PAUL PETER RUBENS
Judith Beheading Holofernes
Pen and brown ink, with brown wash
Inv. No. 15690
20.6 × 16 cm
The Old Testament Book of Judith tells of the siege of the Jewish city of Bethulia by the Assyrian general Holofernes. When the city was on the verge of surrender, the beautiful and pious widow Judith went with her maid to Holofernes’s encampment. She succeeded in gaining his sympathy and trust, and during the night, when he had fallen into a drunken sleep, she decapitated him with his own sword. Robbed of its leader, the Assyrian army abandoned the siege. Because of her triumph over evil, the heroic Judith was regarded by the Christian Church as a precursor to the Virgin Mary.
Rubens returned to the subject of Judith and Holofernes repeatedly; the drawing in the Städel Museum is closely related to his earliest painting on the theme. The latter was executed in Antwerp around 1609–10. The artist had just recently returned from a sojourn of several years in Italy and Spain during which he had, amongst other things, established a friendship with Adam Elsheimer in Rome. Although the painting itself has since been lost, its composition has come down to us in the form of an engraving.
In the Städel Museum drawing, Rubens composed the picture with rapid, almost cursory pen-strokes, and then gave it depth and light by means of sweeping brushstrokes and a wash in various gradations of intensity. A few additional touches with the pen completed the work, for example the still life in the left foreground – only hinted at and probably meant to represent a helmet and shield – and the altered position of the sword. The drawing reveals Rubens’s keen interest in the interlocking forms of the two main figures: Holofernes, on his back, being dragged head first towards the foreground, and Judith advancing forcefully over an upturned bench, brandishing the sword above her head. Close to the right-hand edge, Judith’s maid can be seen, anxiously looking back. This virtuoso pen and brush drawing, whose savage energy Rubens toned down in the finished painting, served him as a means of trying out the overall effect of a composition dominated by light and movement.