Two Judiths at the Dayton Art Institute

i. On Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Carlo Saraceni

"The writer’s habit is overdetermination; the painter’s is obsession.” Susan Stewart

For thousands of years we’ve pronounced and depicted her story,
the writers and artists palming and passing, call and responding.
Hard to look at this one and not think of others: Donatello,
Caravaggio and Boticelli, of Mategna and Solimena, then later
and not Italian, Goya’s take, in which Judith is smirking– 
all of them obsessed with the dead male head and the woman
who hacked it off. The Renaissance loved this moment
when it’s detached and the one right after, as it’s stuffed in a bag—
and the one just before with the force of her sword.

Then when I think I’ve seen it all, my former student,
after art class in Italy, emails me, “Artemisia Gentileschi!”
and I add the one raped by her art teacher Tassi,
whom she saw acquitted, focusing on the moment
of detachment and the one right after, caught in her risk.
Repreated and yet none the same: Caravaggio shows Judith
squeamish, wincing, while Gentileschi makes
her muscular and certain in her murder.

Here in Saraceni, it’s not so black and white but clearly
dark and light – definitely cut and dried: three faces half-lit,
the maid’s and Judith’s, two most live and wide-eyed
while the general’s, shut-eyed, hangs lantern-like from her hand.
She’s neither shrinking nor happy, just doing her job,
like the Nicaraguan heroines who did what they had to do,
then went back to their mothering, teaching,
prostitution, nursing and politics.

Saraceni’s Judith holds a bag open to drop the head in,
then head home along with the one witness, her maid.
Boticelli shows them walking home, Judith
carrying the sword while the maid has Holofernes’ head.
Being a writer, I know from Julia Howe that “the sword of murder
is not the balance of justice,” know, too, it’s not the whole story,
and I turn to the museum’s other Judith.

ii. On The Story of Judith and Holofernes by Master of Marradi

          after Delmore Schwartz

So what is the hubbub? It’s war, epic as always,
whether it belongs to D.W. Griffith or George Bush the Second,
and the scene’s the Middle East—Iran to be exact, where everyone’s ground down
by the “teething anxiety, the gnawing nervousness” of waiting for,
then living with, the days, months, and years of more fighting and death.

It’s a five-foot strip retelling the ages-old, grinding-on story of war,
but told by a brush pointed to teach some bride, a painting
and carving on the wooden cassone of her bridal trunk, a monument
really, to one woman’s cunning and planning and guts.
Eventually, wrenched off the trunk, the work moved to Dayton
and was mounted, and yet it abides “everywhere and elsewhere
where images can delight the eye and heart,” by which
Delmore Schwartz did not mean, but I mean: the Internet.

So take a look, wherever you are, move right to left with Judith,
from the camp where she murders the general, then marches home
to the battle scene she will put an end to. You might want to pause
at the pale blue river, not yet flowing with blood,
its slender trees and large rocks, the battle raging on both sides,
more and more deaths to come until everyone would have been
killed or exhausted because one man had willed it so.

This story has been shuffled off into the Apocrypha
because it’s a work of fiction, like Lysistrata and all those stories
about women who bring an end to war. It didn’t really happen,
the scholars insist, meaning it won’t, but the artists
keep it retelling it anyway. Here in the panel, we are left
with Judith holding her sword, but on this occasion,
let’s get the whole picture, shall we? Remember how in Isaiah,
that old pacifist, the swords are beat into ploughshares?

Well, to the left, just a bit outside the frame, in the book of Judith,
a pacifist herself, the sword becomes a garlanded wand,
then many wands she hands to the women of Bethulia,
who join her in dance that the men follow too and sing.
Then Judith lived long and happily, to age one hundred and five.
As may we all. Pass it on.

For Judith Crandell and Judith Mitiguy

– diane kendig

View Saraceni's Judith with the Head of Holofernes

View Master of Marradi's The Story of Judith and Holofernes