Pseudo – de Vos

Scenes from Judith & Holofernes: an Allegory of Female Shrewdness

The present painting, a fabulously preserved and fine example of Northern Mannerist painting, was painted in Antwerp, ca. 1560-1570. Is was historically assumed to have been painted by the famous mannerist artist Maerten de Vos (1531/32 – 1603), a versatile and prolific painter and draughtsman who spent 8 years in Italy – which explains why his work, in style as well as the use of colour, was so indebted to Italian painters such Veronese, Tintoretto and Michelangelo – before settling in Antwerp, where he became on of the leading history painters. De Vos profited handsomely from the great deal of commissions that became available after the destruction during the iconoclastic rage known as the Beeldenstorm in 1566. Although several experts still believe the present work could be the work by the young Maerten de Vos, Carl Van de Velde of the Rubenianum has proposed adding the work to the oeuvre (a body of about 20 paintings) of the so-called ‘Pseudo-de Vos’ – a moniker given to an as yet unidentified painter whose style and use of colour were (obviously) very similar to that of de Vos in the early days of his career.

The painting depicts the story of Judith and Holofernes, from the Book of Judith in the Old Testament. Holofernes was an Assyrian general who laid siege to the town of Bethulia, where Judith lived. Using a ruse, she gained access to Holofernes and gained his trust. One night, she went to him (ostensibly to seduce him) and when he was passed out in a drunken stupor, she decapitated him in his tent, thus demoralizing his troops and sending them packing. The scene became the subject of many paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The present work, however, may be considered iconographically unique, in that as the central theme it does not depict the beheading  itself (Judith can in fact be seen beheading Holofernes in the background of the see-through to the left, inside a tiny tent), nor Judith showing the head of the slain general (which is shown in the gorgeous, loosely painted see-through to the right). Instead, the painting shows Judith, flanked by her maid (who will assist in the murder), towering over the quivering town elders, who are pleading and begging and are clearly out of options: surrender to Holofernes must be the only sensible option! She, however, already knows what is to be done – note her very subtle smile – and takes command. The rest is (albeit probably apocryphal) history.

This iconography is highly unusual: in painting, the present work is believed to be the only one where the artist chose to tell the story in this fashion. It must be seen in the light of the topos of the so-called “Power of Women” or Weibermacht, an iconographic theme in the Northern Renaissance showing, according to the art historian Maryan Ainsworth (2013), “heroic or wise men dominated by women”, presenting “an admonitory and often humorous inversion of the male-dominated sexual hierarchy.”  Examples of this include, for instance, Aristotle being ridden by his maid Phyllis, or Samson losing his hair to Delilah. Susan Smith (1997) further defined this as “the representational practice of bringing together at least two, but usually more, well-known figures from the Bible, ancient history, or romance to exemplify a cluster of interrelated themes that include the wiles of women, the power of love, and the trials of marriage”. Smith had argued that this topos is not simply a “straightforward manifestation of medieval antifeminism”; rather, it is “a site of contest through which conflicting ideas about gender roles could be expressed.” For many artists and scholars, Judith’s sexualized femininity interestingly and sometimes contradictorily combined with her masculine aggression. Judith was one of the virtuous women whom Van Beverwijck mentioned in his published apology (1639) for the superiority of women to men, and a common example of this “Power of Women” topos. As such, the present work can be seen not only as a biblical story, but also as a sort of allegory on female shrewdness, which lays waste to the plans of often stupid men.

Artist Detail: Pseudo - de Vos (active in Antwerp ca. 1570)
Medium: oil on panel
Dimensions: 96 x 125 cm