Jan Sanders Van Hemessen presents a muscular, nude figure wielding a sword as the chaste widow of Judith with the Head of Holofernes of 1540. The Art Institute of Chicago groups this unusual depiction with the Power of Women theme. The Power of Women topos, popular in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, focuses on the seductive powers of women. These are women who use their beauty to lead men astray. The typical subjects illustrate the embarrassment or destruction of men. Van Hemessen’s Judith does not seem to fit well into that category, because his painting does not emphasize the downfall of Holofernes and plays up Judith’s heroism. Neither the pitiable position of Holofernes nor the seductive powers of Judith appear to the extent found in depictions from the Power of Women images.
There may be a better way to explain the style of this work. Renaissance ideas about gender seem to have played a significant role in this artist’s depiction of a well-muscled heroine. By examining Judith within this context and in light of the artist’s interests, we can discern how the unique style or form of his presentation is directly related to the subject matter.
Amy Maddy, ’02 Albia, IA
Sponsor: Christina McOmber