Gillis Coignet

A Night Scene, with Judith showing the head of Holofernes

A Night Scene, with Judith showing the head of Holofernes by Gillis Coignet

Artwork Detail

This panel celebrates the heroism of Judith, a beautiful and pious Jewish widow, who saves her fortified home city of Bethulia from the Assyrian army, by seducing and then decapitating its lustful general, Holofernes. Judith is shown in triumph, having emerged from the general’s tent with his severed head. She holds the grisly trophy up to her people and to the enemy army, causing the Assyrians to flee in fright. Applying paint thinly to a prepared wood panel, in a manner similar to his jewel-like oils on copper, Coignet captures the atmosphere of the hostage city of Bethulia at night, with glints of armor visible by torch light. The horrifying spectre of Holofernes’s head can be seen emerging through the gloom only by those immediately before Judith. In the foreground a family huddles with their baby, their pink skin tones, and yellow clothing illuminated by a shaft of light; a microcosm of the Jewish community that Judith has just saved. The subject comes from the apocryphal Book of Judith and was much depicted by artists in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Coignet’s first biographer, Karel Van Mander recorded that the painter 'had a subtle way of painting night scenes very inventively', noting that ‘With paint he is miraculously able to … have Judith show Holofernes’s head, with candles and torches as well as lanterns in the streets, the crowd gathering in the distance’ [transl. in N. Middelcoop (2010) n. 6]. Several versions of this scene have been attributed to Coignet or his followers, including a notable expanded version in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen. Coignet depicted an earlier scene from the Judith and Holofernes story (beheading scene), in another ‘night piece’, in a tondo format (private collection).

A Night Scene, with Judith showing the head of Holofernes
Gillis Coignet
Production date
circa 1590s
oil on panel
427 x 524 x 16 mm
Credit line
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Cécile Kruyfhooft, Belgium, 2023
Accession no
No known copyright restrictions
International Art
Display status
On display

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