Art of Comparison: Two Treatments of Judith Essay

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¶ … Art of Comparison:

Two Treatments of Judith and Holofernes

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Often, in the history of art, certain themes are portrayed again and again. Throughout much of Western History, religion provided a source of artistic inspiration. The Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes was portrayed by numerous artists. The story of Judith and Holofernes offers features that appeal to the macabre imagination. It is also a tale of victory over superior odds. Right triumphs over might -- a "mere widow" defeats a great empire and saves her people and city from foreign conquest. Thus, Judith and Holofernes contains elements that speak to different generations. Each age can see a similar, yet varying, message in the timeless tale. In Matteo di Giovanni and Antiveduto Grammatica approach the subject in ways that reflect the variant artistic and socio-political preoccupations of their respective eras. Indeed, the two artists worked at two distinct points in the same general historical period. Matteo di Giovanni painted his Judith with the Head of Holofernes during the heyday of the Italian Renaissance and at a point in time when the Renaissance was first beginning to spread across the rest of Europe. Italy had scarcely begun to feel the influences of the North. In contrast, Antiveduto Grammatica painted Judith and Holofernes at a time when the renaissance was drawing to a close, slipping from the age of mannerism and into the earliest phases of the baroque. Though Italian as well, Grammatica's world was one in which Italy was losing ground to the once "backward" nations of the Northern and Western Europe. The Church that furnished the inspiration for the two works of art had ceased to be universal by Grammatica's time, and its tastes and needs had changed. The two versions of Judith and Holofernes represent the aspirations and needs of two very different worlds.

Essay on Art of Comparison: Two Treatments of Judith Assignment

Judith with the Head of Holofernes was painted by the Italian artist, Matteo di Giovanni c. 1490-95. The painting is small, measuring only 22 inches by 18 1/8 inches, a features the figure of Judith with the head of Holofernes within a window-like setting that merges with the actual frame of the picture. The window is in the form of an arch -- a classicizing feature such as was popular during the Renaissance. The base of the arch even forms a kind of sill that increases the viewer's sense of watching the action from close by through an open window. It is as if we can rest our arms on the sill and look directly at Judith framed by the blue sky. The figure of Judith is central to the picture. She occupies the larger part of its space, the sweep of the curved sword held above her head accentuating the curve of the arch. Judith wears a plain brown dress replete with classical folds arranged in a vertical pattern. The head of Holofernes is clutched close to her waist, and continues the brown palette. Holofernes' face, too, is a dull earthy color, the eyes closed, the head held by Holofernes' light brown hair. Judith is blond as befits an "angelic" figure, and also a Renaissance beauty. Though Judith has done a deed of great violence, her act is indeed angelic, or at least of such virtue as would have been admired by the angels. For Judith has performed God's work, saving the people of Israel from the foreign invader. A large white collar billows out about the back of Judith's neck, reaching to about the lower level of her golden curls. The collar completes the angelic allusion as it is like a heavenly cloud forming a backdrop to the handsome face. Bits of similar white material peek out on both of Judith's arms -- the celestial clouds are thus part of her being. The otherwise empty sky and barely visible earth convey a sense of expansiveness. The viewer cannot locate the scene in any particular place. This could have happened anywhere. The few rooftops, low and at the bottom right of the picture, merely suggest the city that Holofernes had attacked. The mountain tops off to the bottom left are traditional western symbols of the Earth, along with sky and plain they merely suggest a location somewhere on the terrestrial globe. A cape or mantle -- also brown falls from Judith's left shoulder Andover her left arm. It is like a banner that announces her victory and proclaims her role as warrior for God and country. A streamer coming out of it forms a kind of loop above the head of Holofernes, both drawing the viewer's attention to the head and imprisoning it as if in a kind of cage. Judith's expression is proud and defiant. She survey's the viewer with cocked head, and seems to dare him or her to offer comment.

A very different image is depicted in Judith and Holofernes by Antiveduto di Giovanni and painted by the Italian artist circa 1610-15. Gone is the daylight and clarity. The scene is nighttime, by torchlight. Two women move through the gloom, the figure of a headless man on some sort of stone table emerging from the shadows behind the woman. The first woman is Judith, a figure in a blue dress that sweeps toward the right, covered in front by the form of an older woman in golden brown with a white head covering that falls over her neck and shoulders. The older woman is probably a maid. Judith's sleeves are brilliant white, and give way to a partially-glimpsed gray bodice. Her hair is light brown, the older woman's dark. Judith carries something in her right -- we cannot quite tell what. A red sack lays at her feet to the left. The older woman hold up her dress as if to make a pouch to receive something from Judith. A helmet, and what might be weapons, lay on the dark floor in front of the stone table. Presumably these identify the dead man as a warrior. A deep red drapery, the outline of tent or canopy, falls in the form of a triangle over all three figures. It is as if we are watching a kind of play, the heavy drapery the curtain that has been lifted to allow us access to the scene. A dimly-lighted stone wall appears off to the right, beyond the area of focus. We know only that these gruesome events have taken place somewhere in the midst of some other place, but the precise identity of that place is unknown. A dim sliver of yellowish moon hangs high in the sky and off to center-right. Judith and her maid look only at each other. Judith points off toward her right, directing the other woman toward some unknown location. Sometimes noble deeds must be done under cover of darkness and amid great secrecy.

As can be seen by the difference in treatments, the two periods possessed very different ideas about art and its role in society. The work by Matteo di Giovanni is part of the tradition of Renaissance portraiture. While not a portrait per se, Giovanni's Judith is treated as though a real woman. The picture highlights her characteristics as a distinct individual, calling attention to the humanist ideals of the High Renaissance. Though a religious theme, Judith and Holofernes reflects a world in which human beings play a central and very active role. Like many great figures of the period, Judith is self-reliant. She appears to have undertaken her act without the aid of others, and in full confidence that she has acted rightly. Whereas as the darkness of Grammatica's work speaks of bloody deeds best left unspoken and unseen, Giovanni's Judith is shown in the bright light of day, her action a triumph to be celebrated by the viewer. And while Giovanni's Judith… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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