A Mighty Woman: Chicago 1

Posted May 17th, 2013
Judith and the Head of Holofernes by Jan van Hemessen, c. 1540

Judith and the Head of Holofernes by Jan van Hemessen, c. 1540

We paused at the gallery entrance, transfixed by Jan van Hemessen’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes (c.1540). Her Olympian torso filled the frame, her muscular arm raised overhead, only the hasp and bit of blade of her brandished sword visible at the upper left, an ornate bag with a drawstring held at the lower right. She is gloriously nude, her body twisted in the fashionable figura serpentinata favored by Mannerist artists.

We stood and stared. Behind us came a voice as if from heaven: “She is a mighty woman.” I am a teacher of art history; my companion, my Young English Friend, trained as an art conservator in Florence, Italy. Neither of us could have been as eloquent in our responses to this picture as the guard who stood with us, looking over our shoulders. Her name is June. The three of us stood together and talked, about the composition, the Biblical text that provided the narrative, the passivity conveyed by Holofernes head angled away from the viewer, the lack of gore, the iconological purpose of the bag.

Finally, aware that there was a sizable chunk of the Art Institute of Chicago we wanted to see before breaking for a picnic lunch in Millennium Park, we moved into the next gallery. After a bit June caught up with us, said she had been eavesdropping, expressed her pleasure at what we had “taught” her about the paintings. We introduced ourselves formally at that point.

June should trust her eye and intelligence. I said to her, “If you were my student and were writing a paper, perhaps a critical analysis, about this painting, you would only have to start with the words you spoke to us: ‘She is a mighty woman.’ From there you would merely list your observations, provide the evidence that explains your response. I suspect I would give you an ‘A’.” We thanked her for giving us a unique experience and wished her well.

At the AIC, a treasure guards the treasures.

The Bean in Millennial Park

The Bean in Millennial Park

It has been a moment of Mighty Women. My Young English Friend came to Chicago in April, arriving in a downpour of epic proportions, to explore the city’s art, culture and life. She has fallen in love with Carl Sandburg’s “city of the big shoulders.” The Midwestern friendliness is perfect for this Innocent’s joy in people. The liveliness of the arts, the shopping opportunities, baseball, the gusto for food—oh, the gusto for food!—is everything she wants. (Wednesday we ate at the Star of Siam and Thursday we ate at The Chicago Curry House, both earning a five-spoon rating from us; tonight’s Mexican feast at Frontera Grill was pricey but the ceviche alone was worth the price.)

Wrigley Building the Tribune Tower above the North Branch

Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower above the North Branch

We have walked immeasurable miles and talked ourselves hoarse. We have photographed our reflections in Anish Kapoor’s Bean and toured Chicago’s modernist skyline from the comfort of a boat; this afternoon the Cubbies were bested by the New York Mets but our seatmates and my YEF have already embraced each other as pals and made plans for summer concerts and frisbee. My Dear One, when I called, thought I sounded tired. I’m sleeping well and eating like a queen—it’s the effects of the yakking, that’s all.

Mighty Women, indeed.


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