Exercise: Study some mythological subject – notes

In the section on the Italian Renaissance there is an exercise whereby you choose 2 or 3 paintings based on mythological subjects but done by two different artists – an exercise that is easier in principle than it actually is.

After some debate I found 2 – 1. Venus and 2. Bacchus but both are classical Greek myths and although I will do separate posts on them I have not felt represented an inner desire for more research and knowledge and something that is has been painted by many artists in many different forms.

A chance review of my photos on my visit to Nottingham Castle and its art gallery made me realise that I had taken one by the late Italian Renaissance/early Baroque painter Cristofano Allori of Judith and the Head of Holofernes (dated at the gallery as 1600 but research suggests 1613).  From here I realised I had since decided to do my 2000 word essay on Artemisia Gentileschi and obviously one of her famous paintings was of the slaying of Holofernes so the question arose who was Holofernes and could this be classed as a mythological subject?

The story of Judith and Holofernes is a biblical story from The Book of Judith that is often assigned to the Apogrypha (sections of the Christian bible between the Old and New Testament or as an appendix after the New Testament).  It is also classed as a Deuterocanoical book which essentially means second canon whilst Apogrypha means ‘hidden’ – these are part of the old Catholic bibles and were never truly accepted as true books of the Hebrew Bible.  Moreover the New Testament bibles mention the Old Testament but rarely the books of the Apogrphya – this for me as someone born a Catholic explains why I had never heard of The Book of Judith.

Although The Book of Judith is in the Apogrypha the question of whether it is classed as mythological is one I feel is open for interpretation – my research suggests that many scholars now feel it is a parable due to the contradictions in historical facts and some indeed class it as the first work of historical fiction – the thought of the modern day historical fiction writer Hilary Mantel comes to mind.  The Apogrypha books are classed as historically inaccurate and The Book of Judith was written around about the end of the 1st Century AD or the beginning of the second.

If the books of the Apogrypha are now accepted by many as historical parables then this is in effect mythological if the definition of ‘mythological’ is ‘fictious’ and therefore The Book of Judith and the story of Judith and the general Holofernes are classed as mythological subjects.

For me my internal debate is that mythological subjects have been primarily the Greek classical stories of the Gods combined with the Roman Gods too and the incredible parables that surround them but now my knowledge widens.

Why does the story of Judith so fascinate me though?  research has demonstrated that it has been covered by so many painters and artists throughout many centuries from Allori to Vasari to Artemisia to Carravagio and coming forward to Gustav Klimt too (I knew the painting of Judith but did not realise the subject behind it).  The different aspects of the story have also been covered in so many forms too from the slaying of the general to Judith holding his head and to her return to her city – the variations are fascinated to discover and the various media including tempera, oil painting and printing and by northern European and southern alike.

It seems it is a story the fascinates down through the ages despite the somewhat gory subject and because is one of triumph over a foreign enemy and by a mere woman too – the soldiers of the defeated Assyrian army saw their leader slain by a Jewish widow who was upset by her countrymen’s lack of faith in God to save them from foreign conquerors.  Judith went to the general, Holofernes, of the Assyrian army of the king Nabucodonosor and after gaining his trust by promising him information on her countrymen, the Israelites, slays him when he is in a drunken stupor.  By slaying Holofernes Judith saves her city of Bethulia and some paintings depict the moment she returns home, with her maid, triumphantly carrying his head.

There seem to be 3 main scenes depicted by artists – that of the slaying or moment after such as Artemisia’s famous version, Judith holding the head of Holofernes or the return to Bethulia.  I have chosen the works that portray Judith holding the head – one by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder and the other by Allori which I saw first hand in Nottingham Castle – the first painted around 1530 during the Italian Renaissance period but albeit in Northern Europe (there is another by Jan Matyss I am yet to decided whether to use instead as he is a Flemish painter and the work was done around 1543) and the other by Allori is done circa 1600 according to the label.

I am realising as I research both paintings that the whole fascination of the Book of Judith and the paintings that have been done throughout the ages are something I feel I will expand on in a separate blog and will compare the different styles in the next couple of weeks or so.

 

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