master composition, the Judith
Slaying Holofernes known
in two versions (Rome, ca. 1612–13 and Uffizi, ca. 1620)i
depicts two capable women slaughtering a helpless man—one of the most chilling
demonstrations of female power ever created—is obscenely converted into a
sexual pantomime, in which Artemisia/Judith surmounts Tassi/Holofernes and
slithers into coition with him. Artemisia the rape victim must on some level
have identified with Judith, and though some have sought to minimize the Judith’ s
symbolic violence by calling the work a mere revenge picture, it is generally
understood that the painting’s expressive force was likely to have been fueled
by sublimated personal emotion.
Artemisia’s Gentileschi in Florence c. 1620 and now in the Uffizi, is
one of the most bloody and vivid images of the scene, surpassing the version of
Caravaggio, the arch-realist baroque Rome, in its immediacy and shocking
realism. Artemisia was certainly familiar with the Caravaggio picture of this
subject; her father Orazio, who was responsible for her artistic training, was
a friend of Caravaggio and an artist. Caravaggio, inspired, and perhaps even
contested, by young Artemisia.
Comparison between the two shows is not only her duty to the old artist,
but also a number of pointed changes that intensify the intensity of physical
struggle, the amount of blood spilled and the physical and psychological
strength of Judith and her maids, Abra. In the Artemisia picture the blood
sheets are in the foreground, next to the space of the viewer. The muscular
body of Holofernes dynamically protrudes into the depicted space, since bold
areas of light and darkness draw attention to its powerful limbs.
And most importantly, while Caravaggio joins her delicate Judith with a
haggard servant who just looks at her, her eyes are wide open with disbelief,
Artemisia portrays two strong young women working in unison, their sleeves
folded, their views are focused, their pens are solid. Judith of Caravaggio
gracefully departs from her terrible task; Judith of Artemesia does not flinch.
Instead, she clings to the bed as she presses Holofernes’s head with one hand
and pulls the big sword across the neck to the other. The wrinkles on her
wrists clearly show physical strength. Holofernes fights in vain, the pull of
his hands is opposed to the more power movement of Abras, Judith’s accomplice
in this terrible act.
Uffizi “Judith and Holofernes”
is the second story of Artemisia about this narrative. The first, executed in
Rome c. 1611-12, and now in the museum of Capodimonte in Naples, a dynamic
composition is presented, focused on traction and oncoming traction of long
limbs. Artemisia specified the composition in the second (Uffizi) version.
Small but significant adjustments show her growing technical skills, her
understanding of the local Florentine taste for luxurious fabrics and her
thoughtful consideration of the expressive potential of every detail. Fragments
of anatomy and proportions have been corrected (for example, the Holofernes),
the colors and textures of the tissues are now richer (note the red velvet
draped over the Holofernes and the gold damask of Artemisia’s dress), and
Judith’s hair is more closely curled, according to the emphasis on the biblical
text on her self-esteem.
The most striking, however, is the image of blood. The version of Uffizi
reduces the blood that was raging from the neck of Holofern. Like Caravaggio,
the Uffizi painting places a special emphasis on this detail and does it with
even greater realism.
Raised by Judith’s hands, the streams of blood are now blowing and
dropping into droplets, which are waving their arms and clothing. The pattern
described by boiling blood suggests that Artemisia may have been familiar with
the research of her friend Galileo Galilei on parabolic trajectories.1
The sword, here longer and held all the more vertically, unmistakably denotes
the artistic creation’s focal hub which stretches out from Abra’s arm to the
blood that keeps running down the edge of the bed. This powerful visual axis
enhances the power of women and violence over the case. It is not by chance
that the fist that clutches Judith’s sword is at the very center of the
composition; filled with the divine power, the hand of this widow is now the
hand of God, protecting the Israelites from their enemies.
The unique image of Artemisia Judith and Abra prompted scientists to
argue that Artemisia was identified with the main character of the story as her
male colleagues did not. This association is associated not only with their
common sex, but also with their own traumatic experience of Artemisia.
Artemisia was raped at the age of 17 by the painter Agostino Tassi, a close
friend of her father.2
When Tassie did not marry her, as the social dictatorship of that time
demanded, her father sought legal recourse. During the test, Artemisia describes
her struggle with Tassi and her attempt to attack him with a knife. She also
remembers the sense of betrayal that she felt when she realized that her female
companion had conspired with Tassi and agreed to leave them alone. The first
version of Judith Slaying Holofernes refers to this difficult period in the
artist’s life. The memory of this event was probably connected with the
participation of Artemisia with the history of Judith. Especially significant
is the image of Artemisia Abra as a young, strong and fully involved in helping
Judith, as opposed to an accompanying person who deliberately abandoned
Artemisia at his hour of need. In the picture of the Uffizi Artemisia adds a
small detail that supports her identification with Judith. One of the cameos of
the bracelet, Judith, seems to portray Artemis, the ancient goddess of chastity
Although Judith’s story probably had a personal significance for
Artemisia, it is important to note its wider cultural valence. The history of
Judith was especially popular during the Baroque period not only in the visual
arts, but also in literature, theater and music. An example of the victory of
virtue over vices, the protection of God from his chosen people from their
enemies, Judith was also seen as the Old Testament antipode of the Virgin Mary
and, as a continuation, as a symbol of the Church. This association partly
explains the increase in Judith’s images in the late 16th-17th centuries, when
the Catholic Church participated in conflicts with both Protestants and Ottoman
Turks, whose eastern origin facilitated their identification with Holofernes.
Artemisia and her contemporaries took advantage of this popularity, often
depicting not only the moment of decapitation, but also the moment immediately
after her, when Judith and her maid come out of the enemy camp. The dramatic
potential of the story made it an ideal object for the strong theatricality of
the Baroque art.
Artemisia Gentileschi was clearly proud of the Uffizi Judith Slaning
Holofern, signing it in the lower right corner. In it, she demonstrated her
mastery of the baroque-realism language, using her emphasis on proximity to the
picture plane, strong chiaroscuro and realistic details to create an especially
powerful image of the dramatic climax of history. The bold spontaneity of this
finely tuned composition has succeeded too well, because at the end of the 18th
century, disgusted with the horror of the scene, the Duchess of the Medici
banished this masterpiece into a dark corner of the Uffizi where he remained
until the end of the twentieth century. To this day, he impresses his audience
with both disgust and fear of the art of the artist, who so convincingly turned
the paint into blood.
The Capodimente version of the picture was written by
Artemisia during those seven months after a loud trial of the artist Agostino
Tassi of desecrating the honor of Artemisia, and she was forced to flee from
Rome to Florence.
This scandalous episode ousted Artemisia from the history
of art for a long time. Only in the last century the artist’s work was
thoroughly studied and re-evaluated and she was recognized as one of the most
talented painters of her generation.
Artemisia’s works are a reflection of her bitter
experience. In them we meet various mythical and biblical heroines – women of
strong, warlike, unhappy and suffering. The story of Judith is often present in
the artist’s work. So no wonder that under the guise of Holofernes she
portrayed her lover Agostino in the picture, and in the image of Judith – herself.
All subsequent life Artemisia will choose for pictures of the plot,
where a woman is forced to either tolerate violence, or somehow fight it. The
Old Testament Susanna in her painting suffers the filthy harassment of the
Babylonian elders. Jael, a Kenene tribe, drives an iron stake into the body of
the enemy commander of Sisera. The Roman heroine Lucretia decides to commit
suicide after the experience of violence. Judith and her servant-accomplice,
more than once for the career of Gentileschi will keep in hands the severed
head of Holofernes