Visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and choose one of the artworks from the given list as your topic. In a four to five page paper, create a detailed visual analysis of the work that responds to the following challenge: select an element of the work and explain how it relates to the whole.

CSI: Ancient Israel

Selecting the subject of this essay was easy. I strolled past each option and stopped at the one with exposed, bloody neck-guts, a brandished sword, and precious little else to distract the eye. Unlike the Bosch-like Christ's Descent into Hell, which features so many grotesqueries that none in particular demands greater attention, Lucas Cranach the Elder, by means of Judith with the Head of Holofernes, very much hoped that I would take a gander at this ex-gentleman's recently carved innards. Well, sir, message powerfully received.

That I reacted with curiosity was instantaneous; my understanding of the causes of my reaction came only after some study. Just like the floor tiles of St. John the Divine about which I wrote in a previous assignment, I found I had been drawn to Judith because it had induced in me a feeling of cognitive dissonance. The disconcerting combination in this painting is that despite its making quite a show of Holofernes' insides, the purported instrument of his undoing shows no evidence of its gory role. The sword's cleanliness seems a sort of cosmic smirk. This unexpected detail, in plain view, prevents Judith from making complete sense at once. It instead becomes a visual puzzle, requiring closer inspection to be solved.

When first sizing up a painting, the distribution of color can provide clues to its distribution of elements, which is to say, structure. Bright colors and strong contrasts are visual magnets of sorts. In Judith, contrasts are hard to come by: the background is a dull black and most of the bordering colors are dark and muted. As an unshining example, despite a smooth, polished appearance, the sword glints not. The brightest white is found in Judith's face and skin, where it contrasts relatively strongly against the background, and at the stomach of her costume, around which wind a few black lines. Unquestionably, Holofernes' dark viscera are arresting to behold once one beholds them. But if they do invite one's gaze, it is solely on the basis of their impolite contents, and not due to any bright red coloration or otherwise sharp contrast.

This is not to say the work wants for color. On the contrary, there is a great deal of it ornamenting Judith. Her hat is so ornate I initially thought she was wearing more than one. Fluffs of white encircle folds of red which mostly envelop her head, except they are angled to provide a good look at her golden hair. Gold is a recurring theme. The bulk of her dress is green, punctuated by bands of gold at the bust, shoulder, wrist, and thrice along the arm. Where a dress cannot reach, gold boldly goes without fabric. A kind of gold chain wraps over her chest and shoulders. Two ornate golden necklaces, one atop the other, obscure Judith's neck entirely. Two unlikely but amusing possibilities: either she wears them, shrewdly, to protect against neck-for-a-neck retribution; or this has already happened, and the necklaces are structural supports to hold her own severed head aloft. More likely they, like the rest of the fancy getup, are intended as decoration, since Judith relies on her allure to attain the necessary proximity to her enemy. The colors of her costume are therefore as functional to the painting's retelling of the tale as they are ornamental to its posed protagonist.

The antagonist presents a conundrum. At what angle are we viewing him? It is obvious at first glance, less so after another. Nonetheless, there are hints. His face, pale in death, is yet swarthy compared with that of his rearranger. Perhaps his head is at an angle which receives only glancing rays of light. Judging by the shadow cast to the viewer's right of the lone head, the gently lit creases of Judith's dress, and the slightly darker shades of her skin at her left ear and shoulder, there appears to be a single light source in this work, one which originates from our upper left. This is corroborated by the shadow along the left of the blade's concave midsection. The light in Judith is sufficient to illuminate the subject and seems to have no further function. One sensible interpretation of the lack of background detail is that it is not needed; or to strengthen the claim, that further background detail would detract from the current effect of shocking simplicity. Another sensible interpretation, given where we are in the story, is that we are meant to be in a tent under dark of night.

But neither proposal addresses the geometry problem. Holofernes' skin tone points visually toward the earth tone of the surface against which he rests. Thematically, this may serve to remind us — as if it were not clear! — that the rest of him has gone back to the earth from whence he came. But what is the orientation of this surface? Is it parallel to the ground (a table) or perpendicular to it (a headboard)? As might be expected in a painting with a blank background, we are given little by way of perspective. The only indicators of depth are that some objects are obscuring other objects by being in front of them. We do seem to be at eye level with Judith, or slightly above. Her gaze is direct, we have no view of the underside of her primary chin, and conversely we can see slightly above her head. Even given this clue, the angle of Holofernes' head lies inconclusively between the horizontal and the vertical. It may in fact be held in a precarious position by Judith's seemingly casually draped left hand and forearm, pressing down against his hair and perhaps furtively holding it with her concealed fingers. Certainly there exist other possibilities for the orientation of the surface. But lacking perspective, which could have been provided by “zooming out” or by detailing the grain of the wood, for instance, there is no more or less support for such a hypothesis, and on the basis of Ockham's Razor an unusual angle seems unlikely.

The position of the liberated head can thus be fixed within some range, but no more precisely than that. The conundrum persists. Is there a problem we can solve? Indeed there is. Judith's arranged posture suggests that we are not witnessing the beheading's immediate aftermath. Her finery, heavy on greens and golds, could be either part of a pose, part of the trap she lay for Holofernes, or both. Our shibboleth is her dispassionate expression — cool eyes, firm but neutral mouth — and her clean sword. This is not the moment of truth, nor the moment thereafter, but rather a pose intended to dramatize her conquest.

Finally, albeit briefly, here the viewer earns respite. An important aspect of the narrative has been confidently determined. One can now simply look and know what one is seeing. But victory is only temporary. Why should one aspect be comprehensible and another not? Cognitive dissonance returns with a vengeance. Much like the character it champions, Judith with the Head of Holofernes finagles entry into our minds via its strangely powerful allure, and endures as it begins: with a question mark.