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Judith and the Head of Holofernes

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Judith and the Head of Holofernes
Gustav Klimt 039.jpg
Artist Gustav Klimt
Year 1901
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 84 cm × 42 cm (33 in × 17 in)
Location Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

Judith and the Head of Holofernes (also known as Judith I) [1] is an oil painting by Gustav Klimt created in 1901. It depicts the biblical character of Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes.

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  • Cranach the Elder, Judith with the Head of Holofernes
  • Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes
  • Women in Art: Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holoferness


(jazzy music) Male: We're in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and we're looking at a Lucas Cranach. This is a painting of Judith with the Head of Holofernes, which is a biblical story, an Old Testament story. Female: It's a pretty gruesome story and the painting is pretty gruesome. Males: Holofernes is an Assyrian General that is threatening a Jewish town where Judith lives. Now, the town is about to give up. They're completely surrounded. But Judith dresses up, makes herself beautiful, and bravely sneaks into the enemy camp. She makes her way to the tent of the General. There's some suggestion that there's seduction involved. Female: Holofernes has a little too much to drink, and Judith seizes the opportunity and cuts off his head, brings it back to the town and the Assyrian army flees. Male: It would seem that actually Judith brought the head back to Cranach's studio because he paints it with extraordinary amount of detail; so much so that it suggests that Lucas Cranach had actually been looking at severed heads. If you look at the neck, you can actually make out the vertebrae. Female: And it's painted with that attention to detail that we see also in her clothing, which is really fabulous. This is like a whole fashion statement here. Male: This is the kind of clothing that might have been worn in the Saxon court in the 15th century. In fact, some scholars suggest that this might be a specific princess. Female: That's where Cranach harked, in the Saxon court in Wittenberg. Male: Here, he's rendered this really interesting contrast between the violence and this beautiful, strong, brave but refined young woman. Male: You're right, there is a contrast between the gruesomeness of the head and the luxuriousness of what she's wearing and the passivity of her face. Cranach lavished a lot of attention on her clothing. Look at the embroidery on her bodice, the stitching on her sleeves, her necklaces and those dangling pearls. Look down at her gloves that have slits in them by the knuckles so that she can bend her fingers, and we can see all the gold jewelry that she's wearing. There's something really aristocratic about her clothing and about her demeanor. Male: When you're describing the incredibly detailed garments, this was a fabulous court costume. I can't help but notice another kind of contrast, not just between the gruesomeness of the severed head and the beauty of the young woman. You were describing those gloves, those hands. They're so beautifully modeled with light and shadow, they turn in space so well, but if you look at certain other patterns within the dress, they seem so flat. In fact, the entire image, and this is very much a characteristic of Cranach's style, the whole thing is somewhat 2 dimensional, and there is this heavy decorative quality that Cranach is clearly intersted in. Female: The colors, those reds and oranges and golds, and the gold of her hair really make her flesh stand out against that black background. Male: There is a sense of eroticism here too. Her bodice is quite low. There's a lot of flesh that's displayed, especially as it's highlighted by her necklaces. All of this, interestingly, is within a highly pitched political context. Wittenberg was of the origin of Lutheranism, and in fact, this artist was a very close personal friend of Martin Luther. Some art historians have suggested that the story of Judith, which Cranach painted several times, was important as a symbol of resistance against the Catholic tradition; specifically against Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Female: So I think there are a couple of potential readings here. One is political in the idea of resistance against the enemy and bravery, an idea of the Protestant resistance to the Catholics; but also a different reading of a dangerous and sexual woman. Male: The beauty, the sexuality, the violence, this incredible detail, the interest in costume and fashion, these are all qualities that clearly the Saxon court enjoyed and helped make this artist the wealthiest man in Wittenberg at this time. (jazzy music)


Context and influences

When Klimt tackles the biblical theme of Judith, the historical course of art has already codified its main interpretation and preferential raffiguration[clarification needed]. In fact, many paintings exist, describing the episode in a heroic manner, especially expressing Judith's courage and her 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 chosen the subsequent moment, when a dazed Judith holds Holofernes' severed head, as Moreau and Allori anticipate in their suggestive mythological paintings.[4]

Klimt deliberately ignores any narrative reference whatsoever, and concentrates his pictorial rendering solely on to Judith, so much so that he cuts off Holofernes' head at the right margin. And there is no trace of bloodied sword, as if the heroine would have used a different weapon: an omission that legitimates association with Salome.[5] The moment preceding the killing — the seduction of Nebuchadnezzar's general — seems to coalesce with the conclusive part of the story.[6]

Judith I reveals a curious symbolic and compositional consonance with The Sin by Franz Stuck:[7] the temptation illustrated by the German painter becomes the model for Klimt's femme fatale by suggesting the posture of the disrobed and evanescent body as focal piece of the canvas, as well as the facial set. Judith's force originates from the close-up and the solidity of posture, rendered by the orthogonal projection of lines: to the body's verticality (and that of Holofernes') corresponds the horizontal parallels in the lower margin: those of the arm, the shoulders joined by the collier, and finally the hair base.[8]


 Judith II by Klimt.
Judith II by Klimt.

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 maybe 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.

In the 1901 version, Judith maintains a magnetic fascination and sensuality, subsequently abandoned by Klimt in his Judith II, where she acquires sharper traits and a fierce expression. In its formal qualities, the first version illustrates a heroine with the archetypal features of the bewitching and charming ladies described by symbolist artists and writers such as Wilde, Vasnetsov, Moreau, and others.[11] She revels in her power and sexuality—so much so, critics mislabeled Klimt's Judith as Salome, the title character from Oscar Wilde’s 1891 tragedy. To stress and reemphasize that the woman was actually Judith and not Salome he had his brother, Georg, make the metal frame for him with “Judith and Holofernes” engraved on it.

See also


  1. ^ As Klimt painted another one, Judith II. (See image at right)
  2. ^ Cf. Caravaggio's painting in Wiki Commons.
  3. ^ See Gallery of Judith Beheading Holofernes renditions.
  4. ^ E. Di Stefano, Gustav Klimt, Art Dossier No. 29 (1988), passim. See images by Allori and Moreau in Wiki Commons.
  5. ^ The associations with Salome are many and varied, covering an extensive period in pictorial representation. Even Klimt's Judith II is at times quoted as Salome. See Commons: "Salome".
  6. ^ Cf. Federico Zeri, Giuditta I (1998), p. 4.
  7. ^ Franz Stuck too, painted a Judith, but before the killing: see Commons image.
  8. ^ Cf. F. Zeri, Giuditta I, cit., p. 8.
  9. ^ Cf. Frank Whitford, Klimt (1990), s.v. "Adele Bloch-Bauer".
  10. ^ Cf. F. Zeri, Giuditta I, cit., pp. 4-9.
  11. ^ Cf. F. Zeri, Giuditta I, cit., p. 8.


  • Zeri, Federico (1998), Giuditta I (in Italian), Rizzoli .
  • Kinsella, Eileen (January 2007), "Gold Rush", Artnews .
  • Sabarsky, Serge (1983), Gustav Klimt: Drawings, et al., Moyer Bell .
  • Whitford, Frank (1990), Klimt, Thames and Hudson .

Further reading

External links

This page was last edited on 19 June 2017, at 08:51.
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