Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemesia Gentlileschi hangs in the Uffizi, in Florence; it is one of a tiny number of paintings by women in the museum. It is based on the story of Judith from the Catholic Bible, a story that does not appear in either the Protestant Bible or in the Hebrew canon. The Douay-Rheims Bible tells the story; the part about Judith begins in Chapter 8.
The Assyrians under Nebuchadezar decided to attack the Israelites who only recently had moved to the land of Israel after leaving Egypt. The leaders of the Israelites were sure they would all die, so they decided to give God five days to save them before surrendering. Judith was a devout widow, whose husband had left her great wealth. When she heard about this decision, she berated the leaders, all male. She told them she would deal with it.
She dressed herself in beautiful garments, and God made her even more beautiful. She and a maid went out of the gates to the Assyrian camp. They talked their way into the presence of Holofernes, who was entranced, especially when Judith promised to help him defeat the Israelites without losing his soldiers. A couple of days later he called her to his tent, intending to seduce her. They ate and drank. Soon Holofernes lay on the bed, passed out from wine. Judith said a prayer.
8 And when she had said this, she went to the pillar that was at his bed’s head, and loosed his sword that hung tied upon it. 9 And when she had drawn it out, she took him by the hair of his head, and said: Strengthen me, O Lord God, at this hour. 10 And she struck twice upon his neck, and [c]ut off his head, and took off his canopy from the pillars, and rolled away his headless body.
They escaped from the camp of the Assyrians, went to the leaders of the Israelites and Judith told them what to do. The next morning, they hung the head of Holofernes on the city wall and went down to fight the Assyrians. The Assyrian soldiers raced to find Holofernes, but seeing him headless, they panicked, ran, and were slaughtered.
No wonder this book didn’t make the cut for the patriarchal bibles. This isn’t a submissive woman, accepting direction and even motherhood from men or God. Judith is a self-directed woman, secure in the knowledge that her God blesses her willingness to act. Gentileschi puts that on the canvas.
Judith jerks her sword through Holofernes’ neck and shoves his head with a left fist full of his hair. Her knee is on the mattress against his body to anchor him. The strength of her arms is emphasized by the taut bracelet and the rolled-up sleeves of that gorgeous dress, with its decorations and folds. The left sleeve falls off her shoulder, she is a real woman. Her equally powerful maid locks up Holofernes’ arms, rendering him defenseless, with his fist waving helplessly. Judith’s face is purposeful; this is a killing by a butcher, not some frail aristocrat afraid of knackery or skittish about blood. There is no pity, only muscle.
Some art historians say she was influenced by Caravaggio, who also painted this scene. Caravaggio’s Judith stands at arms length from the body of Holofernes. Her sword is almost invisible, and she seems to be slicing bread. Gentileschi’s Judith handles the sword like a hacksaw. In Caravaggio’s painting, Holofernes is as important as Judith. Not so in Gentileschi’s work: he is in shadow, while the light shines on the faces of the women.
Wikipedia gives one version of Gentileschi’s life. Her father, a painter himself, hired one Agostino Tassi as a teacher. Tassi raped Gentileschi, and a dreadful trial ensued, complete with allegations that Gentileschi slept around, which we know because we have the trial transcripts. To test the truth of her testimony, she was tortured, perhaps by thumbscrews. Tassi was sentenced to jail for a year. There is a lot of scholarship discussing the role of the rape and the trial in her paintings, which I leave for the interested reader.
There is also a movie about her, Artemisia, which is historically inaccurate, and as cruel as the thumbscrews to the gifted Gentileschi. In it, Tassi is treated as the source of her creativity, a common myth about strong women, one that persists even today. Hilary Rodham Clinton, anyone? You can look for some of Tassi’s work here. To my eye, he is a routine painter.
Gentileschi’s work compares well to Caravaggio’s. If you didn’t know Gentileschi was a woman, it would be hard to understand why she was ignored for so many centuries.