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Judith- Beheading- Holofernes

Updated on July 16, 2014

Artemisia was a woman before her time; she was born into a well to do home (b. July 8, 1593 – 1656) & through her father began her interest in the arts. She became a well-known Italian Baroque painter, & the first female to be a member of Academeia di Arte del Sisegno in Florence. A friend of her father’s, Agostino Tassi, took advantage of her, raping her & continually doing so, promising to marry her eventually. Her father learned of this, & filed a rape suit against him in 1612; beginning a 7 month trial & a scandal occurred over it. Out of this she produced this piece as a way of venting her inner frustrations about what had happened to her; the trial, the way people in general treated women in that time.

Artemisia Gentileschi self portrait
Artemisia Gentileschi self portrait

The trauma of the rape & trial afterwards “impacted Artemisia’s paintings. Her graphic depictions were cathartic & symbolic attempts to deal with the physical & psychic pain. The heroines of her art; especially Judith, are powerful women exacting revenge on such male evildoers as the Assyrian general Holofernes” In being a woman in the late 1500’s, it was rare to the point of being unheard of to have a trial over being raped; helping to prosecute her rapist & to get revenge on her own accord would have been even more unheard of. Being a female artist was rare enough. Being a survivor of assault has outshone her as an artist. As a form of therapy, she used her art to deal with all that was occurring in her life. Her paintings of “strong & suffering women from myth & the Bible – victims, suicides, warriors - & made a specialty of the Judith story. Her best known work, Judith Beheading Holofernes, shows the decapitation of Holofernes, a scene of horrific struggle & bloodletting”. You can just imagine the thoughts she was having towards Tassi in viewing this piece.

In “Judith Decapitating Holofernes” you can see “the female characters performing the murder with a marked strength & resolve that are untypical of conventional ideas about feminine behavior at the time” (pg. 394, The Influence of Caravaggio, Gateways). Judith’s maidservant is shown holding the General’s head down with remarkable force while Judith is putting all she has into using the sword to decapitate him; showing the effects of such an act with Holofernes losing his blood onto & down the sides of the bed. This is emphasized by the colors she chose to depict this – the extremes in darks & lights with the paints.

This piece is done terrifically in the Baroque style; with its emotional impact to the viewer; very dramatic & dynamic. Baroque has a similar subject matter as the paintings of the Renaissance, but they had much more emotion, & even motion of the figures in them, than the former. Artemisia was heavily influenced by Caravaggio (1571-1610), another Italian artist who originally did “Judith Decapitating Holofernes”. His version is a different take on the scene. His Judith is a much younger girl, who appears to be in disbelief that she actually committing this act. Her maidservant is a much older woman who just looks on. Much of his painting is in darker tones; the brightest part being Judith herself with her white dress, pale skin. It’s as if he (Caravaggio) is trying to show us the difference between good & evil. Caravaggio in this piece has shown” the seventeenth century clothing, emphasizing the ordinary aspects of this Biblical event” (p. 397, the Influence of Caravaggio). You can see quite a difference between the paintings on the same subject.

Artemisia’s version was created c. 1620 as an oil on canvas. One is located in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. This is an innovative piece due to being done by a woman painter of that time frame; how women of the times were thought of on a much lower pedestal & Artemisia had risen above it.

Afterwards she had slightly struggling times. She left her husband in 1621, moved with her daughters & received the support & patronage of Grand Duke Cosimo II of the Medici family until he passed in 1621. Her other patrons were King Charles of England from 1638-41 & Don Antonio Ruffo during the last 10 years of her life.

“Judith Decapitating Holofernes” is a radical piece to behold. It gives you much to think about, & much to wonder about the person behind the brush, how much anger & suffering they poured into this as a way of venting her feelings about an unfair circumstance.


p. 394, the Influence of Caravaggio, Gateways to Art, DeWitte, Larman & Schields

To compare - Judith Decapitating Holofernes by Caravaggio
To compare - Judith Decapitating Holofernes by Caravaggio

Comparison between Gentileschi & Caravaggio

© 2014 Jennifer B


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