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Cranach in Nashville, Tennessee

March 20th, 2010
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I was attending a publishing conference in Nashville, Tennessee and staying right across the street from the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, which is featuring an exhibit titled Masterpieces of European Painting, featuring works on loan from a wonderful museum in Puerto Rico. Some real gems are in the collection.

I approached the guide desk at the entrance to the exhibit and asked, “Do you have any Cranach’s?” They said, “Who?” and then my eye caught one in the first room in the exhibit and I said, “That’s a Cranach!” Sure enough, it was. The museum staff was duly impressed, actually, stunned that anyone would know who Cranach is and would recognize one of his works from across the room. Poor Cranach.

The painting is Judith With the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1530, one of at least a dozen versions that Cranach painted. I’ve seen others, here and here and here and here, the last link takes you to a version of the scene said to be the last one Cranach painted, in 1545.

In my opinion, by far, the one held by the museum in Puerto Rico is the best of any I’ve seen. I was able nearly literally to put my nose on the painting as I inspected it closely. It is quite a striking juxtaposition between the gory decapitated head and the tranquil young woman holding the sword. What is particularly unique about this painting is that, unlike most of the other paintings of this scene by Cranach, in this one Judith is staring directly at you.

I grabbed a photo on my iPhone, not great, but…better than nothing.

Here is more information about the subject of the painting and I’ll insert another version of the scene.

Cranach executed more than a dozen versions of the subject of Judith and Holofernes throughout his career. The main prototype appears to be the large panel of circa 1530, now in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart (Friedländer and Rosenberg, Cranach, 1978, pp. 115-116, no. 230). The present work has been identified as a mature work by the artist, datable to circa 1545. It is also the most diminutive of the known autograph versions but sacrifices nothing in the quality of its draftsmanship or exquisite detail. The juxtaposition between the energetic veins in the marble shelf, the gruesome coldness of Holofernes’s severed head and the sensitivity of Judith’s features reveals the artist at his most expressive.

The subject of Judith and Holofernes became popular in the Middle Ages as an image of virtue overcoming vice or an allegory of man’s misfortunes at the hands of scheming women. Judith, a patriotic Jewish heroine, became a symbol of the Jews’ struggle against their ancient oppressors in the Near East. The Assyrian army, under the command of their general Holofernes, had laid siege to the Jewish city of Bethulia. When the inhabitants were on the point of capitulating, Judith, a wealthy young widow, devised a scheme to save them. She adorned herself ‘so as to catch the eye of any man who might see her’ (Old Testament, Apocrypha; 10:5) and set off with a maid into the enemy lines. By pretending to desert her people, she gained access to Holofernes and proposed to him a fictitious scheme for overcoming the Jews. After she had been several days in the camp, Holofenes became enamored of her and planned a banquet to which she was invited. When it was over and they were alone, he intended to seduce her but he was quickly overcome with liquor. Judith seized his sword and with two swift blows severed his head. Taking the head in a sack, Judith and her maid made their way back to Bethulia before the deed was discovered. The murder threw the Assyrians into disarray and they fled, pursued by the Israelites.

Here is information about the Museu de Arte de Ponce, a fascinating story of art collecting.

Founded in 1959 in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the Museo de Arte de Ponce (MAP) includes more than 3,600 works of art from Europe, Latin America, and Puerto Rico. Masterpieces of European Painting from Museo de Arte de Ponce presents sixty of the museum’s most extraordinary Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, French, British, German, and Austrian paintings dating from the fourteenth to the twentieth century. This traveling exhibition marks the first time that an extensive selection of works from MAP has been presented in the United States. The opportunity arose from the temporary closure of the museum, which is now undergoing a major renovation and expansion.

Luis A. Ferré (1904–2003), a native of Ponce and the founder of MAP, conceived of the museum after his first trip to Europe in 1950. Ferré was a successful industrialist, philanthropist, and gifted pianist who served as governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico from 1968 to 1972. Of his many accomplishments, he considered MAP to be the most important. With a limited budget and the advice of art historian Julius Held (1905–2002), Ferré sought out and acquired paintings of high quality and displayed a remarkable lack of concern for prevailing tastes and fashions of the time. He wanted the collection to impart a sense of discovery for scholars, artists, and especially the general public. Masterpieces of European Painting from Museo de Arte de Ponce affirms the pioneering nature of Ferré’s vision. Art Museum.

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Categories: Art
  1. Julian
    March 20th, 2010 at 09:43 | #1

    We have a slightly modified version here in Louisville. Alas, the bottom half of the painting featuring the severed head was…well, severed. Still, enough of it is left so that you can still easily appreciate his wonderful technique.
    Here’s a link for those interested.


    • March 20th, 2010 at 10:03 | #2

      Thank you, Julian. Actually, the painting you pointed us to is one of a number of paintings that Cranach painted depicting Herodias, Herod’s wife, who asked for the head of John the Baptist. Similar in style/design, but different subject.

  2. Paul K
    March 20th, 2010 at 20:52 | #3

    This is very helpful information. The next time I find myself besieged by hostile Assyrians (I hate it when that happens), I’ll know precisely what to do. I might have difficulty finding a woman willing to go along with the plan, however.

  3. March 20th, 2010 at 22:06 | #4

    Went with my journalist friend on a press pass. My favorites were indeed the piece you mention, as well as an altarpiece with grisailles on the back (on the door faces). Next time you’re in Nashville, look me up if you have time, we’ll do lunch.

  4. Karyn
    March 21st, 2010 at 12:53 | #5

    “. . . virtue overcoming vice . . . .”
    O, so rare this side of eternity, but occasionally some might dare to dream.

    “. . . or an allegory of man’s misfortunes at the hands of scheming women.”
    So exactly what are you implying here, should your female followers be offended? ;)

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