What Were They Thinking!? - Judith Slaying Holofernes

What Were They Thinking!? - Judith Slaying Holofernes

In this series, we examine works of art and concepts that might puzzle or confuse at first sight. You know the ones we're talking about. The work you look at and say to yourself, "what were they thinking!?" 

We're continuing our streak of focusing on strong women by highlighting Baroque artist and modern-day feminist icon Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653). She was the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arti del Disegno in Florence and one of the few women to achieve success in the world of men. Tragedy is linked to her history and is, inevitably, brought up time and time again. However, it is her talent, which rivals that of Caravaggio (1571-1610), that has earned her a spot in art history books. 

Early Training

Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593. She displayed a talent for art at a young age and was brought into her father Orazio Gentileschi's art studio to train. She studied in the Baroque style; her painting technique is similar to that of her contemporary, hyperrealist painter, Caravaggio. Gentileschi was familiar with Caravaggio’s paintings; her father Orazio was Caravaggio’s friend and artistic follower. Both artists use chiaroscuro to create dramatic theater like scenes.

She was one of the first women artists to achieve success in the 17th century. Her debut painting was Susanna and the Elders; a daring work that broke Counter-Reformation taboos at a time when women were restricted to painting still lifes and portraits. In the painting, the young Susanna twists away and shields herself from the lascivious men watching her. The subject matter is even more chilling given what we know of Gentileschi life (and the events following the completion of this painting). 

Artemisia Gentileschi, (detail) Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), 1638–1639, Royal Collection

Judith Series

Gentileschi is most known for her paintings of Judith. This story was popular during the Baroque and appeared in theater, music, and literature. Judith was an Old Testament antitype of the Virgin Mary and, by extension, a symbol of the Church. She was seen as a victory of virtue over vice and of God’s protection of his chosen people from their enemies. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Catholic church was at odds with the Protestants and the Ottoman Turks. 

Based on the tale of Judith in the Bible, Judith a young widow from the city of Bethulia decides to take action after her city is seized by the Assyrian army. Putting on her finest clothes she enters the enemy's camp on the pretense of delivering information to General Holofernes. Holofernes is entranced by Judith's beauty and invites her to dine with him with the motive of seducing her (little does he know...). After he gets drunk Judith sees her chance and beheads the intoxicated general. She carries the head back to the people of her city to prove they are saved from destruction. 

Gentileschi's version (below left) of the drama is particularly gorry. It is much bloodier and visceral than Caravaggio's take on the subject. Instead of a delicate woman cringing away from the prospect of murder we see not one, but two, strong women who are using all their strength to hold down a much larger man. Judith's servant, Abra, is implicated just as much as she. Both have their sleeves rolled up and Judith has a look of determination on her face as she drives the sword through Holofernes' neck. Even the portrayal of blood is worth noting. Dr. Esperança Camara writes, "The pattern described by the spurting blood suggests Artemisia may have been familiar with her friend Galileo Galilei’s research on parabolic trajectories." 

Gentileschi continues the series with two more paintings of scenes after the beheading. In the first (below middle) we see Judith and Abra preparing to leave Holofernes' tent. She uses the lit candle next to Judith to create a dramatic chiaroscuro shading on the figures. It heightens the tension of the scene - will they be caught? The third painting (below right) shows Judith as victor. Gentileschi has Judith sling the sword over her shoulder in a soldier like stance. This is, again, an uncharacteristic way to portray Judith. Calm, powerful, and in control - not the average Baroque female.  

Personal Connection

You can't research Artemisia Gentileschi without reading about how personal history colors the theme of these paintings. At the age of seventeen, Gentileschi was raped by her father's friend, artist Agostino Tassi. Tassi promised to marry Gentileschi - which was the social practice of the time. However, seeing as he was already married and made no effort to leave his wife, Orazio Gentileschi took him to court. Artemisia was forced to go through painful interrogations to ensure she was not lying about what happened to her. Tassi was never punished for his crime. The first version of Judith and Holofernes dates to this time in her life. Many scholars argue that Judith is an alter ego for Gentileschi during a time when she had no way of protecting herself.

Gentileschi was likely commissioned to create the initial painting of the series by the Medici, Florence's ruling family and patrons of the arts. The bold and up-close look at death at the hands of women succeeded all too well, for in the late 18th century, disgusted by the horror of the scene, the Medici duchess banished this masterpiece to a dark corner of the Pitti Palace, where it remained until the late twentieth century. 

Today, Gentileschi is studied as one of the most progressive painters of her generation. Rediscovered in the 20th century, paintings that were once attributed to Caravaggio are now rightly credited to her. She is recognized for her retelling of biblical stories from the perspective of a woman. 

If you want to find out even more about Gentileschi, listen to the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast below! 


Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi - Uffizi website 

Violence and Virtue - Art Institute of Chicago exhibit

Artemisia Gentileschi at The Dinner Party - Brooklyn Museum of Art

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