Trigger warning: this post contains graphic images.
Artemisia Gentileschi is most well-known today for her gory painting of the Biblical Judith beheading Holofernes. In the Book of Judith, Holofernes, an Assyrian general, has besieged Judith’s city, Bethulia. Judith, a Jewish widow, talks herself and her maid, Abra, into Holofernes’ tent. After he passes out drunk, Judith hacks off his head, escaping into the night with it.
Judith is considered the female counterpart of David; killing Holofernes is analogous to defeating Goliath. She has been a popular subject of artists for quite some time. Artists overwhelmingly portray Judith holding or posing with Holofernes’ head afterwards.
Before I show you Gentileschi’s four paintings of Judith, I want you to see one that Caravaggio painted around 1598 – about 14 years before Gentileschi. It’s the only one that comes close to the violence and gore in hers; she was heavily influenced by his use of contrast and realism, so they’re good paintings to compare.
My main contention with this painting is that there’s no way Judith would be able to generate the force needed to saw through his neck at that angle – that’s just physics. (Maybe she practices Waif-fu?) I’m not saying Caravaggio sucks, of course, but I prefer Gentileschi’s.
Judith Slaying Holofernes, Naples version (c. 1612)
Gentileschi painted this during or shortly after the rape trial. Judith is more solid, strong, and just looks like she can do what she’s doing. Abra is a capable young woman and actively assists Judith by holding down the drunken Holofernes. Both the women look determined. The blood, too, is more realistic in color and behavior. (Today we have violent tv shows, but I don’t really want to think about kind of observations Gentileschi had to do to get this right.)
Judith Slaying Holofernes, Uffizi version (c. 1620)
About eight years later, Gentileschi made a revised copy of the same scene. The differences include changing Judith’s dress from blue to gold (that particular gold is known as Artemisia Gold); Holofernes’ legs poking out from the bedcover, even more blood spurting out, and a larger sword; the painting itself is also a bit larger. This painting was owned by Grand Duchess Maria Luisa de’ Medici – who never allowed it to be seen by the public because she thought it was so gory. It was hidden for almost 400 years, until its very first public exhibition at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence in 2002.
Judith and Her Maidservant (c. 1613-14)
Judith and Abra are still in Holofernes’ tent, listening intently so that they can make their escape. They are still in danger – if they get caught at the scene of the crime, they will be executed for sure. It’s an interesting moment to show. Additionally, Judith wears an ornament in her hair with David on it.
Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1625)
Another tense moment! The candlelight and shadows are reminiscent of Caravaggio.
In all of her portrayals of Judith, Artemisia Gentileschi shows a strong, capable, determined woman. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that, by creating these paintings, Gentileschi worked through the trauma of the rape and the rape trial. The theme of strong women triumphant over threatening men continued throughout her life.