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February 29 2012

What Angelina Jolie's leg and Renaissance art have in common

I can't help but wonder if Versace got the idea for the revealing dress Angelina Jolie wore to the Oscars from the 1504 Giorgione painting of the Biblical hero Judith

Angelina Jolie's right leg was the star of the Oscars, I hear, and apparently quite a subject of conversation on Twitter as well. Of course, I am above all that, but I can't help pointing out that centuries before Versace clad Jolie in her eye-catching slit dress, the Venetian Renaissance painter Giorgione had the same idea.

In about 1504, Giorgione painted the Biblical hero Judith standing over the severed head of Holofernes. In the Old Testament, Judith goes to the tent of this enemy of the Israelites, gets him drunk and chops off his head. She has been portrayed many times in art, but rarely with such striking dress sense as she shows in Giorgione's painting.

He pictures her resting her foot on the gruesome head, nuzzling her bare sole in its tangled locks – hair against skin. That's an oddly sensual touch in a religious painting. Giorgione adapted it from Donatello's bronze statue of David, whose pose his Judith imitates. This kind of visual allusion to one another was what Renaissance artists loved to do. But what really takes your breath away is Judith's exposed leg. From her bare foot it rises magnificently, revealed by a slit in her pink dress, to the thigh.

Usually Judith wore a long dress to be modest – being a Bible character and all. What Giorgione has therefore done is to turn a polite, conservative dress convention into something sexy: the long dress that ought to hide Judith's body becomes a way of revealing it. The game is quite similar to Jolie's show-off leg performance at the Oscars.

Giorgione has given a lot of thought to Judith's dress. As so often in these Renaissance paintings you have to wonder – did such a garment actually exist? Was it worn by a model? Or did he imagine it? The top of the slit is extravagantly ornamented, with beautiful gold thread creating an effect like the gothic windows of Venetian palaces. It is all a frame for Judith's leg – a leg Giorgione has painted with consummate sensuality.

I can't help wondering if Versace got the idea for that Oscar dress from Giorgione's painting. After all, its head designer must be interested in Renaissance art with a name like Donatella. Perhaps fashion, like the human body, changes less than we think. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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