Day 35 – Judith and Holofernes

Donatello, Judith and Holofernes, late 1450s, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.

Talking about Judith Leyster yesterday I was reminded that I had said, when talking about Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (Picture Of The Day 17), that I would talk about Donatello’s version of the same story – so here it is. And for those of you who have only joined recently, yes, today’s picture is a picture of a sculpture. Several pictures, in fact, although I’m astonished at the bad quality of many of the photographs online!

You can catch up on the story back in POTD 17, but, shortish story shorter, Judith was as Israelite in the city of Bethulia, which was besieged by an army headed by Holofernes. She crept out of the city, pretending to defect to the enemy camp, and having accepted his invitation to dinner, she dressed herself up, joined him, and, once he had drunk ‘far more wine than he had drunk on any other day in his life’ (that’s from the Book of Judith), she took down his sword and chopped off his head, taking it with her when she went back home. Hardly lady-like, you might think. His troops, on finding the headless body the next morning, fled – and thus, she saved her people.

Donatello’s version really doesn’t hold back. It is arguably the first and finest two-figure sculpture of the 15thCentury (hmmm…. I have another couple of suggestions for finest), and almost certainly the first sculpture that is truly ‘in the round’ – i.e. intended to be seen from all directions – since classical antiquity, that is. Cast out of bronze, Donatello has come up with a remarkably compact composition. This helps to save on the bronze, and also helps with the casting. The extremities of arm and sword are remarkable – it’s quite something to get the bronze that far out from the main ‘body’ of the sculpture. Having said that, this sculpture was cast in 11 parts, mainly to help with the gilding, only a little of which remains (notably on the sword). They are posed on a triangular base (see below), atop a cushion. His legs hang down, drunk, or lifeless, and she stands above him. She has grasped his hair in her left hand to yank him up, while her right hand is wielding the sword above her head, ready to swing it down and chop into his neck. 

A word of advice – whenever you are looking at a sculpture of a person, try and get into the character’s eye line. This photograph is taken from exactly the right angle – she is looking directly at us, and we can see the determination in her face. As it happens, this is a photograph of the replica which is currently displayed outside the Palazzo Vecchio – the original (seen here in the more obviously bronze-coloured photographs) is displayed inside, safe from the weather and pollution. I’m showing the replica because the strong sunlight and the verdigris – the green colour that forms as a result of the copper in the bronze – serve to make the forms clearer in any but the best photos.

While she is fully dressed, including elements that look almost like armour, which are decorated with putti (boys) and vases, he is down to his shorts – which allows Donatello to show his ability at depicting the male body. It looks as if Holofernes’ left shoulder has been dislocated – it hangs so unnaturally behind him.  Notice that Judith is standing on his right hand – a wise precaution, as, if he were to regain consciousness, he might reach for his weapon, or reach for her, to pull her down. But, if her left foot is on his right hand, where is her right foot? 

Next tip for looking at sculpture – keep moving. If it was intended to be freestanding, as this one was, look at it from all possible angles. This is why sculpture has never been as popular as painting – it takes just that little bit more effort. And it always loses out with photography, if there aren’t enough good photographs from enough different angles. If you do get round the other side – or have a good photograph – you will find that her right foot is firmly planted in his groin. She has clearly assessed the various threats he poses and has disarmed him both physically and sexually. Feet planted firmly, she has grabbed his hair, yanked him upright, and prepares to chop. This requires some concentration, and you can see she is biting her upper lip.

You can also see how Donatello did the drapery. Having made the figure of Judith, he then soaked a cloth in slip – a very liquid form of clay, mixed with a lot of water – and wrapped it around her head. A mould of this was then made, and used to produce a wax version of the sculpture. The wax is then encased in what becomes a second mould, melted, and replaced with bronze. This is known as the lost wax method. Quite early in the process – just before the first mould was made – the slip fell off the fabric covering her forehead, and the weave of the original cloth, underneath the patterned hem, was cast in bronze.

So far, so good. Or so bad, depending on how you look at it. She is poised to chop at his neck – what next? Look back at the black and white photographs – the angle of his neck is rather extreme. And that’s because – well, you might just be able to see in the left-hand image – she has already hacked at the neck. There is an enormous gash there. So she’s going in for the second chop. And she will keep going, swing after swing, until the head is finally severed. That takes some determination. 

Now look at the base they are on. It is triangular, thus encouraging us to keep looking around the sculpture, because there is no predominant side. It is decorated with scenes of bacchic revelry performed by winged cherubs. So much frivolous mayhem underneath such horror. The contrast between the revelry of the base and the violence of the sculpture only serves to heighten the drama. And this is where Donatello chooses to sign the sculpture – along the seam of the cushion. There are holes in the corners. It is meant to be a wine sack. The holes also imply that this sculpture was originally a fountain. I’d like to think of it in light of some of the stories about the Marcus Aurelius, an equestrian statue in Rome. Apparently, from time to time the horse was plumbed up for festivities so that water came from one nostril and wine from the other. I’d love to see red wine coming out of this fountain. Or maybe that’s going too far.

Who would want a thing like this? Well, the Medici, apparently. We don’t know it was definitely commissioned by them, but the first account of it places it in the garden of the Medici Palace. There was an inscription on it reading,

Kingdoms fall through luxury, 
Cities rise through virtues;  
Behold the neck of pride 
Severed by the hand of humility.

The sculpture was therefore seen as an allegory of pride and humility. The popularity of the subject in Florence is not unrelated to the popularity of the story of David and Goliath, which, ever since the Florentine defeat of the far larger Milanese army at the beginning of the 15th century, had been seen as a symbol of the triumph of virtue over strength. Judith and Holofernes represents the same idea. But how does this fit in with its Medici ownership? Another inscription stated,

‘Piero son of Cosimo de’ Medici has dedicated the statue of this woman to that liberty and fortitude bestowed on the republic by the invincible and constant spirit of the citizens’.

There is no little irony in this. Since 1434, when Cosimo il Vecchio had returned from exile, the Medici were the de facto rulers of Florence. Piero is nominally upholding the republican ideal, while actively working against it. And this was remembered when, in 1494, the Medici were expelled from Florence. Most of the their property was confiscated, including Donatello’s sculpture of Judith and Holofernes, which was then erected outside the Town Hall on a new base. This had – and has – it’s own inscription:

‘Placed here by the citizens as an example of public well-being’. 

In other words, ‘tyrants beware, we’ll chop your heads off’. In other words, ‘Medici beware’. When talking about art, we often ask ‘what does it mean?’ This exaple just goes to demonstrate that the meaning of art can change. And it continued to change – the Judith didn’t stay put. When Michelangelo completed his David, ten years after the Medici had been exiled, it was decided it shouldn’t go atop the cathedral as originally intended. A debate ensued.  Where should it go? Somewhere more visible than that, surely? In the end, it replaced the Judith, outside the Town Hall. The Judith was sidelined, only to return to a nearby position centuries later. One of the arguments for replacing it with the David went as follows:

‘The Judith is a deadly symbol, and unfitting for us whose emblems are the cross and the lily. Besides, it is not proper that a woman should kill a man, and, above all, it was erected under an inauspicious star, as ever since then things have gone from bad to worse’

Clearly it is not good that a woman should kill a man – although they don’t consider the morality if the situation were reversed. Having said that, and having seen the sculpture, you can see why the men of the committee were unnerved by the Judith. She is absolutely terrifying. This just goes to show how brilliant Donatello was.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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