Judith and Holofernes; A Study of Renaissance Feminism

When I first arrived at University, I took an Introduction to Early Art History course. Essentially, we were learning about the numerous beautiful works of art being produced in the Renaissance period. At first, I questioned why I had taken this course. After completing the class, I had thoroughly enjoyed it, yet still failed to see how it would contribute to my degree and future career path. Now that I am at the end of my undergraduate program, nearing the transition from student to adult, I find myself not ready to leave the academic life. So now as I search for a thesis topic for a Masters's program, I find myself coming back to those early essays in my Freshman year.

While previously not seeing the value of art history, I now turn to the subject for inspiration. One of the works that have caught my attention in the past week has been a rudimentary artistic analysis of Andrea Mantegna’s Judith and Holofernes, a tempera made in 1500 C.E. Paired with his Dido, these paintings were made for the art studio of the influential Marchioness of Mantua, Isabella d’Este, a prominent cultural leader.

Relying heavily on the Michael Baxandall work, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the History of Style (Oxford, 1972), I was able to piece together a simple interpretation of the events occurring. Judith’s placement at the foreground of the painting, taking up the same spatial plane as the severed head of Holofernes, this implicates the power of Judith as the hero of the story. Furthermore, through holding both head and sword, there is an implication of woman conquering man, and therefore freedom conquering tyranny. There is a theme of the perfection of the human form, as Judith is placed in the contrapasso position most commonly found in classical works of art. Mantegna places these Biblical figures in the artistic style of the ancients, portraying them as marble that has come to life.

While the maid is conveyed in the more subordinate choric position, a figure meant to provide a medium for people to place themselves within the events of the painting, this does not eliminate the main message of the tempera. The prominent interpretation is that Judith and Holofernes represent female power in the Renaissance. It is true that women had suffered in the Renaissance from a lack of rights and privileges when compared to male citizens. However, there are dimensions of female power that have yet to be explored. Mantegna’s set of tempera’s inspired me towards that direction of research, redefining the future of my historical studies.

While the history of mankind has been extensively studied, the study of women in history is still mostly uncharted territory. Due to a lack of both historical focus and prominent primary sources, we are missing the weight of half of human history. There were powerful elite women throughout the Renaissance, and their decisions were influential to society. While this line of thought was occupying my mind, I began to rewatch the Medici: Masters of Florence series on Netflix.

While the original series takes numerous historical liberties in the representation of the Medici, it was still immensely thought-provoking. For me, the show spawned questions about the Medici women and their influence, particularly Contessina de Bardi. Furthermore, how the widows of the Medici gained greater power than other married women. When Contessina and Lucrezia Tornabuoni were widows, both experienced greater respect and power in Florentine society. There is a wealth of power relations under women that are neglected in the broader historical discourse of the Renaissance.

The combination of both these factors, looking back on art history and an older Netflix original, with an inquiry into scholastic sources (Natalie R. Tomas’ The Medici Women: Gender and Power in Renaissance Florence [2003] is an excellent starting point if you are interested) provide me with inspiration for my proposal to a master's program. While I previously disregarded the art history course and Judith, I was wrong. Mantegna’s Judith and Holofernes and the modest artistic analysis I produced are influential in the future of my research. There is a wealth of information on women that would benefit the historical community and further my understanding of history. Understanding the power dynamics of these Renaissance figures, and how they relate to the patriarchy, is a promising avenue for the future of my historical career.

The point of this article is to convey that paths previously regarded as closed can be the greatest inspiration. Topics that might not have held my interest in the past now greatly intrigue me. Perhaps this article is just the ramblings of a history student, but I hope you learned something nevertheless. All subjects are truly useful in life, no matter how trivial they seem in the beginning. Do not disregard any of the work you do, it might end up inspiring you the very next day.

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