Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Kronach 1472–1553 Weimar), Oil on linden

Judith with the Head of Holofernes

Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Kronach 1472–1553 Weimar)
ca. 1530
Oil on linden
35 1/4 x 24 3/8 in. (89.5 x 61.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1911
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 643
The Hebrew heroine Judith presents the severed head of the Assyrian general who besieged her city, having seduced and then beheaded him with his own sword. Appropriately, she is "dressed to kill" and wears an elaborate contemporary costume that would have appealed to Cranach’s courtly patrons. The painter and his workshop produced several versions of this successful composition, which contrasts the gruesome head and the serene beauty of the biblical heroine. At the lower right is Cranach's insignia: a crowned winged serpent with a ring in its mouth.
The Book of Judith, part of the Old Testament Apocrypha, relates how the beautiful Jewish widow killed Holofernes, the Assyrian general directing the siege of her city, Bethulia. After seducing Holofernes with her beauty and a false plan to defeat her people, Judith decapitated him as he lay drunk in his tent. Upon discovering the assassination, the Assyrians ended the siege (Judith 8–15).

This panel first became known in 1911, when it was purchased by the Museum from the estate of Robert Hoe. At that time Holofernes's beard had been enlarged to cover his severed neck. After cleaning and restoration, the painting could be more readily compared with other examples of the same theme produced by Cranach and his workshop, notably those in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. The MMA panel shows at the lower right the insignia of Lucas Cranach the Elder in its form before 1537, and the technique and execution of the painting are entirely consistent with the paintings of Cranach and his workshop in the early 1530s, a date also supported by Judith's costume. The attribution to Cranach has never been challenged, although greater scrutiny of his workshop may well lead to a more informed understanding of its participation in paintings such as this, which were produced in many versions.

The Cranach workshop's serial production of paintings with this theme in the 1530s has raised intriguing questions about possible links between these pictures and the Saxon Court. Because Judith is presented in contemporary dress and because her physiognomy varies from painting to painting, several scholars have suggested that these are portraits of court women in the guise of Judith. If the MMA Judith is a portrait, then it is certainly idealized in the same manner as the Judith in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Cranach's contemporaneous portraits, such as the Princesses Sibylla, Emilia, and Sidonia of Saxony of about 1535 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) show far greater attention by Cranach to the distinctly different physiognomies of the sitters, who are more objectively observed and portrayed than the women in the MMA and Vienna examples.

Judith's popularity throughout the ages has led to various interpretations of her image. In Medieval times, the moral emphasis of the narrative took precedence. Judith was equated with Humilitas and Continentia, and Holofernes with the deadly sins of Superbia and Luxuria. Judith was also seen as a symbol of Chastity and a prefiguration of the Virgin Mary as Ecclesia.

In the sixteenth century, these associations evolved as Judith’s story took on political implications. Rudloff-Hille (Lucas Cranach d. Ä.: Eine Einführung in sein leben und sein Werk, Dresden, 1953) first proposed that Cranach's Judiths relate to the Schmalkaldic League—an alliance of Protestant princes and cities formally established in Schmalkalden in February 1531 to defend their stand against the Holy Roman Emperor’s advancements—as well as to the threat of a Turkish invasion. Schade ("Das unbekannte Selbstbildnis Cranachs," Dezennium 2: Zwanzig Jahre VEB Verlag der Kunst, Dresden, 1972) further elaborated on this view and cited, as had Rudloff-Hille, two panels of 1531 in Gotha, Judith at the Table of Holofernes (Schlossmuseum) and The Death of Holofernes (Schloss Friedenstein). He noted that theologians of the time, when asked whether disagreeing with the emperor accorded with Christian principles, would cite the Judith narrative and in particular her aim to free her country from the grip of tyrants. Supporting this theory, Schade identified the central standing figure in the Schlossmuseum picture as Philipp I, Landgrave of Hesse, a founder and coleader of the league. Börsch-Supan ("Cranach's 'Judith' in der Sammlungen des Jagdschlosses Grunewald," in Lukas Cranach: Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Druckgraphik," exh. cat., Basel, 1974, vol. 1) broadened Schade's proposal by applying it to individual paintings of Judith, specifically an example from 1530 in the Jagdschloss Grunewald, Berlin, that is of the same type as the Museum's panel. He regarded such works as symbolic of the Schmalkaldic League and noted that no known examples date before the formation of the league.

Equally important for other interpretations of the Judith paintings are their connections to the literature of the period. As Lӓhnemann ("The Cunning of Judith in Late Medieval German Texts," The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines, Cambridge, 2010) has pointed out, a number of anonymous German Meistersinger texts depict Judith as an active heroine, clever and cunning. More specifically, certain broadsheets emphasized her dual nature as both virtuous, even beyond reproach, and dangerously seductive. This sense of ambiguity must have played well at the Saxon court and helped to guarantee the popularity of the Judith representations.

