Maaerten van Heemskerck, Judith, 1560

From the Getty Museum:

Martin van Heemskerck chose to show the Old Testament heroine Judith at her moment of triumph, holding up the decapitated head of Holofernes, an Assyrian general. The Assyrians had besieged Judith’s city, but when the inhabitants were on the point of capitulating, she developed a plan to save them. Dressing herself so as to catch the eye of any man who might see her, Judith entered the enemy camp and quickly entranced the general with her beauty. He invited her to his tent with plans to seduce her, but became too drunk. She was therefore able to grab his sword and sever his head. 

The decapitated body of Holofernes, with its gushing wound, lies on a canopied bed in the elaborate tent to the right. Judith herself wears an intricate armored breastplate over her richly embroidered clothes. In the distance, the other Assyrian tents cluster outside the city walls, while the army marches up to the gate. 

Van Heemskerck’s careful cross-hatching and neat penwork indicate that this was a final version of this drawing. It was then passed to a printmaker to be copied for the engraving of Judith in the series of six prints illustrating Good Women of the Old Testament. 

Vecelin von Wasserburg made use of the resources available at court. After all, who knew where he’d go next–among which barbarians he’d find himself looking up at the stars outside a tent, trying to figure things out all by himself that he often couldn’t even name.  He really enjoyed his lessons with a monk of the Irish monastery St Jacob, Father Finnegan. “There is the old philosophical question, I’m sure you have heard of it, perhaps you have asked yourself this very question, perhaps a schoolmaster looked you straight in the face…?”, said Father Finnegan, but Vecelin, who’d never received any schooling beyond fencing and riding, shook his head. “Very well then, the question is this: when a great work of art, a man-made work of art, like … say, the Colossus of Rhodes – you have heard of it, yes?”, and after receiving a nod from his pupil, pleased with himself, because he’d picked the right example, he continued: “… sails through the air and through the ring of fire, crosses the planetary spheres and travels all alone into a realm with no man, and is, so to speak, lost out there, lost to the human eye and to human appreciation: will we still call it ‘great’, or will it become any work of art, very art-ful perhaps, but no longer ‘great’. What do you think?” – Vecelin liked the Colossus and he liked Finnegan’s way of explaining things. He had followed his hand when the priest threw it up in the air expelling the mighty Colossus from Earth and in his thoughts Vecelin had straddled the enormous statue as it began its lonely trip into outer space. But now, out there, alone with the Colossus, he was lost with him. It was not clear. It seemed to him, if he could still conceive of the statue drifting among the stars, that the Colossus was not alone even though nobody could physically see him. When he said so, Father Finnegan said: “Very good, my son, very good. You show more than quickness of mind, you show – imagination.” He paused weightily. “But who is this someone who still perceives the Colossus when he’s so utterly alone?” – And without thinking, not knowing what he said, the knight answered: “The Holy Spirit sees him. The Spirit watches on our behalf and so the Colossus is still great, isn’t he?” A grin spread across the priest’s face and made his cheeks glow: “Yes, my son, yes, and that is the true nature of greatness, that’s why we call any great work ‘spirited’- spiritus sanctus vidit magnificia!” – And as if this outburst and the summoning of the ancient giant had excessively exhausted him, he collapsed. He waved and smiled tiredly at Vecelin to signal that the lesson had come to an end.

#9/100 Days 2011. Photo: the Colossus of Rhodes was one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, shown here in an engraving by Maarten van Heemskerck . The Irish were called ‘iroscots’ on the Continent and there were special ‘gaelic’ (Benedictine) monasteries (“Schottenkloster”) where missionaries were trained for Ireland. The example described here links back to Plato’s treatment of the problem of universals in his theory of forms.