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Friday, September 23, 2016

Severed heads and the pretty picture


 Lucas Cranach and his 15th century workshop cranked out dozens upon dozens of variations of the Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. The ladies may vary, but they consistently depict the heroine as an absentminded or smug 15th century lady of nobility. His models were ladies ranking from high society. They wore their best outfits to pose for him. He painted them, and his journeymen copied them over and over again for the open market.
Cranach was a collaborator with Martin Luther, supporting the Protestant reformation. The story of Judith struck a chord with the Protestant reformers, since it described the courage of a small nation (such as Saxony) resisting a tyrant from outside who sought to impose his own beliefs about God on them, (such as the Pope).  Some historians, like Steven Ozment in The Serpent and the Lamb (Yale Press 2011), say that Cranach was championing the female in society by calling out her wily wits and upper hand over the dreamy drunken sex-obsessed males. They conclude that the Cranach workshop's obsessive manufacture of Judith paintings are proof of a contemporary belief in the superior intelligence, courage and social equality of women.
There was definitely an attempt at this time to balance the classic focus of male heroes in Christian tradition with biblical heroines who could be role models of particular virtues. Judith is the sober beauty who sacrifices her body to a rapist in order to disarm the enemy and save her city. Am I the only one to find the conjectured historical analysis of this series of paintings to be a little blind? She has just slain a man! None of this is a message of equality or virtue. It is more like a threat...and a warning.
Are two heads better than one?
Why not three?
After Cranach


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