Judith's dual nature sheds further light on the moralizing interpretations of the story. Along with other figures from ancient history and the Bible, Judith used her considerable charms to dominate and even destroy men. The themes commonly known as Weibermacht and Weiberlisten (power of women, wiles of women) were already well established in the literature of the late Medieval period as well as in prints and decorative arts. Cranach was among the first sixteenth-century artists to take up these themes in painting, both in half-length figures, such as Judith and Salome, and in more developed narrative scenes, including Lot and his Daughters and Aristotle and Phyllis. The introduction of this new medium for depicting the theme raises the question of how the paintings were used and displayed. With no clues as to how the Museum's work was originally installed, it can for now be considered a prime example of one of the most important themes in Saxon court art, one that remains as multivalent in meaning as it perhaps did in its own time.

[2013; adapted from Ainsworth 2013]
The panel support is composed of four linden boards, with the grain oriented vertically. As in some other Cranach panels, the joints of the boards are skewed. Although there is evidence that the edges have been trimmed, the overall size corresponds to the range of dimensions for Heydenreich Format D. X-radiographs (see Additional Images, fig. 1) revealed long, fine, curling tow fibers below the preparatory layers; these were applied in broad, horizontal bands at the top and bottom, with some smaller pieces in the upper center and near the top. This distribution of tow is characteristic of panels prepared for Cranach’s workshop beginning in 1514. In some areas, such as Holofernes’s left eye, the underlying fibers are reflected in cracks in the ground and paint layers. Before the panel entered the collection, it was seriously damaged in an accident, after which it was thinned to .5 centimeters and cradled. The cradle was subsequently removed, and the panel is now attached to a spring strainer, a custom-made auxiliary support that strengthens its structure while allowing some freedom of movement.
Aside from the large localized damages outlined below, much of the painting is in very good condition. The crimson glaze on the bloody stub of Holofernes’s neck is somewhat abraded and has probably faded. Modifying glazes on the parapet appear to be disrupted as well. Most significant are the large losses along the joins, including those running through the center of Judith’s entire figure; traveling along the left edge of Holofernes’s face and the sword raised above his head; and passing through the right side of Judith’s hat, down through her left arm and into the parapet.
The ground is composed of calcium carbonate bound with animal glue. Although an isolating layer seen in two cross-sections above the ground appears unpigmented, x-radiographs showed horizontal banding in the preparatory layers, which is distinctive of Cranach and his workshop. Infrared examination revealed only two fine lines of underdrawing, in the lower bodice. One of at least eighteen versions of this subject by Cranach and his workshop, the painting employs the typical systematic methods used by the artist, which were designed to facilitate rapid manufacture and ease of reproduction. Judith’s red hat, for example, is underpainted with black mixed with a little vermilion, followed by an opaque vermilion of varying thickness, depending on the need for light or shadow, and completed with a crimson lake glaze. The same black underpaint is used for the green robe, here followed by a bright opaque green made from a mixture of lead-tin yellow (type I) and a copper-containing blue (probably azurite), with lead-tin yellow highlights and a copper-green glaze. The hairnet, dress ornaments, gold jewelry, and sword hilt display a layering scheme ubiquitous in Cranach paintings: a midtone brownish orange followed by dark brown shadows and lead-tin yellow highlights, augmented occasionally (as on the borders of the dress) with intermittent pinkish highlights. The window-shaped catchlights in Judith’s eyes are similarly characteristic, as are the red accents touched onto the edge of the pupil opposite from the reflection.
[2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Inscription: Signed (lower right) with winged serpent
Robert Hoe, New York (until d. 1909; his estate sale, American Art Association, New York, February 17, 1911, no. 107, for $1,800, to R. W. de Forest for MMA)
Wooster, Ohio. Josephine Long Wishart Museum of Art. "Exhibition of Paintings of French, Italian, Dutch, Flemish and German Masters, lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 20–December 15, 1944, unnumbered cat. (p. 9).

Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 4–November 23, 1947, unnumbered cat.

Iowa City. State University of Iowa, School of Fine Arts. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," January 9–March 31, 1948, unnumbered cat.

Bloomington. Indiana University. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," April 18–May 16, 1948, no catalogue.

Louisville. J. B. Speed Art Museum. "Old Masters from the Metropolitan," December 1, 1948–January 23, 1949, no catalogue.

Madison. Memorial Union Gallery, University of Wisconsin. "Old Masters from the Metropolitan," February 15–March 30, 1949, unnumbered cat.

Palm Beach. Society of the Four Arts. "European Masters of the XVII and XVIII Centuries," January 13–February 5, 1950, no. 24.

Lexington, Va. Washington and Lee University. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art Loan Exhibit," October 30, 1950–January 15, 1951, no. 2.

