Lucas Cranach the Elder — Judith Victorious, c. 1530.
Painting: Oil on linden wood, 89.5 x 61.9 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In this panel Judith presents the severed head of Holofernes, the Assyrian general directing the siege of her city, having killed him with his own sword. The virtuous heroine, who seduced the enemy with her coquettish appeal, is dressed in an elaborate contemporary costume that is characteristic of Cranach’s courtly mannerism. The painter and his workshop produced several versions of this successful composition, which contrasts the gruesome head and the serene beauty of the biblical heroine. At the lower right, Cranach placed his insignia, a crowned winged serpent with a ring in its mouth. Source
Catalogue Entry on Cranach’s Judith from The Met
The Book of Judith, part of the Old Testament Apocrypha, relates how the beautiful Jewish widow killed Holofernes, the Assyrian general directing the siege of her city, Bethulia. After seducing Holofernes with her beauty and a false plan to defeat her people, Judith decapitated him as he lay drunk in his tent. Upon discovering the assassination, the Assyrians ended the siege (Judith 8–15).
This panel first became known in 1911, when it was purchased by the Museum from the estate of Robert Hoe. At that time Holofernes’s beard had been enlarged to cover his severed neck. After cleaning and restoration, the painting could be more readily compared with other examples of the same theme produced by Cranach and his workshop, notably those in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. The MMA panel shows at the lower right the insignia of Lucas Cranach the Elder in its form before 1537, and the technique and execution of the painting are entirely consistent with the paintings of Cranach and his workshop in the early 1530s, a date also supported by Judith’s costume. The attribution to Cranach has never been challenged, although greater scrutiny of his workshop may well lead to a more informed understanding of its participation in paintings such as this, which were produced in many versions.
The Cranach workshop’s serial production of paintings with this theme in the 1530s has raised intriguing questions about possible links between these pictures and the Saxon Court. Because Judith is presented in contemporary dress and because her physiognomy varies from painting to painting, several scholars have suggested that these are portraits of court women in the guise of Judith. If the MMA Judith is a portrait, then it is certainly idealized in the same manner as the Judith in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Cranach’s contemporaneous portraits, such as the Princesses Sibylla, Emilia, and Sidonia of Saxony of about 1535 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) show far greater attention by Cranach to the distinctly different physiognomies of the sitters, who are more objectively observed and portrayed than the women in the MMA and Vienna examples.
Judith’s popularity throughout the ages has led to various interpretations of her image. In Medieval times, the moral emphasis of the narrative took precedence. Judith was equated with Humilitas and Continentia, and Holofernes with the deadly sins of Superbia and Luxuria. Judith was also seen as a symbol of Chastity and a prefiguration of the Virgin Mary as Ecclesia.
In the sixteenth century, these associations evolved as Judith’s story took on political implications. Rudloff-Hille (Lucas Cranach d. Ä.: Eine Einführung in sein leben und sein Werk, Dresden, 1953) first proposed that Cranach’s Judiths relate to the Schmalkaldic League — an alliance of Protestant princes and cities formally established in Schmalkalden in February 1531 to defend their stand against the Holy Roman Emperor’s advancements — as well as to the threat of a Turkish invasion. Schade (“Das unbekannte Selbstbildnis Cranachs,” Dezennium 2: Zwanzig Jahre VEB Verlag der Kunst, Dresden, 1972) further elaborated on this view and cited, as had Rudloff-Hille, two panels of 1531 in Gotha, Judith at the Table of Holofernes (Schlossmuseum) and The Death of Holofernes (Schloss Friedenstein). He noted that theologians of the time, when asked whether disagreeing with the emperor accorded with Christian principles, would cite the Judith narrative and in particular her aim to free her country from the grip of tyrants. Supporting this theory, Schade identified the central standing figure in the Schlossmuseum picture as Philipp I, Landgrave of Hesse, a founder and coleader of the league. Börsch-Supan (“Cranach’s ‘Judith’ in der Sammlungen des Jagdschlosses Grunewald,” in Lukas Cranach: Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Druckgraphik,“ exh. cat. Basel, 1974, vol. 1) broadened Schade’s proposal by applying it to individual paintings of Judith, specifically an example from 1530 in the Jagdschloss Grunewald, Berlin, that is of the same type as the Museum’s panel. He regarded such works as symbolic of the Schmalkaldic League and noted that no known examples date before the formation of the league.
Equally important for other interpretations of the Judith paintings are their connections to the literature of the period. As Lӓhnemann (“The Cunning of Judith in Late Medieval German Texts,” The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines, Cambridge, 2010) has pointed out, a number of anonymous German Meistersinger texts depict Judith as an active heroine, clever and cunning. More specifically, certain broadsheets emphasized her dual nature as both virtuous, even beyond reproach, and dangerously seductive. This sense of ambiguity must have played well at the Saxon court and helped to guarantee the popularity of the Judith representations.
Judith’s dual nature sheds further light on the moralizing interpretations of the story. Along with other figures from ancient history and the Bible, Judith used her considerable charms to dominate and even destroy men. The themes commonly known as Weibermacht and Weiberlisten (power of women, wiles of women) were already well established in the literature of the late Medieval period as well as in prints and decorative arts. Cranach was among the first sixteenth-century artists to take up these themes in painting, both in half-length figures, such as Judith and Salome, and in more developed narrative scenes, including Lot and his Daughters and Aristotle and Phyllis. The introduction of this new medium for depicting the theme raises the question of how the paintings were used and displayed. With no clues as to how the Museum’s work was originally installed, it can for now be considered a prime example of one of the most important themes in Saxon court art, one that remains as multivalent in meaning as it perhaps did in its own time.
[2013; adapted from Ainsworth 2013]
// Originally published on Art of Darkness: Daily Art Blog