Judith, Jan Sanders van Hermessen 1535

This is the one that got away – I saw this painting in Bremen in January but sadly the Bremen Kunsthalle couldn’t provide me with the postcard. Still, I never finished the postcard posts  – predictably, I became embarrassed by the idea before it was over – but here is a picture I do want to talk about and then maybe we can forget the whole thing happened and the next time I turn up here, who knows what I’ll be talking about.

Before we get on to who this is: I know the reason this stopped me in my tracks in Bremen. The picture seemed to me to show – the first time I ever remembered seeing this – a woman in Western art whose muscles are being used and are shown under strain. Those arms and shoulders! I bet she’s brilliant at front crawl.

The reason she’s holding a sword is that she is Judith, and she has just used the sword to cut off Holofernes’s head. Is it okay to love the violence of this picture as much as I do? I don’t ever want to be a fan of slicing off heads. Well, it’s been very fashionable recently to talk about whether we should punch Nazis and if we should (we should) then absolutely Judith is the hero we need.

If I ever knew this, I’d forgotten it, but the book of Judith is included in the Catholic Bible, but is apocrypha as far as Protestants are concerned. So there was little chance I’d ever have heard this story or absorbed it by osmosis in my CofE years. So I skimmed the Book of Judith today: Nebuchadnezzar has had his top general, Holofernes, carry out an apocalyptic wave of violence from Damascus to Jerusalem. As the chaos comes closer to the Judeans, they fortify themselves up in the highlands. Pretty soon the people of Israel begin to lose their nerve and talk about giving a bit of resistance to save face and then rolling over and letting Holofernes take the nation. Judith is a widow who lives alone and she’s having none of this. She gives the men a right telling off, then gets herself dolled up and heads for Holofernes’s camp. She says she will tell him the secret mountain paths, but instead seduces him, gets him drunk and then cuts his head off.

Holofernes is not a nice man. He is outraged that the Israelites seem to be think about putting up some sort of resistance and promises “We shall burn them all. Their mountains will be drunk with their blood and their plains filled with their corpses”. Meanwhile, we’re told many many times how beautiful Judith is, but listen to her speak: “If you cannot sound the depths of the human heart or unravel the arguments of the human mind, how can you fathom the God who made all things, or sound his mind or unravel his purposes?” I love her.

So let’s take inspiration where we can: in this picture, she is beautiful and strong, in the story she is persuasive and sly and brave. And let us hope that if we ever really really really had to, we could get someone drunk then cut their head off.

Which leaves only how this image came out of the Netherlands in the 16th century. As much as I would like to think that Judith is naked because it’s a right sod trying to get blood out of your best clothes two millennia before dry cleaning’s invented, she is likely naked because the people that bought paintings in the 16th century liked to look at naked women.  I’ve learnt for the first time today that there is a Thing in renaissance art called the ‘Power of Women’: following that link will reveal that – surprise! – its intent was to mock the very idea that women could have power. But I’m going to give this painting a more generous reading than that. I think Jan Sanders van Hermessen thought Judith is a pretty big deal.

My researches tell me that it is difficult to have your pelvis pointing this way while your sternum points that way but then, I will be forty two years old very soon. Go, Judith!


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