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Exhibitions and Projects
3 October–6 November 2019

Revelations, October 2019

Mihael Stroj: Judith with the head of Holofernes, copy after August Riedel, 1858

The biblical heroine Judith is a beautiful and pious widow who, for the love of God and her people, makes a stand against the conquerors. Her story is written in the Book of Judith of the Old Testament. Because her people decided to surrender to the enemy, an idea for trickery came to her how to gain access, together with her servant woman, to the enemy camp and to the army’s commander, Holofernes, himself. When on the fourth day after supper, where she was his guest, Holofernes lay in drunken stupor, she cut off his head. Then she and her companion successfully stole away from the camp and took the enemy’s head to the native town, where all the people gathered and praised God for having saved them through the agency of heroic Judith.

Thanks to its religious, heroic as well as erotic elements, the story of Judith met with wide response in literature, fine arts and music. Painting and sculptural presentations were particularly frequent in Renaissance and Baroque art. Judith was usually presented as a cephalophore, carrying or showing Holofernes’ head.

In 1858, Mihael Stroj (Ljubno, Gorenjska, 1803 − Ljubljana, 1871) copied in smaller size the paintingJudith with the Head of Holofernes by the German painter August Riedel (Bayreuth, 1799 − Rome, 1883). The latter executed this highly influential work in 1840, and it is now kept in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich. It was first exhibited in this very city, and the following year Ludwig I of Bavaria acquired it for his collection.

The Riedel's painting depicts the knee-length, life-size biblical heroine in a three-quarter turn before a neutral, illuminated background. Her left hand firmly rests on the sword before her, while she almost hides Holofernes’ head behind her rich drapery. Only some hair and part of the forehead are visible of the head. She wears a white blouse with very wide sleeves which slid from her right shoulder. Her hips and waist are clad in precious golden-red brocade. A band with a precious stone adorns her chest. A wave of bright light from the right pours over the figure.

The artistic surplus of Riedel's painting lies in the indicated duality between the exposed material splendour in the foreground and the brilliance of the illuminated background. In between the smooth material tangible world and the spiritualized all-pervading light the body of Judith is placed, resolute and sensual at the same time. Her facial expression reveals complete dedication, humility and self-awareness. Riedel’s Judith is not a dancingly triumphant figure (like Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel) or a bloodthirsty avenger (like Artemisia Gentileschi’s), she is just a devoted doer of God’s will. By means of subtle psychological characterization of the face and refined light emphases, Riedel managed to disclose a fully personal attitude of the heroine to God, her people and, last but not least, the decapitated man.

Riedel’s depiction of Judith is in accordance with the then topical literary, more complex image of the heroine, such as was presented in 1840 by Christian Friedrich Hebbel (1813‒1863). In his play Judith the author imposes tragic guilt on the protagonist because of her love for Holofernes. Riedel’s painting achieved immediate success and it became widely popular particularly after 1847 thanks to a lithograph by Ferdinand von Piloty (1828‒1895). The reproductive print gave rise to numerous copies in oil, on glass and even on porcelain.

It is true that the composition of Stroj’s copy follows the original, nevertheless Stroj completely altered the face to suit his female ideal. Also the colours of details, anatomical slips and emphatically plastic modelling of the incarnate with grey tones give the copy a completely different final expression. Judith’s body appears stiff, the face is defiantly numb. The details of brocade pattern are lost, so that golden-yellow surfaces prevail; also the gentle translucency of the white blouse is lost. But in the first place, missing in Stroj’s copy are the full-blooded sensuality, softness of expression and psychological interpretation which became so characteristic in 19th century art.

Stroj copied Riedel’s painting in his mature period when in his middle-class portraits a shift from idealization towards a more realistic approach can be traced. He possibly saw the original by Riedel because it can be surmised from the surviving documents that also after his study period he wanted to travel to Bavaria, Saxony and Prussia. With regard to the date of his work, it is likely that Stroj copied Riedel’s painting on commission, and in accordance with the client’s preference he changed Judith’s face. Regretfully, no tangible information is available as to the provenance of the painting. In view of the national-identifying iconography of the story of Judith, Stroj’s strong connections with the Illyrian circles in Zagreb should not be overlooked.

It seems that the motif of Judith with the head of Holofernes attracted Stroj already during his study years in Vienna, between 1821 and 1825. At that time he copied in the former Imperial Gallery at Belvedere the painting of the same subject matter by Alessandro Varotari, called Il Padovanino (1588−1648). Namely, already at the end of 1823 Stroj received a certificate which confirmed his abilities as a copyist. The certificate says that for five quarters of a year Mihael Stroj has diligently and with all the necessary artistic dexterity made copies, he was moral and dedicated and performed well in the field of history subject matter, thus gaining all the recognition as a proficient copyist.

Kristina Preininger

Translated by
Alenka Klemenc

3 October–6 November 2019
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana