold choker she wears, fashionable in early twentieth-century Vienna, rather brutally separates her own head from her body. Her clothes half conceal, half reveal her body. The stylized gold band at te bottom of the picture looks as if it might be an ornamental hem to her garment, but then cuts across her abdomen like a flat belt. The painting was bought almost immediately by Klimt’s Swiss contemporary, the painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853 – 1918), whose work Klimt much admired.

References:

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_beheading_Holofernes
http://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-judith-beheading-holofernes-art-historys-favorite-icon-female-rage
http://www.gustav-klimt.com/Judith-and-the-Head-of-Holofernes.jsp
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Beheading_Holofernes_(Caravaggio)

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