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Jan Sanders van Hemessen

Judith

Jan Sanders van Hemessen. Judith, about 1540. Wirt D. Walker Fund.

Also known as
Jan van Hemessen, Jan Sanders de Hemessen, Jan Sanders
Date of birth
Date of death

One of the most idiosyncratic artists working in Antwerp in the first half of the 16th century, Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s style reflects the influence of Rome on artists in this city during the 1520s. He, like other Northern artists who traveled to Rome to study the ruins of antiquity as well as the artistic wonders of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael Sanzio, integrated the heroic and monumental forms of Michelangelo with the facial expressions of Raphael and realistic detail typical of Northern European art. By fusing these stylistic tendencies, he created compelling and moralizing genre scenes and portrayals of biblical subjects, often on a large scale.

The artist’s Judith, an arresting depiction of the biblical tale of Judith and Holofernes, illustrates his ability to dramatize familiar narratives using a variety of contemporary references. The nude heroine, starkly lit against a dark background, twists into the figura serpintinata pose beloved by the Italian Mannerists. Yet the muscular body of this sword-wielding maiden recalls Michelangelo’s powerful nudes. By placing her close to the picture plane, Van Hemessen focuses attention on her physical and moral fortitude in slaying the general Holofernes. The positioning of the general’s decapitated head near her hips is a bawdy touch more commonly seen in the artist’s genre scenes.

By imbuing his biblical subjects with an earthy realism, Van Hemessen infused a liveliness into historically distant narratives, a strategy that would impact Northern painters throughout the 16th century.

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