Rembrandt's expressive brushwork captures shimmering fabrics and sparkling jewels in this mysterious scene.
The same blonde young woman plays a variety of roles in his works of the early 1630s. Here, she regards us thoughtfully while an elderly attendant combs her hair.
Lavish costume and attributes cast her as a historical or mythic figure, but who is she? Scholars have proposed several answers, none conclusive so far.
Queen of ancient Caria, Artemisia honours her deceased husband Mausolus by consuming daily doses of his ashes mixed with wine. Clue: A silver drinking cup stands ready on the table in the background.
The Old Testament patriarch King David desires Bathsheba and summons her to his palace. She must obey the King's command, even though it means betraying her husband, Uriah. Clue: The figure's direct gaze invites us to imagine ourselves in the story.
According to the Book of Esther, the Jewish queen dresses in her finest clothing before successfully persuading her husband, the Persian King Ahasuerus, to spare the Jews of his kingdom from annihilation. Clue: The papers on the table at left could be the decree ordering the murder.
As told in the Apocryphal Book of Judith, the Israelite heroine seduces and beheads the Assyrian general Holofernes, thus saving her people from oppression. Clue: Judith's maidservant helps carry out the plan.
In a scene from the Book of Ruth, the older woman is Naomi, Ruth's beloved mother-in-law. Both are widows, and Naomi is helping Ruth dress to meet her future second husband, Boaz. Clue: The story hinges on the supportive relationship between the women.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Heroine from the Old Testament, 1632/33, oil on canvas, 109.2 × 94.4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 1953 (6089). Photo: NGC