Artemisia Gentileschi was not the first to paint Judith Slaying Holofernes. Her father had painted Judith. Michelangelo, Botticelli and Caravaggio had painted Judith. Donatello had sculpted Judith. But she was the first to interpret the story of Judith, in a time when women had few rights, as an allegory for female dominance. In comparison with other contemporary versions, the composition, dramatic style, and emotions of the characters present a violently feminist view that may have stemmed from Gentileschi's own experiences.
Judith Slaying Holofernes1, by Artemisia Gentileschi, is an oil painting and was completed in 1620. It retells the Old Testament story of Judith, a Jewish widow of noble rank. An Assyrian general, Holofernes, had laid siege to the Israelite town of Bethulia. Judith used her beauty to meet Holofernes and soon after he arranged for them to dine together. During the meal Holofernes became increasingly drunk, and with the help of her maid, Judith used his sword to behead him. She took the head back to her city, and seeing it on display, the Assyrian army grew afraid and was easily defeated by the Bethulians.
The painting is dark and dramatic, as was the Baroque trend of the time. Its Caravaggesque style is obviousthe figures are theatrically lit from the side, and stand out from the inky, black background. Judith and her maid Abra stand to the left, partially over Holofernes, who is vulnerable on his back. A spotlight seems to have been cast on the action, with the wrestling limbs splashed by darks and lights. The bright movement is framed by very dark drapes, which hang motionlessly in the background. This almost-black backdrop lends an air of mystery, of dark deeds done in dark settings. Holofernes's body projects out on the bed, creating an impression of space. This position demonstrates another Caravaggesque influence, in its apparent resemblance to Caravaggio's The Conversion of Saint Paul2.
The shadows on Judith's arms emphasize the twisting movements she uses to saw off the man's head. The arm's contrasting bright light can be followed down to the silvery sheen on the sword, which is met by the darks of Holofernes's beard. This point of high contrast brings the eye in and becomes an area of focus from which blood gushes out. It streams down cushions and spurts at Judith as she grapples with the dying man. Judith Slaying Holofernes is a piece filled with violence.
The role of violence not only serves to excite the viewer, but to stress the involvement of the women. Judith's sleeves are rolled up and she looks on with a determined mien. Clothed in gold, she is heroic. She tightly grips her hands and locks her elbows. Her maid Abra knots her brow as she struggles to pin down Holofernes' arms. The painting itself is 6'7" by 5'4", nearly life-size. This relation to reality brings to life the very convincing assassination. Delicate, porcelain detachment, though often the method in which various other Judiths are illustrated, is not a trait of Gentileschi's heroines.
However, Judith was often not a hero in the Baroque world of men. In the very patriarchal Italian society in which the painting was created, men did not like to think of Judith as a possibility. A woman triumphing over man was unthinkable, and therefore was treated as the most mythical of allegories. In Hendrick Goltzius's Judith3 (1585) Judith becomes an exemplum of Victory. Depicted after she had slain the general, she holds his head in one hand, grasping his hair much as Perseus was portrayed in, holding the head of Medusa. She is simply a metaphor, unreal, mythological, and like Perseus, magical.
In some versions of the story, the piece is titled, "The Tragedy of Holofernes." Sometimes there is an accompanying inscription that reads, "Fastus precedit lapsum", or "pride goes before a fall". Holofernes' arrogance and hubris brought about his demise, and...