When Christmas Met Hanukkah in Sweden

I spent Christmas in Ramshyttan, a tiny Swedish village in the middle of dense birch woods and semi-iced-over lakes. Despite the absence of snow – almost unheard of at this time of year, according to the locals – it was the ideal location for a misty and mystical Yuletide (Christmas in Swedish is Jul), complete with 18th century hunting lodge and a wood-fired sauna on the edge of the lake.

What I didn’t expect to find there was any hint of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday roughly congruent with Christmas but so remote from the frosty and peaceful forests of Sweden as to be its polar opposite. Yet there it was: an enormous old painting in the house we were occupying featuring Judith (or Yehudit), a prominent member of the Maccabee clan, and the ancient – possibly mythical – bloodletting at the heart of the modern holiday.

While my daughter Zoe lit Hanukkah candles on a menorah she had brought from Israel (preserving her roots in the midst of the Swedish pagans), Judith glowered massively on the wall a floor below, a steely glint in her eye, one hand on the hilt of her sword and the inebriated Assyrian general Holofernes at her feet. It was a bizarre Baroque complement to the Zionist-nationalist mini-ceremony conducted by Zoe in the upstairs kitchen.

Judith and Holofones

The Book of Judith is one of the bible’s deuterocanonical books, accepted as canonical by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but not by Protestants and Jews. It was probably written in Hebrew during the Second Temple period but only exists in Greek translation. It does not appear in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, though it is the subject of commentaries in the Talmud and Midrash.

Judith, according to the book, was a beautiful Jewish widow from the town of Bethulia (possibly the current village of Misilyah in the northern West Bank), which was besieged by the Assyrian general Holofernes. In order to save the town from starvation, Judith inveigled her way into Holofernes’ camp, fed him briny goat’s cheese to make him thirsty and then plied him with wine until he passed out. Then she cut off his head and carried it back to Bethulia. Siege over and Jews saved.

Though the Book of Judith makes no mention of Hanukkah, she is described in it as the “daughter of Yohanan,” the high priest and founder of the Hasmonean dynasty, and the sister of Judah Maccabee, leader of the revolt against the Seleucids. Over the years, Judith and Hanukkah became intertwined. Tradition gave Judith credit for the victory in the Maccabees’ campaign and it became traditional for the Judith tale to be read on the Shabbat of Hanukkah.

It has even been suggested that the cheese on which Holofernes gorged may be the source of the traditional eating of dairy products on Hanukkah. Like many Jewish holidays, the contemporary celebration of Hanukkah is largely a modern invention; part of the Zionist mission to create a common Jewish identity by coopting biblical myths and endowing them with contemporary significance. In the case of Hanukkah, an obscure tale about a revolt against Hellenism (secular modernity) became the exemplar of the new Zionist Jew who took his fate into his own hands and fought for national liberation.

Both the story of the Maccabee revolt and that of Judith are notable for their lack of divine intervention; the Maccabee victory and the killing of Holofernes were the result of human agency. God had nothing to do with either. That lacuna was corrected in the Talmud, which came up with the miraculous eight-day jar of oil, but Hanukkah never became a rabbinical favorite. It languished in obscurity and might well have disappeared entirely had it not  been for Christianity and the arts.

It was the Church that preserved the books of the Maccabees, including The Book of Judith, and made them canonical. In the Middle Ages, Judah Maccabee was considered (along with Joshua and David) to be one of the nine Worthies, historical or legendary figures who personified chivalric values, while the act of Judith killing Holofernes – feminine sexuality transformed into violent aggression – became a staple of Renaissance and Baroque artists.

One of the earliest artistic depictions of Judith and Holofernes was the eponymous bronze sculpture created by Donatello towards the end of his life (1464). There were also early works by Botticelli (The Return of Judith to Bethulia), Andrea Mantegna and even by Michelangelo – the center detail in a larger fresco in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. She also fascinated a whole slew of Baroque painters, among them Caravaggio, Correggio, Allori, Rembrandt and Rubens. The best-known modern painter to tackle Judith was Gustav Klimt, who created two paintings on the theme, Judith I (1901) and Judith II (1909).

