Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes: A 409 Yr Old Masterpiece
Updated: Feb 18
The European art history abounds with numerous artists who have enriched society with their contributions, status, and pioneering works. It is noteworthy to remember that nearly all of them incorporated biblical passages into their work to some extent throughout their careers. Whether it is Fra Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci or Peter Paul Rubens, each Last Supper created holds a unique identity. Similarly, many artists showed their creativity to paint the Calling of Saint Matthew, but Caravaggio's version has the grandest grandeur. Now talking about biblical passages, we have a lot more artworks through the viewpoint of historic males, but few women showed their intellectuality through their paintings. And so, when it comes to expressing their emotions by taking inspiration from biblical passages, there remains Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the most prominent and celebrated female painters of the century who filled her paintings with a douse of emotions and gave an entirely new model of a biblical passage. Today with this article, we are going to analyse one of her most famous and controversial artworks, based on biblical studies, Judith Slaying Holofernes or popularly called with her name as a prefix Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes (given that several painters like Caravaggio painted the subject).
General Information About The Artwork.
1. Artist's Statement.
"My illustrious lordship, I'll show you what a woman can do."
Artemisia Gentileschi, albeit the societal transformation, had an illustrious career with significant accomplishments. Whenever we are reading about seventeenth-century famous artists, Artemisia holds a special place along with Caravaggio and other painters. Previously in one of my articles, I showed you how women were more a model and fewer a painter in Renaissance history, but over time, female painters emerged. This emergence made Artemisia and her artworks visible. We will learn about her life, as we proceed in the coming sections.
2. Date And Provenance.
The painting has two versions where one of them is in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, and the other is in Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. A little history leading us towards learning about the artwork is that during the early baroque period, the Israelite widow, Judith was a prevalent biblical figure. Hence, she was in many paintings by different artists, making them a common subject during that period.
A little provenance of Artemisia Gentileshi Judith Slaying Holofernes, which we know, is that it dates back to the 1614s when she was in Rome under the influence of Caravaggio. You must understand that she was an apprentice under him, and while she was ongoing her training, Caravaggio's painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes, was well-known since its creation, probably in 1599. So Artemesia most probably painted the artwork in 1614 when she came across Caravaggio's version of Judith. In addition, there are a lot more differences between the two paintings, which we must know. So, I will be giving you the interpretation of the stories from both sides in a coming section.
3. Subject Matter.
The subject matter of Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi includes the biblical heroine Judith in the act of beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes with the help of her maidservant. Both women actively participate in the killing of the Holofernes with a sword in a darker background.
Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes has two versions which are placed in Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence and Museo di Capodimonte in Naples.
5. Technique And Medium.
The painting is oil on canvas medium with the technique of Caravaggism. Artemisia plays on the contrast in the artwork, resulting in an optical impact.
In-depth Description Of The Painting.
About The Artist: Artemisia Gentileschi.
Born to Orazio Gentileschi and Prudentia Montoni on 8 July 1593 in Rome, Artemisia comes from a family with an arts community. Her father, Orazio, a successful painter, made Artemisia learn painting. She usually assisted him in grinding paints, preparing canvases and completing the background of his artwork. At the age of fifteen, she completed her earliest painting as Orazio taught her the basics of art.
Artemisia was a prominent female painter and a truly public persona. Despite her illustrious life as a painter, she is still famous for her personal life, which includes the rape scandal. Many feminists and writers portrayed her as their hero. Tassi, who taught her linear perspective and was also a partner of Orazio, raped her. According to the witness testimony of the period, it was evident that Orazio was an exceptionally protective and strict father after her rape trial, and she rarely left her house.
Conforming with societal expectations, Orazio arranged for a married woman-neighbour Tuzia to sit for lessons of Artemisia. In May 1611, Tassi found Artemisia accompanied by Tuzia while she painted Madonna and Child. During this period, he raped her despite her numerous pleas to stop. The records also suggest that Artemisia's protests were so hard that she even wounded him during the encounter. After her initial rape, Tassi manipulated her into keeping that assault a secret and promised to marry her. As left with no choice, she kept getting deceived by Tassi and being part of sexual intercourse after the initial rape with him. Furthermore, Orazio's best friend and a father figure to Artemisia, Quorli, molested her. These were the facts from the pieces of evidence of the witnesses. Nine months after her initial rape, Orazio found this through her daughter.
He immediately took Tassi to court in March 1612, and a court trial started, which remained for at least seven months. After the trial ended in November 1612, Tassi was found guilty but was given the option of banishment from Rome. Unfortunately, despite his evil deeds, he escaped without any punishment. During the same year, Artemisia married Pierantonio di Vincenzo Stiattesi and moved to Florence. At the same time, the Medici family dominated the public and cultural scenario, and Artemisia propelled through the limelight of her fine work.
Her financial success and artistic productivity never got ruptured by any events. And she was the first woman artist who shaped her oeuvre around biblical subjects in a theoretical, sexual and violent manner. She also had her own studio in Naples.
