Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes (previously known as Artemisia)1634. Oil on canvas, 143 x 154.7 cm.
In the past various authors have expressed their scepticism about the attribution of the painting to Rembrandt. However, the Rembrandt Research Project includes it in the Corpus of 1986 as an original work, and this is supported by the technical study conducted at the Museo del Prado that year. As for the signature, the unsteadiness of the stroke and, above all, the yellow colour make it dubious. Nevertheless, the signature Rembrant without the d is found in various paintings dated 1633, in some engravings from 1632-33, and in the earliest documents signed by the painter. What is more, the date inscribed on the work is consonant with the style of painting characteristic of this stage in Rembrandt`s career.
The scene is part of a small group of allegories personified by heroic women -goddesses or heroines of Antiquity and the Old Testament painted by Rembrandt between 1633 and 1635, which reflect his confrontation with Rubens and the Flemish Baroque masters. They are all based on the same female model, traditionally considered a portrait of Rembrandt`s wife Saskia van Uylenburgh. However, following the compilation of the Corpus (1986), various authors now agree that the modelling of the face, based on marked contrasts of light and shadow with no attention to detail, indicates that this is not a portrait but a prototype. Indeed, this female type -clearly rooted in Rubens- is found in other scenes painted during these years not only by Rembrandt, but also by Jan Lievens (1607-1674) and Salomon de Bray (1597-1664).
Standing out against a dark background is the figure of a woman sumptuously attired in an embroidered dress with long, bouffant sleeves, a white silk over-gown with gold braid edging and passementerie fastenings, and a large ermine collar adorned with a gold chain encrusted with rubies and sapphires. She wears a pearl bracelet, double stranded necklace and earrings. Her hair tumbles over her shoulders and is adorned with a string of pearls and a gold chain. She is seated in a violetblue velvet armchair of which only the front of the arms is visible, beside a table covered in a damask cloth on which lies an open book with writing. Her body is turned slightly to the left and her head titled to the right. She leans her left hand on the table and presses her right hand to her breast. Aservant girl who kneels before her with her back to the viewer but in lost profile offers her a goblet consisting of a nautilus shell mounted on a gold stem which contains wine (or at least a pinkish liquid). Both figures are life-sized and depicted three-quarter length. The powerful presence of the main figure is emphasised chiefly by its high perspective with respect to the servant girl -and the viewer- and also by the dramatic use of light and shadow to structure the composition.
The light entering from the left falls directly on the body of the seated woman, transforming the white over-gown into a powerful glow which in turn illuminates with its reflection the profile of the servant girl, the goblet and the book, while the rest remains in semidarkness. The background is very dark and largely lost owing to the chemical breakdown of the pigments used in that area or to restoration carried out in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. All that is clearly visible today is the figure of an elderly servant woman located between the seated woman and the young girl with the goblet; she wears a white toque and holds with both hands a cloth from the left of which hangs a cord. On the right, behind the seated woman, the folds of a dark red curtain can be made out. However, an early photograph, hitherto unpublished, clearly shows that there was once a damask curtain similar to the tablecloth between the girl with the goblet and the old servant woman, and that the cloth held by the elderly servant is a half-open sack with a tasselled cord hanging down on one side.
Stylistically, the painting combines the formal monumentality that is a feature of Flemish tradition with the characteristically Dutch taste for detail and virtuosity in the rendering of different materials and textures. The small, tight brushstrokes used to model the figures` faces and hands and the goblet contrast with the broad, sweeping strokes employed for the rest of the elements.
