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Cranach the Elder, Judith with the Head of Holofernes

Video transcript

we're in the Coons distortions Newseum in Vienna and we're looking at a Lucas Cranach this is a painting of Judith with a head of Holofernes which is a biblical story an Old Testament story it's pretty gruesome story and the painting is pretty gruesome Holofernes is an Assyrian general that is threatening a Jewish town where Judith lives now the town is about to give up they're completely surrounded but Judith dresses up makes herself beautiful and bravely sneaks into the enemy camp she makes her way to the tent of the general there's some suggestion that there's some seduction involved Holofernes has a little too much to drink and Judith seizes the opportunity and cuts off his head brings it back to the town and the Assyrian army flees and so it would seem that actually Judith brought the head back to crolick studio because he paints it with just an extraordinary amount of detail and so much so that it suggested that Lucas Cranach had actually been looking at severed heads I mean if you look at the neck you can actually make out the vertebrae well and it's painted with that attention to detail that we see also in her clothing which is really fabulous I mean this is like a whole fashion statement here this is the kind of clothing that might have been worn in the Saxon Court in the 15th century in fact some scholars suggest that this might be a specific princess that's where Rama worked in the Saxon Court in Wittenberg so here he's rendered this really interesting contrast between the violence and his beautiful strong brave but refined young woman I mean you're right there is a contrast between the gruesomeness of the head and the luxuriousness of what she's wearing and the passivity of her face cronic lavished a lot of attention on her clothing look at the embroidery on her bodice the stitching on her sleeves her necklaces and those dangling pearls and looked down at her gloves that have slits in them by the knuckle so that she can bend her fingers and we can see all the gold jewelry that she's wearing there's something really aristocratic about her clothing and about her demeanor when you're describing the incredibly detailed garments this is just fabulous court costume I can't help but notice another kind of contrast not just between the gruesomeness of the severed head and the beauty of the young woman you know you were describing those gloves those hands and they're so beautifully modeled with light and shadow they turn in space so well but if you look at certain other patterns within the dress they seem so flat and in fact the entire image and this is very much a characteristic of products style the whole thing is somewhat two-dimensional and there is this heavy decorative quality that cronic is clearly interested in the colors those reds and oranges and golds and gold of her hair really make her flesh stand out against that black background there is a sense of errata sysm here to her bodice is quite low there's a lot of flesh that's displayed especially as it's highlighted by her necklaces but all of this interestingly is within a highly pitched political context Wittenberg was of the origin of Lutheranism and in fact this artist was a very close personal friend of Martin Luther and some art historians have suggested that the story of Judith which pranic painted several times was important as a symbol of resistance against the Catholic tradition specifically against Charles v the Holy Roman Emperor so I think there are a couple of potential readings here one is political in the idea of resistance against the enemy and bravery an idea of the Protestant resistance to the Catholics but also a different reading of a dangerous and sexual woman the beauty the sexuality the violence this incredible detail the interest in costume the fashion these are all qualities that clearly the Saxon Court enjoyed and help make this artist the wealthiest man in Wittenberg at this time you