Monday, April 27, 2009

Judith the Savior

Once Nebuchadnezzar the mighty king of Babylon sent his general Holofernes with a powerful army against the rebellious provinces in the west with the order to punish them for their disobedience. Holofernes had already devastated large parts of Asia Minor and Syria when he reached Palestine. There the Israelites in the small mountain town Bethulia made a desperate resistance.

But as the situation of the besieged turned worse, they decided to surrender the fortress after some more days. A resolute opponent of this plan was the young widow Judith, who was well known because of her beauty and her piety.

After Judith had prayed long, she dressed and adorned herself, and went accompanied by her maid to the camp of the besiegers. Here because of her beauty and her eloquence she attracted the attention of Holofernes. Finally he gave a great feast to her honor, during which he became drunk. Because he wanted to spent the night alone with her, she murdered him with his own sword. Then she returned with his head as a trophy to the besieged town. Deprived of their commander the Babylonians fled and the whole encampment fell into the hands of the Israelites.

In art Judith is one of the great icons to symbolize the savior of his own people. When all seems lost, she remains strong in her faith in God and thus has the power to kill the enemy of her people.

She went to the bedpost near Holofernes' head, and took down his sword that hung there. She came close to his bed, took hold of the hair of his head, and said "Give me strength today, O Lord God of Israel!" Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head. Next she rolled his body off the bed and pulled down the canopy from the posts. Soon afterward she went out and gave Holofernes' head to her maid, who placed it in her food bag.
(Judith 13:6-10)

Judith's Return to Bethulia (1472-1473)

This Early Renaissance painting is by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510). It shows aleready many symbols which became significant for modern Judith-paintings. There is the maid, carrying the head of Holofernes in the basket, and there is the sword carried by Judith herself, because she did the bloody work with her own hands (in contrast to Salome).

The clothing and the landscape are pure Italian 15th century. There is absolutely no historical intention. The story of Judith could happen in any place at any time.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Nazarene Ruth

Although this too is a 19th century romantic Ruth, it's quite different from that of Francesco Hayez.

It's by the German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), who was a member of the the Nazarene brotherhood. The artists which belonged to this movement sought their inspiration in the art of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance and rejected what they called "superficial virtuosity" of later art.

Because of that this painting resembles a two dimensional panel painting of the 15th century. A Nazarene never would have painted a naked Ruth or have followed the oriental fashion of his time.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Art Deco

Susanna in the bath is by the German Symbolist and Art Nouveau painter Franz von Stuck (1863-1928). Although it's important for him to show a nude there are still other more interseting things. First Stuck renounces the naturalistic style. He preferes something more ornamentical and geometrical. It's all symbol, from the surprised women and the two menacing figures to the bathroom slippers.

Susanna in the Bath (1913)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Romantic Ruth

This example of Ruth is by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882) the leading artist of Italian Romanticism. Ruth is wearing the clothes of an Arab women, which means Orient, and she has a bunch of grain in her arm, which indicates that she is Ruth.

I don't understand why she must be naked. Because this isn't mentioned at all in the Bible. Probably its a concession to contemporary taste, which liked so much semi-nude oriental women.

Ruth (1835)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Chaste Susanna

Susanna was the wife of Joakim, at whose house the elders of the Jews met to held their trials. On their way to a meeting two of these judges secretly observed Susanna taking her bath in the garden. On her way back they threatened her to tell that she was meeting a young man in the garden if she didn’t make love to them. Despite this false accusation by two judges would have the cruel death by stoning as a consequence Susanna refused and was arrested.

In her trial arrived the Prophet Daniel and started a separated interrogation of the two elders and revealed by this their false evidence. Finally the two were put to death by stoning.

This apocryphal story always was considered as an example of the triumph of virtue, or even as an early example of a good juridical investigation and the use of cross-examination. But for artists is was above all a good chance to show a beautiful woman without any clothes. It’s is possible that Susanna is the most painted nude of the Bible.

Susanna and the Elders (1570s)

This is an relatively early painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese(1529-1588). So nudity wasn't his primary goal. He was more interested in the elegant Renaissance clothing and the gestures of the two judges.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Caravaggio's Salome

This Salome-painting is by the most important Italian Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610). Impressive and new are the light effects for which Caravaggio became famous.
But for us is the old women more interesting. She's probably Herodias the mother of Salome, who persuaded her daughter to demand the head of John the Baptist. She was the mastermind behind that campaign and is looking satisfied on the head of her adversary. In contrast Salome her daughter seems disgusted in some way.

Salome receives the Head of Saint John the Baptist (1607-10)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Esther by Chassériau

This interpretation of Esther is by the French painter Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856).
He was a student of Ingres and therefore its in a typical classical linear style, nearly two-dimensional. But also there is a romantic influence with its strong colours and the orientalistic touch.

Toilet of Esther (1841)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Hagar by Vernet

Abraham casting out Hagar (1837) by the French artist Emile Jean Horace Vernet (1789-1863).

Surprising may be the great similarity with the engraving by Doré. But Doré did it nearly 30 years later and so its clear where he got his ideas from.

Also interesting is the orientalistic look which gave Vernet the scene. Abraham is an real Arab chief. Only the (too) little boy reminds of a typical classical painting. Why has he to be naked? Maybe this should emphasize his helplessness.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Esther the Queen

King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) held a big feast in his capital Susa. But when he wanted his queen, Vashti, to appear and show her beauty, she refused to do so. Because of that she was banished and the king looked for a new women. After a long selection he chose Esther because of her great beauty. Esther was a Jew but didn't tell this the king. Later Haman a powerful prince plotted against the Jews in the Empire and tried to convince the king to kill them all. At last Esther suceeded in convincing the king of the plot and to save the live of all the Jews in Persia.

As a result of Esther's intervention and her influence, the Jews lived in Persia untill our time.

Esther (1844) by the French painter Francois Leon Benouville (1821-1859) .

The painting is typically classical renouncing perspective. But its as well an orientalistic painting. Esther is presented as one of the fancied odaliques with her black slave.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Judith and Salome

Comparing this two paintings the most surprising thing for me is their similarity. The heads are nearly the same. Nevertheless they illustrate two totally different stories. First we see Judith with the head of Holofernes and then Salome with the head Of St John The Baptist.

Both were painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in the 1530s. But the resemblance of the two figures wasn't only his problem, it stretches through art history. Many times Judith and Salome seemed to be the same person.

There are only a few signs that could help to distinguish them.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes

Typical for Judith is the sword, because she did the killing herself. But there are some cases when Salome too is shown with a sword.

Salome with the Head Of St John The Baptist

Very typical for Salome is the plate. If she's not performing her famous dance she's nearly every time wearing ist - Judith never.