The X-ray image reveals a major compositional change. In the original layout the space between the two figures is occupied by a female figure, also life-sized and three-quarter length, who gazes at and leans towards the seated woman. Her hair is covered by a toque and she holds an oblong object in her right hand. The outer edge of this object is interrupted by the head of the servant girl, indicating that this figure is part of the original composition; the inner edge is also interrupted by a rectangular element not visible in the painting (perhaps the arm of the chair). Clearly perceptible on the right side of the composition, behind the seated figure, is an undulating form that could be a canopy. The head of the main figure is surrounded by a large, dark silhouette. The authors of the Corpus mention the possibility that it may be a space reserved for the hair. In the opinion of Diéguez Rodríguez (2004), it could be due to an alteration in the position of the head, which would initially have been shown in profile. It seems more likely, as Carmen Garrido points out, that it is the space the painter set aside for the figure. The X-ray image likewise shows a minor modification in the upper edge of the book, which is also part of the original composition. In front of the book it is possible to discern a goblet, later eliminated. Furthermore, in the wrist of the left hand there are overlapping layers of paint owing to a modification in the position of the pearl bracelet. It was initially located just above the hand and was later positioned at the edge of the dress sleeve. This superimposition of paint layers explains the marked craquelure of the paint surface in this area.
The original background was subsequently painted over and replaced by a curtain on either side of the composition -visible in the old photograph mentioned above- and the figure of the elderly servant woman holding a sack.
The X-radiograph therefore raises two essential questions -who made this compositional change and why- which are directly related to the iconographical interpretation of this scene, the most controversial aspect of the painting both in the past and even today.
The type of the old servant woman, the sack, the maid with the goblet, the main figure`s rich attire, the background curtains (visible in the early photograph) and the open book on the table thus allow us to put forward a new iconographic interpretation of the scene: Judith at the banquet of Holofernes. From a historical viewpoint, such an interpretation would be justified by the self-identification of the Dutch, in their struggle for liberation, with the Hebrew people. In this connection, Judith was one of the biblical heroines who best symbolised their patriotic claims vis-àvis the Spanish.
This interpretation furthermore fits in with the description of the painting in the early inventories, a piece of documentary evidence not taken into account until now: in the first inventory of the possessions of the Marquis of Ensenada (1754) it is listed as a half-length Judith.
Although in the second inventory (1768) Mengs describes it as Rembrandt, Anoble matron and a maid, in the inventory of Charles III (1772) it is referred to as Ensenada -Apicture showing Judith to whom some maids serve a goblet and on a round table an open book, figures of more than half length, an original by Rembran [sic] seven spans long and one and a half varas high, a description maintained by Bayeu and Goya in the inventory of Charles IV (1794). In the latter, the picture, then in the queen`s boudoir, is followed by a painting illustrating another scene from the story of Judith: Another of the same size as the previous one Judith putting away the sack with the head of Holofernes = Rembrand = 4,000, now attributed to Adam de Coster (1585-1643) and also from the collection of the Marquis of Ensenada.
However, as stated earlier, the X-ray image raises two crucial questions. First, was the compositional alteration due to an iconographical change or to stylistic reasons?
The supporters of the interpretation of the figure as Artemisia take the object held by the servant in the background of the X-ray image to be a platter from which Mausolus`s ashes fall. However, Taco Dibbits (2006) proposes it be identified as a mirror in which Artemisia gazes at herself -a hypothesis that seems more in consonance with the clearly outlined, rigid, oval form (unlike ashes or a liquid falling). In this respect the original composition would tie in with the tradition of domestic scenes of a woman at her toilette which are so characteristic of Dutch painting and were used by various painters of Rembrandt`s milieu for the iconography of the scene of Esther grooming herself before going before Ahasuerus to beg him to protect the Jews (Esther 5:1), a theme that was widely disseminated in Holland as an example of patriotic conduct.
Indeed, precisely in two of these scenes, one by Salomon Koninck and the other by Willem de Poorter, the kneeling maid who holds the mirror bears a close resemblance to the maid with the goblet in Rembrandt`s composition, both in type and pose. What is more, the maid in the painting by Salomon Koninck serves the same compositional purpose of framing the scene, albeit in this case on the right. However, the goblet is alien to the iconography of Esther and, therefore, the fact that in Rembrandt`s painting the maid with the goblet belongs to the original composition rules out the possibility that the picture was initially intended to represent Esther.
