A young woman is moving towards an open window or door through which a hilly landscape can be seen. She turns to look back at us over her shoulder, her arm parallel with a stone parapet on which the date 1510 is written. On a metal salver she carries the greyish-green severed head of a man. The woman’s expression is hard to read – her lips are pressed closed but her eyes glint with moisture and emotion. Her identity is not entirely clear – she could be Salome with the head of John the Baptist or Judith with the head of Holofernes.
We do not know who commissioned this painting, which the young Sebastiano painted shortly before he moved permanently to Rome. The atmospheric rendering of the landscape view reveals the influence of his older colleagues Giovanni Bellini and especially Giorgione, with whom Sebastiano appears to have been close.
A young woman is moving towards an open window or door through which a hilly landscape can be seen. She turns to look back at us over her shoulder, her arm parallel with a stone parapet on which the date 1510 is written. On a metal salver she carries the greyish-green severed head of a man. The woman’s expression is hard to read – her lips are pressed closed but her eyes glint with moisture and emotion.
Her identity is not entirely clear – she could be Salome with the head of John the Baptist or Judith with the head of Holofernes. The New Testament records how John the Baptist was beheaded at the request of Herod’s wife Herodias, and his head presented to her daughter Salome on a charger. Salome then brought the head to her mother (Matthew 14: 1–11).
The beheading of Holofernes by Judith is told in the Old Testament apocryphal Book of Judith. Holofernes was an Assyrian general who was about to destroy Judith’s home city of Bethulia. Judith, a beautiful widow, was able to enter Holofernes’s tent because of his desire for her. She got him drunk, decapitated him and took his head away in a sack or basket. Judith was a common subject in Venice at the time as the story of her elimination of a powerful would-be conqueror was politically relevant. Almost every Venetian artist of the time – including Cariani, Catena and Titian – painted the subject.
We have no documentation of the commission to help us identify the woman, but Judith seems the likelier subject given her popularity in Venice. Traditionally the trencher with the head belongs to Salome, whereas Judith usually carries a sack, but not always. Judith tends to be depicted carrying a sword and accompanied by a female servant, but there are exceptions. Ultimately, it may come down to whether we interpret the woman here as heroic (Judith) or villainous (Salome), but even that is problematic as artists interested in psychological truths would not necessarily choose such clear-cut characterisation.
In any case, her pose relates to that of Titian’s innovative Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, also dating from about 1510, whose sitter similarly looks over his shoulder with his elbow protruding towards us. Sebastiano was friendly with the somewhat younger Titian at this point, and it is likely they exchanged compositional ideas. Titian may have been responding to Sebastiano in this case, though it is impossible to say with certainty.
This painting belongs to Sebastiano’s early years in Venice, painted shortly before he left for Rome. The atmospheric rendering of the landscape and the idea of arranging the figure as if turning toward the viewer reveal the influence of his older colleague Giorgione. The woman’s costume and features closely resemble those of Sebastiano’s Portrait of a Woman as a Wise Virgin (National Gallery of Art, Washington) of about 1510. The two pictures are almost identical in scale, suggesting that they may originally have been intended to hang together as a pair or as part of a larger series. It is possible that the painting may be a portrait of a woman in the guise of her namesake, Judith, although the similarity of her features to those of female saints in other paintings by Sebastiano suggests that she may just have been a frequent model. There may have been a growing Venetian market for such compact, intimate psychological studies of biblical and historical figures.
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