I recently created a Tumblr page for The Second Achilles. As well as being a place to reblog pictures of the great man himself I also use the page to reblog other classically related pictures and pictures that really have no place there but which I like anyway. For example, a few days ago, I found a still from one of my favourite films – Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café. No connection to ancient Greece at all (that I can think of, anyway) but I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to reblog it, anyway.
The following detail comes from Tumblr. It is a detail from Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes.
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio: a detail
I was immediately struck by Judith’s expression. Her brow is furrowed, she is concerned; indeed, it feels like she is ageing ten years before our very eyes. And no wonder for at this moment she is cutting Holofernes’ head off. What I don’t see in this detail is fear or regret. There is a steeliness in her face, a determination to see her deadly job through.
The reason why the close up of Judith jumped out at me is because it tangentially recalled to mind a moment from Michael Wood’s documentary on Alexander (2005). In the first episode, he visits an (unnamed) Greek archaeologist who shows him a little carving of the nineteen or twenty year old Alexander’s head, which was found on a banqueting couch in Philip II’s tomb. Wood says he has a ‘sensitive face’ and compares it to a bust of the thirty year old Alexander who looks like ‘a troubled man’. If you would like to watch the sequence, it begins at 6:47 in the video below.
I suppose the reason why Caravaggio’s painting reminded me of the carving and sculpture of Alexander is because of the way he, Alexander, goes from being young and carefree in the former to old and worn in the latter. By contrast, Caravaggio manages to achieve a broad range of emotion in just the one image. And he makes Judith look so beautiful as well!
It would be unfair to say that this makes the Italian a better artist than Alexander’s sculptors. They were, no doubt, working to very different rules than Caravaggio but the detail happily reminds me of why Caravaggio is such a great artist and makes me now want to go and look at some of his other paintings again.
On a personal note – I first read Judith’s story when I studied the Anglo-Saxon poem at university. It stayed in my mind because the poet calls refers to Judith as ‘ælfscinu’ – elf shining – which (I am trusting to memory here) given that the Anglo-Saxons were not keen on elves and elvish things seemed an odd choice of word to use. Perhaps by the time the poet (Cynewulf) wrote his poem ælfscinu had changed its meaning?
If you attend Mass today at a Catholic church be prepared for a familiar name to pop up at the start of the First Reading. It comes from 1 Maccabees. Here are the opening lines as given on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
[From the descendants of Alexander’s officers]
there sprang a sinful offshoot, Antiochus Epiphanes,
son of King Antiochus, once a hostage at Rome.
He became king in the year one hundred and thirty seven
of the kingdom of the Greeks…
The first line is in square brackets because it is a truncated version of a much longer passage. Livius gives the longer version of the book’s opening:
After Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came from the land of Kittim, had defeated Darius, king of the Persians and the Medes, he succeeded him as king. (He had previously become king of Greece.) He fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth. He advanced to the ends of the earth, and plundered many nations. When the earth became quiet before him, he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up. He gathered a very strong army and ruled over countries, nations, and princes, and they became tributary to him.
After this he fell sick and perceived that he was dying. So he summoned his most honored officers, who had been brought up with him from youth, and divided his kingdom among them while he was still alive. And after Alexander had reigned twelve years, he died.
Then his officers began to rule, each in his own place. They all put on crowns after his death, and so did their sons after them for many years; and they caused many evils on the earth. From them came forth a sinful root…
As we know, Alexander didn’t divide up his empire at all – it might have been better if he had – and I can’t help but note the writer’s sweeping statement that the diadochi ’caused many evils on the earth’. This makes me want to try and find out more about the situation of the Jews in the Successor empires – especially Egypt as I am most interested in Ptolemy I and his descendants.
The reason I would like to do so is because I had the impression that – by the time that 1 and 2 Maccabees were written, in the second century BC – Jews were well established in Alexandria having (under the patronage possibly of Ptolemy I and certainly Ptolemy II) translated the Septuagint. Perhaps life had been and still was bad for them despite this or maybe the writer was speaking from the perspective of his own age and location. I’m afraid I don’t know enough to say.
Anyway, it was a nice surprise to see Alexander’s name this morning. I believe he is referred to more allusively in the Book of Daniel and even in the Quran. If I can locate the references I will certainly mention them here.