That said, the oblong object held by the maid may be interpreted as a serving platter which she tips towards Judith, as if to show her its contents. This, together with the maid holding out the goblet containing a pinkish liquid, allows the original composition to be identified with the biblical passage in which Judith, after arriving at Holofernes`s camp, is brought before him. In the light of this, the canopy visible on the right in the X-ray image would represent the hangings that adorned Holofernes`s tent as described in the Bible text (Judith 10:20); what is more, Judith`s gaze and gesture appear to fittingly express her reply to the enemy general; finally, the book, as was frequent in seventeenth-century Dutch history paintings, would be an allusion to the Bible and, by extension, to the Lord`s designs.
Rembrandt would thus initially have intended to depict the novel theme of Judith on her arrival at Holofernes`s camp, which had no iconographic tradition (at least none has yet been identified). However, the very absence of such a tradition made this theme very difficult to recognise, impairing the viewer`s grasp of the meaning of the painting, which was none other than the exaltation of a heroic and, accordingly, exemplary conduct. Therefore, the compositional modification may have stemmed from the wish to facilitate the identification of the story.
Indeed, when the servant in the background of the original composition is replaced by the old woman with the sack, the scene immediately becomes recognisable as a depiction of Judith at the banquet of Holofernes (Judith 12:17-19) while her servant awaits her outside the tent holding the pouch in which she later places the head of the enemy general (Judith 13:9-10). In fact, the early photograph of the painting shows that the old woman was indeed positioned behind a curtain, that is, outside the banquet scene, and held a half-open sack, a scene for which there was, in fact, an iconographical source: an engraving by Georg Pencz, Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes, featuring a goblet on the table and a maid holding a receptacle sitting at the entrance to the tent. In this connection, Judith`s sarcastic gaze and gesture would reflect her reply when she accepts the drink Holofernes offers her: Holofernes said to her: Drink now, and be merry with us!, Judith replied: I will drink now, my lord, because my life is magnified in me this day more than all the days since I was born. (Judith 12:17-18).
Rembrandt thus transforms Pencz`s illustration into a Baroque composition which, as often occurs with his history paintings, blends into one what are in fact two consecutive scenes, making it necessary to decipher the work by means of the narrative elements, which are reduced to a minimum here: Judith`s sumptuous attire, the luxurious goblet held out to her by an also richly dressed maid, the curtains (no longer visible) and the elderly servant woman with the sack. The second question that now arises is whether the compositional alteration was made by Rembrandt or his workshop or whether it dates from a later period.
The analysis of the samples taken for the purpose of the present catalogue show, first of all, that the main figure, the maid with the goblet and the table are painted over the ground layer, which consists of two coats: an underlying coat of red, and on top a coat of grey. Second, the original background is concealed by two paint layers without varnish between them: the first is predominately copper pigment (azurite and black), and the second enamel blue. The figure of the elderly servant woman is painted over this second coat. The current condition of the painting makes it impossible to ascertain whether the background figure was painted by Rembrandt. Whatever the case, the pigments used to conceal the original background indicate that the compositional change was made in the seventeenth century, as copper pigment ceased to be employed in the eighteenth century. Both the copper and the enamel blue pigment undergo chemical breakdown over time and turn black, and this would explain in part the phantasmagorical appearance of the maid, who seems to emerge from the darkness. Nevertheless, the current black background, without highlights or modelling, appears to be a later addition dating from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century (perhaps the restoration work referred to on the label glued to the back).
It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Rembrandt, as was common practice among Dutch painters when addressing themes from the Bible, chose to depict a moment in the history of this biblical heroine that is not dealt with by Italian and Catholic iconography, namely Judith`s arrival at the camp of Holofernes. However, the absence of an iconographic tradition could have made the composition difficult to understand for the viewer, and it was therefore decided to repaint the background and add the figure of the elderly servant woman with the sack so as to transform the scene into a depiction of Judith before Holofernes, for which there was an existing iconographic tradition. Furthermore, within the same group of paintings, Rembrandt would also have painted the more traditional scene, as the X-radiograph of Saskia van Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume (Flora?) reveals that the composition originally showed Judith holding Holofernes`s head (Posada Kubissa, T.: Pintura holandesa en el Museo Nacional del Prado. Catálogo razonado, 2009, pp. 310-313).