A lavishly dressed young woman lights up Eglon van der Neer’s picture, her sumptuous silk and brocade dress contrasting strongly with the dark background. Decorated with pearls, it seems to be the star of the show. But a longer look at the painting reveals a sword in the woman’s right hand and, more gruesomely, a second figure lowering a head into a bag. Van der Neer has portrayed this young woman as Judith, the Old Testament heroine who famously seduced and decapitated Holofernes, the Assyrian general who was leading an attack on her town.
Judith’s heroism and beauty would have made her an obvious role model for the sitter, who decided to have herself portrayed in her guise. Van der Neer, however, seems to have been more occupied with capturing the qualities of the woman’s dress than with the biblical story’s narrative elements.
The sumptuous silks worn by the woman in this painting distract from its actual subject. You might identify this as a portrait of a seventeenth-century noblewoman, until you notice the sword in her lowered right hand. The richly dressed figure is in fact Judith, the hero of one of the Old Testament’s deuterocanonical books, although it might be a portrait of a young woman in her guise.
The Book of Judith (13: 6–10) recounts the narrative pictured in the shadows of van der Neer’s small painting, as it unfolds on the right side: Judith seduced the Assyrian general Holofernes after a lavish banquet and waited for him to pass out in a drunken slumber. She instructed her maid to wait outside the tent where she and Holofernes would spend the night, then, at the right moment, took the general’s sword, which hung from the bedpost. Exclaiming ‘Give me strength today, O Lord God of Israel’, she struck Holofernes’ neck twice, cutting off his head. The maid was given the decapitated head and placed it in her food bag.
Van der Neer’s depiction of the climax of this violent episode is surprisingly bloodless. The maid’s downturned head is partly visible in the shadows behind Judith’s left arm. The group is apparently not inside a tent: behind the maid is a space that looks like a church interior, with a column and a stained-glass window visible. Below Judith’s arm, the lifeless head – dangling from its hair – is about to be lowered into a sack. Almost hidden from view is Holofernes’ headless body, lying on the bed in the left background.
Judith’s heroic act saved the Israelites from the troops of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, and the episodes related to Holofernes became a favourite subject to many artists, especially from the fifteenth century onward. But for van der Neer, the Old Testament story seems to have been of secondary importance. His primary aim in this picture seems to have been the rendering of materials, in which he was an expert. Silks, brocade, velvet, metalwork and pearls take centre stage, and the artist paid special attention to Judith’s dress and Holofernes’ feathered helmet on the table beside her. If this is indeed a portrait, the sitter clearly wanted to show off her material possessions.
Van der Neer’s models in portraying materials realistically were the paintings of his countrymen Gerard ter Borch and Frans van Mieris, and less so his father and teacher, the landscape painter Aert van der Neer. Eglon’s versatility and skill would ultimately lead to an appointment as court painter under Johann Wilhelm II, Elector Palatine, in 1698, about two decades after he painted this picture.
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