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 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.
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.
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.
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.