The portrayal of Judith changed over the years, from a modestly dressed and chaste warrior to a nude or semi-nude femme fatale – a symbolic fall from grace, according to Renate Peters. “The contradictory aspects of Judith’s trickery versus her religious dimension, and her womanly wiles versus her viraginous qualities are integral to the plot of the myth, and have in fact been the point of contention between Judith’s admirers and her denigrators.”

The enormous Judith and Holofernes on the wall of the manor house in Ramshyttan portrays an in-between Judith. One sleeve of her blouse has slipped off the shoulder exposing décolletage but minimal cleavage. She is otherwise fully – and even modestly – dressed. Her eyes, which are fixed on the prostate general, betray neither enticement nor religious ecstasy, a la Joan of Arc. She is simply a woman determined to complete what she has begun.

The house belongs to my friend Howard, who bought the painting at an auction about twelve years ago and had it restored in Stockholm. The plaque at the front-bottom of the painting names the artist as Lukas Giordano (1632-1705), a Neopolitan painter (his first name is usually given as Luca) nicknamed “Luca Fa Presto” (Luke work quickly) due to his speed of execution and prodigious output. He was widely influential in both Italy and Spain, where he spent ten years carrying out major decorative commissions for Charles II.

Though Giordano was clearly aware of the Judith tale – one of his last works was the Triumph of Judith (1704) in the dome of the Treasury Chapel of the Certosa di S. Martino in Naples – experts who have studied the painting do not think it can be attributed to him.

The likeliest painter according to the experts is Theodor van Thulden (1606-1669), an artist and engraver from Antwerp known for his altarpieces, portraits and allegorical paintings. He was a student of, and collaborator with, Peter Paul Rubens, whose Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1616) is one of the best-known examples of the Judith genre. Rubens did a second painting by the same name in 1620.

Works by Van Thulden hang in the Louvre, the Prado, the Hermitage, the Rijksmuseum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other illustrious galleries. None of the several dozen I have viewed online seems to have the intensity and depth of the painting I spent  Christmas/Hanukkah with; they seem flatter, more simplistic. But of course there are many of his paintings I haven’t seen and I am the last person who should be commenting on the origin of a work of art.

Howard has traced the ownership of the painting back to Sir William Ingram, a Liberal politician in the UK who died in 1924. But how it got to Ingram is unknown. Given the size of the painting (almost two meters by three meters), it’s not the sort of thing one can take around for evaluation – and, given its isolation, Ramshyttan is not the sort of place art experts tend to frequent. We may never know who painted it.

For myself, I enjoyed spending a few days in Judith’s brooding presence, particularly in light of the connection she represented between modern Hanukkah and a traditional Swedish Yuletide. As envisaged by Van Thulden (or Giordano or whoever), Judith was neither Mary nor Eve, the usual poles of Renaissance depiction; nor was she sultry seducer of Klimt’s 1901 work.

The Judith of Ramshyttan is determined, slightly overwhelmed and has a fleeting sneer on her lips. There is no hesitation in the hand grasping the hilt of the sword. While most artistic depictions of the story capture the moment of the beheading or the severed head and body, this Judith is contemplating what she is about to do. She is rational and down to earth; a surprisingly modern Judith.

There are the usual Christian motifs in the painting, from the frolicking cherubs in the top left corner to the crescent moon symbolizing the Virgin Mary. Like most art at the time, it was a biblical allegory for a Christian world. But Judith herself does not have the armor-like clothing of Donatello’s statue and the only items of jewelry she is wearing are strings of pearls around her neck and sword hand and a pearl pendant – notwithstanding the statement in the text that she “adorned herself with all her ornaments.” Perhaps that’s all she had.

To my unschooled eyes, the Judith of Ramshyttan might well be modern and Jewish; an over-dressed young woman from north Tel Aviv courageously ridding the world of yet another anti-Semite. I seriously doubt whether that’s what the painter had in mind, but it worked for me in-between saunas and walks in the forest. A contemporary Hanukkah scene. Happy 2020!

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