Judith with the Head of Holofernes

The half-length figure of a woman looks directly out of the painting and holds the bearded head of a man on a platter in her hands. She wears a fine robe with large white sleeves and collar, a soft hat with a small white feather, and a bejeweled pin on her left shoulder. The face of an older woman with deeply wrinkled skin appears in the shadows behind her.
Gaspare Traversi
c. 1760
This painting by the eighteenth-century Neapolitan artist Gaspare Traversi is a sensitive character study, straddling the line between religious narrative and portrait. Shown here is a beautiful woman dressed in finery, who cradles the head of a decapitated man on a charger, or platter. Emerging from the darkness behind her appears the head of an old woman, her wrinkled visage a foil to the younger woman’s youth and allure. The painter’s indications of subject matter are bare to the extreme, playing on the slipperiness of the related manners of representing two biblical characters, Judith and Salome, both of whom have been suggested as the subject of this work. The Jewish heroine Judith of the Old Testament apocrypha was a virtuous widow who saved her besieged people by seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes, successfully repulsing his amorous advances until he fell asleep drunk. Seizing his sword, Judith chopped off her enemy’s head. The New Testament personage Salome danced so well for her stepfather Herod that he offered to give her anything she wanted. Upon the advice of her mother Herodias, the young woman demanded the head of St. John the Baptist, whereupon an executioner decapitated the saint. While both Judith and Salome may be shown holding the severed head on a charger, only Judith is shown with a sword. The absence of this instrument in the Museum’s image creates an ambiguity inducing us to tease out the meaning of this picture. Rather than depicting a moment of action, Traversi chose to show the figure reacting to what has just happened. The complexity of feelings evoked by the subject’s face—a mixture of pride, ruefulness, and strength—argues in favor of Judith. Salome, who merely carried out her mother’s wishes, is usually portrayed as passive or pliant, and rarely with any depth of emotions. The narrative context allowed the artist to give to this portrait of an obviously charming model an intriguing psychosexual dimension. Traversi settled in Rome in 1752, where he seems to have lived for the rest of his life, though he apparently worked for patrons in that city and in Naples. Our painting may have been commissioned by a Roman or Neapolitan patron who wished to be portrayed in the guise of Judith, in the tradition of the identification, or disguised, portrait, in which qualities associated with a biblical figure carry over to the contemporary person depicted. Or the woman portrayed may simply be a model whose compelling appearance made Traversi want to record her as a character study, much in the manner of his genre scenes featuring interesting people from a range of social classes. In any case, it must have been Judith’s combination of virtue, will, and eroticism that appealed both to the patron or model and to the artist. This painting’s power to fascinate made it a most suitable gift to honor the Museum on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary. Annette Dixon, Curator of Western Art A Closer Look, 1996
Gift of the Friends of the Museum of Art in Honor of the Museum's Fiftieth Anniversary
Tuesday, June 28, 2022