Anna van Densky OPINION from Brussels. Discovered in attic in a house in Toulouse (2014) canvas depicting a Biblical story of the decapitation of Holofernes by Judith is not universally attributed to Italian genius Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, but some consider it to be a copy of his contemporary, a Franco-Flemish artist Louis Finson, who was well acquainted with Caravaggio‘s masterpieces.
Those days artists had no notion of copyright©, and making of a copy of a masterpiece was not seen as a violation of author’s rights, so someone, who was sincerely impressed by a canvas of Caravaggio was doing his absolute best to share his experience with the other audiences, especially foreign ones, without feeling of guilt. It would also be logical to make an adaptation of the canvas copy to a foreign taste, translating drama into preferred visual language of the audience.
To my eye the painting to be auctioned on June 27 in Toulouse, France, looks like an interpretation of the story by a Flemish baroque artist, acquainted with Caravaggio masterpiece, and eager to share his special experience back at home in Antwerp, or Brugge. However he is adapting it to the lavish tastes of Flemish art collectors, shaping their preferences in tradition of luxury of legendary Burgundy.
The unknown (Finson?) artist depicted Judith as a burger’s wife, dressed in rich black silk, decorated with Flemish lace. With a prosecutor’s eyes, she executes the enemy to fulfill her moral duty. Judith‘s gaze escapes spectators, underlining the profoundly introvert nature of her act, motivated by her conscious. She is self-confident and stable, convinced of making the ultimate right choice.
The other protagonists, are subordinate to Judith: servants face is reminding of a dry fruit, lacking vivid emotion, and obviously is designed to create a contrast with the widow’s porcelain skin, and full, peach-like round cheeks. Almost decapitated general Holofernes body is in convulsions, and his served head with imprinted grimace of pain, and open mouth exposing sharp teeth, and white eyeballs – all of them are hinting on his bestial nature.
The tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes is decorated by the traditional “drappo rosso” – rich purple curtain, but it is far too intense in color, too heavy and has too many folds in comparison with light floating draperies of Caravaggio, touched with subtle shades of red, which are creating backdrop a dramatic understatement, never competing for attention with the human figures in the front.
However they are just purely visual elements of ‘Toulouse‘ canvas, while the major challenge is to explain the message of the painting, which has an atypical of Caravaggio didactic tone, while the Italian genius was never interested in morality or ethics as such. Caravaggio is an obsessive investigator of the darkness of human soul, fascinated by desires, passions, searching and exposing paradoxes, without intention to rationalise them.
The acknowledged canvas on the same subject of Judith and Holofernes, attributed to Caravaggio exposes drama, full of passion and mystery. The master is definitely not seduced by an idea to depict one more illustration of the well-known Biblical story, but he presents his unique view on turbulent lives of the widow and the general, fascinated with the depth of characters and infinite complexity of feelings.
Young Judith of angelic beauty disgusted, and taken aback by her own deed: she, herself, is definitely traumatized by the act of beheading, continuing almost mechanically to cut through Holofernes neck. While the general is searching for the eye contact with her in disbelief that a women with angel’s face is his murderess. Holofernes is definitely not ugly, he his not vile, or bestial, still alive he desperately searching for an answer in Judith‘s eyes, in vain…
Nobody can assemble the pieces of the puzzle – why? Why an idea of committing such a gruesome murder occurred in a such an angelic head?.. Why the army general Holofernes was trapped by Judith’s beauty, and femininity to such an extent that he paid a price of his live for the perception of a beauty incapable of evil?.. Caravaggio does not give the answers, there is no lesson to learn, just an endless wandering in a labyrinth of reflections, feelings and hints. Eros and Thanatos, love and death. Assassination as a sacrifice. Caravaggio has no slightest intention to structure the world around him, on contrary he enjoys it as it is – troubled, impulsive and erratic, being a rebel as he is.