Athens, Ga. Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia. February 15–April 5, 1951, no catalogue?

Poughkeepsie. Vassar College Art Gallery. "Humanism North and South," February 29–March 18, 1956, no catalogue?

New York. Jewish Museum. "The Hebrew Bible in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Art," February 18–March 24, 1963, no. 118.

Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. State Hermitage Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," May 22–July 27, 1975, no. 14.

Moscow. State Pushkin Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," August 28–November 2, 1975, no. 14.

Düsseldorf. Museum Kunstpalast. "Cranach: Meister—Marke—Moderne," April 8–July 30, 2017, no. 142.

"Judith and Holofernes, by Cranach." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 6 (May 1911), p. 124, ill. p. 122, dates this painting probably later than the version at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, noting that the signature of both works, with a winged serpent, means they must date after the artist was granted this crest in 1508; notes that areas of overpainting have been removed, particularly on the head and neck of Holofernes.

Catalogue of the Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1911 [under Addenda to the 1905 Catalogue, May–June 1911, n.p.].

Robert Allerton Parker. "The Revaluation of Lucas Cranach." International Studio 87 (June 1927), pp. 17, 24, ill. p. 25, notes that it "remains predominantly a portrait" and calls it a replica devoid of emotional expression.

Giuseppe di Lentaglio. "La 'Giuditta' biblica nell'arte." Emporium 74 (September 9, 1931), p. 140, ill. p. 132, notes that Judith is portrayed here as a gentlewoman in contemporary dress.

Max J. Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg. Die Gemälde von Lucas Cranach. Berlin, 1932, p. 65, no. 190e, list this painting as a version of the Judith picture at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, which they date about 1530; broadly date the variants between 1526 and 1537.

Charles L. Kuhn. A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1936, p. 38, no. 100, pl. 20, dates it about 1530–35.

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 202–3, ill., note that Cranach painted many pictures of Judith and date the Vienna and Stuttgart versions to about 1530.

Millia Davenport. The Book of Costume. New York, 1948, vol. 1, p. 392, no. 1042, ill., dates this picture about 1525 and illustrates it alongside Cranach's portraits of three similarly dressed women in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; notes that the large plumed hat went out of fashion by the second third of the 16th century.

Charles D. Cuttler. Northern Painting from Pucelle to Bruegel. New York, 1968, p. 377, fig. 493, dates it about 1530 and comments on its "clarity of form that is neither entirely plastic nor pictorial".

Constance Loewenthal in 100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum [in Russian]. Exh. cat., State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad. Moscow, 1975, pp. 45–46, no. 14, ill., finds our painting closely related to the Judiths in Vienna and Stuttgart, and dates it probably to the early 1530s; lists two other paintings of Judith from 1530 (formerly Chillingworth collection; Jagdschloss Grünewald, Berlin), and one from 1531 (Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen; now SMPK, Berlin); notes that this compositional type with Judith shown standing half-length behind a balustrade apparently originated with Vincenzo Catena in Venice and was taken up in Germany by Cranach and Georg Pencz in about 1530; remarks that Cranach shows Judith as a blond, 16th-century lady of the Saxon court thus obscuring the boundary between the sacred subject and the worldy image.

Max J. Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg. The Paintings of Lucas Cranach. rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y., 1978, p. 115, no. 230E.

Adelheid Straten. Das Judith-Thema in Deutschland im 16.Jahrhundert: Studien zur Ikonographie-Materialien und Beiträge. PhD diss.Munich, 1983, p. 64, no. 24.

Patricia Campbell Warner. "Fetters of Gold: The Jewelry of Renaissance Saxony in the Portraits of Cranach the Elder." Dress 16 (1990), pp. 23–24, 27 n. 14, fig. 5, notes that "Judith's neck is encased from collar bone to jaw in two massive and heavily jeweled Saxon collars"; comments on the popular fashion for slashing gloves to display rings.

Sophie McConnell. Metropolitan Jewelry. New York, 1991, pp. 74–75, ill. (color), describes Judith's jewels, noting that massive gold chains were popular in Flanders and Germany during the 1530s.

Maryan W. Ainsworth in German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 5, 63–66, 77, 287–88, no. 13, ill. pp. 2, 65 (color, overall and detail).

Mila Horký in Lucas Cranach der Ältere: Meister—Marke—Moderne. Ed. Gunnar Heydenreich et al. Exh. cat., Museum Kunstpalast. Düsseldorf, 2017, p. 242, no. 142, ill. p. 240 and on front cover (color, overall and detail).

Beat Wismer in Lucas Cranach der Ältere: Meister—Marke—Moderne. Ed. Gunnar Heydenreich et al. Exh. cat., Museum Kunstpalast. Düsseldorf, 2017, p. 316, under no. 219.