Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620

Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith and her Handmaid with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1625

Paintings of Judith and Holofernes were pretty common during the Baroque period and before. Caravaggio, Baglione, Botticelli, even Gentileschi’s father Orazio painted a Judith and Holofernes scene. But what makes these two paintings so tantalizingly engrossing to so many scholars are the implications it has coming from a female artist, specifically Artemesia Gentlieschi. She painted these shortly after a seven month trial where her father pressed charges against Agostino Tassi for raping Gentileschi. Tassi was found guilty and was sentenced to about a year in jail—time that he never served. In addition, Gentileschi made a career out of painting, which was unheard of for a woman during this period. The only reason that she knew how to paint was because Orazio had taught her and hired tutors for her. But Gentileschi uses her uniqueness to her distinct advantage, and manages to get commissions despite being a woman painter and the questionable reputation that the trial brought on.  It seems hard to divorce the subject—particularly the violence of the first painting—from Gentileschi’s experience as a woman painter, and her experience from the trial.

The subject is from an apocrypha story. Judith was a Jewish widow who enticed her way into Holofernes’—an Assyrian general who was set to invade Judith’s home of Bethulia—tent. When she arrived, she got him so drunk that he fainted, whereupon she beheaded him. The next morning, she showed his army his head, which spread so much fear through the camp that it saved Bethulia.

Gentileschi’s Judith is muscular and determined, a woman with the presence and strength to actually decapitate a man. The blood splatters seem to spurt out at you, and are disturbingly realistic. Gentileschi would have had to have either done extensive research, or had personal experience with what blood looked like when a head was removed from a body. Judith is focused, but dispassionate; determined to accomplish her task without sentimentality or hesitation.

I love most depictions of Judith and Holofernes. The story is a fantastic example of what power a woman can wield, and how dangerous it can be to underestimate her. Judith bravely stood against the invasion of her home and single-handedly saved the city. But Gentileschi’s depictions are always my favorite because she depicts the subject with an empathy that is missing from many of her contemporaries. She understands the strength of women, for she wielded that strength to endure the trial and to forge a career as an artist. Her depictions of women, both in her Judith paintings and her others, show an understanding of being a woman that is very lacking in her contemporaries’ art.

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