JUDITH

(SANDRO BOTTICELLI)

MAURICE HEWLETT

In the days when it was verging on a question whether a man could be at the same time a good Christian and an artist the chosen subjects of painting were significant of the approaching crisis—those glaring moral contrasts in history which, for want of a happier term, we call dramatic. Why this was so, whether Art took a hint from Politics, or had withdrawn her more intimate manifestations to await likelier times, is a question it were long to answer. The subjects, at any rate, were such as the Greeks, with their surer instincts and saving grace of sanity in matters of this kind, either forbore to meddle with or treated as decoratively as they treated acanthus-wreaths. To-day we call them "effective" subjects; we find they produce shocks and tremors; we think it braces us to shudder, and we think that Art is a kind of emotional pill; we measure it quantitatively, and say that we "know what we like." And doubtless there is something piquant in the quivering produced, for example, by the sight of white innocence fluttering helpless in a grey shadow of lust. So long as the Bible remained a god that piquancy was found in a Massacre of the Innocents; in our own time we find it in a Faust and Gretchen, in the Doré Gallery, or in the RoyalAcademy. It was a like appreciation of the certain effect of vivid contrasts as powerful didactic agents (coupled with, or drowning, a something purer and more devout) which had inspired those most beautiful and distinctive of all the symbols of Catholicism, the Adoration of the Kings, the Christ-child cycle, and which raised the Holy Child and Maid-Mother to their place above the mystic tapers and the Cross. Naturally the Old Testament, that garner of grim tales, proved a sick wine: David and Golias, Susanna and the Elders, the Sacrifice of Isaac, Jethro's Daughter. But the story of Judith did not come to be painted in Tuscan sanctuaries until Donatello of Florence had first cast her in bronze at the prayer of Cosimo pater patriæ. Her entry was dramatic enough at least: Dame Fortune may well have sniggered as she spun round the city on her ball. Cosimo the patriot and his splendid grandson were no sooner dead and their brood sent flying, than Donatello's Judith was set up in the Piazza as a fit emblem of rescue from tyranny, with the vigorous motto, to make assurance double, "exemplvm salvtis pvblicae cives posvere." Savonarola, who knew his Bible, saw here a keener application of Judith's pious sin. A few years later that same Judith saw him burn. Thus, as an incarnate cynicism, she will pass; as a work of art she is admittedly one of her great creator's failures. Her neighbour Perseus of the Loggia makes this only too plain! For Cellini has seized the right moment in a deed of horror, and Donatello, with all his downrightness and grip of the fact, has hit upon the wrong. It is fatal to freeze a moment of time into an eternity of writing. His Judith will never strike: her arm is palsied where it swings. The Damoclean sword is a fine incident for poetry; but Holofernes was no Damocles, and if he had been, it were intolerable to cast his experience in bronze. Donatello has essayed that thing impossible for sculpture, to arrest a moment instead of denote a permanent attribute. Art is adjectival, is it not, O Donatello? Her business is to qualify facts, to say what things are, not to state them, to affirm that they are. A sculptured Judith was done not long afterwards, carved, as we shall see, with a burin on a plate; and the man who so carved her was a painter.