Judith: Giorgione

Judith: Giorgione

Judith is a 1504 painting by Italian artist Giorgione, a founder of the Venetian school of Italian Renaissance painting during the late 15th century. This work is located in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

This masterpiece by the young Giorgione is precious due to its unanimous attribution to the master, most of whose supposed artworks are critically contentious. It depicts the famous Biblical scene from the Book of Judith which became a great pictorial subject with the Renaissance.

According to the story, Judith, a Jewish widow from the (unidentified) city of Bethulia, succeeds at seducing and then decapitating, with the help of a maid, the Assyrian general Holofernes, who was besieging their city.

In the original, the legendary tale is an exemplum of God’s virtuous people being delivered from evil by a miracle. The Renaissance added the classically intuitive quality of beauty to Judith’s other, more pious virtues. She thus became also a symbol of beauty triumphant over ugliness. Finally, the Baroque will introduce a visual fascination with the violent act of beheading itself.

Giorgione’s Judith is a beautiful princess, chaste and emotionally unmoved, stepping on the livid head of Holofernes on the ground. She holds a giant sword in her left hand in the manner of a cane while, in the act of stepping, she uncovers her left leg up to the middle thigh. She wears a scarlet one-piece dress elegantly embroidered at the neckline and under the shoulders.

The precise sartorial cut on one side is what allows her left leg such an easy exit. The geometric pattern of the rich folds in her dress derives from Dutch painting.

The face of Giorgione’s Judith is a model of serenity and a clear imitation of da Vinci. Fume-like curls fall from under her ears over a perfect neck and down from an impeccable coiffure on top of which is a diadem (another one is on her chest, rendered according to the Dutch example).

She is thereby marked as a princely figure of adamantine virtue, entirely undisturbed in body and spirit by the presumably violent act which she has recently executed. Even the long sword beside her, largely concealed behind her dress, bears only the gory reflection of her splendid dress and not a trace of actual blood.

Judith’s eirenic posture is taken from a particular statue of Phidias showing the Aphrodite Urania. A further da Vinci lesson is to be admired in Giorgione’s shading and the atmospheric effect due to distance which, fully unveiled only by 20th-century restorations, allows us to recognize a fortified city in the distance. The oak tree on the right, instead, is a structural element that enables the verticality of the painting and which is to be found elsewhere in Giorgione.

The painting was purchased in the name of Catherine II of Russia at an auction in Paris, in 1772 (it is presently at the Russian Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg). Originally a panel painting intended as a part of furniture, it was transported onto canvas in 1839 because its panel base was deteriorating.

A laborious cleaning project begun in 1961 by the Russian experts gave us a notably brighter version of the painting as it had not been seen for centuries, as well as revealing the objects in the middle distance.

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