The records reveal until she died in ca.1652/3, the artist had a lucrative painting career, creating works for both- private collectors and cathedrals. Susanna and Elders, Judith slaying Holofernes in 1610 were some of the famous paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi. Although her earliest works belonged to her youth, many of the artworks she profited from came much later in her career. She often depicted historical, biblical, and mythological heroines in her known works. Among her notable achievements were joining the Accademia del Disegno for the first time in 1616 and contributing to Casa Buonarroti during her lifetime. Most notably, Gentileschi is credited with introducing and spreading Caravaggism to Florence and Naples during the 1620-30s, a feat only recently perceived in the twentieth century.
History Of The Artwork.
There has been less information on the artwork's provenance, but few sources tell us that Artemisia decided to pick this theme, taking inspiration from Caravaggio and her friend Allori. In one of the paintings by Gentileschi's friend Cristofano Allori, she showcased the beautiful heroine character of Judith, decapitating the head of the Holofernes. In addition, Caravaggio's version of Judith slaying Holofernes from 1598; was also an inspiration for Artemesia. And the rest of the provenance, I have already mentioned to you earlier. However, I look forward to revealing to you the differences between the same painting painted by Caravaggio and Judith in this section, which I left earlier.
The Artemisia Judith has a centralised composition with an extensive emphasis on the hands, head, sword and convergence of blood.
Next, there is a dynamic energy through pressure on the wrist of Judith while beheading Holofernes in Uffizi's Artemisia version.
In Caravaggio's version, the maidservant acts as a bystander in the whole event, but Artemisia let her participate in the killing of the Holofernes.
In Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes, the expressions are more versatile and violent, indicated by even the facial strains, which Caravaggio's version doesn't have.
The flowing of the bloodstream in both compositions is different.
Lastly, Caravaggio's version substantially focuses on the Holofernes as it takes up much space in the art, whereas Gentileschi's work includes an overpowering character of the two ladies.
Meaning Of The Painting.
The painting portrays a biblical passage where Judith links her with a political act of killing the tyrant Holofernes to defend the Israelites. The story coincided with an incident, when Thamiris killed the Persian king Cyrus, and Zenobia defeated the Persian king sailor in the battle. To save the Israelites or Jews, she played a trick by seducing Holofernes with her beauty and wine. He did drink a lot more wine than usual in the bedroom with Judith, and she waited for the right moment and beheaded his face with a sword. Later her maidservant took his head in a bag. Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi forcefully concerns the biblical heroine Judith with controversy.
Many woman writers accentuated her as a true leader and considered this tyrannicide a heroic activity. In Medieval Christianity, she became an emblem of purity and chastity, but many referred to her as a deceptive lady, who endangered and killed a man through sexual allure. However, many contemplated her beauty of seduction as a necessary weapon for the achievement of killing Holofernes. And in many regards, she is the masculine model of heroism.
Subject Matter And Formal Analysis.
The painting Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi is unique for its brutal reality of the participation of females in the killing of Holofernes. If you look closely at the artwork, Judith does not have grace, unlike any other woman portrayed by artists; instead, she holds a powerful look with extreme violence and physical exertion on a man. Let me take you towards its elements one by one.
Judith wears a mustard yellow long-gown revealing her breasts. If you look closely, one side of her dress, from which she holds the head of Holofernes through his hair in aggression, is slipped down as an act of seduction. On the same hand, she wears a golden bracelet to portray luxury. Further, her sleeves are pushed above her wrists to prevent the blood stain from putting a sword through his neck. If you consider looking her face, she appears to be a husky woman with a twisted head, facial strains, and eyebrows moved with a realistic blush on her cheeks.
Further, her wrist, which holds the sword, has strains and a twist, making the murder appear grosser. Many critiques suggested that Artemesia showed her feelings towards Tassi during the rape trial in this painting through Judith. However, Mary Garrard dramatically neglected the fact that this art indicates Artemisia's psychotherapy.
The young handmaiden wearing a dark-coloured gown and a white cloth wrapped over her head appears to climb on top of the writhing Holofernes to assist Judith in her task. She had an absolute expression towards the job of killing Holofernes, and in a similar way to Judith, she wraps her sleeves upwards. Firm with a look, glancing downwards towards Holofernes, it seems she infuses a connection with Judith by holding the struggling man who actively resists death.
Holofernes lies without clothes in the bed cover, further wrapped with a velvet cloth, marking the luxury. His torso lies straight, with a sudden curve in his legs to depict more naturalism. His face denotes a bearded look with an open mouth and bloody red eyes in a shocked and wilted way. His face shows strain and wrinkles equivalent to when someone holds it from either side forcefully. In addition, one hand waves in the air and the other is held by the maidservant to resist the hassle. The dark red velvet cloth and bedsheets look in a crease, which gives us an idea that his legs and body might be in motion to escape. The bloodstreams dribble through his neck as we see from the blast towards Judith and streams flowing through the three-layer bed.
The golden brass sword vertically passes through the neck of Holofernes, extending towards the other side down the mattresses. It represents the protection of the Israelites from the tyrannical king.
The background of Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes showcases a dark light with a light from the left side of the composition. The light perfectly reflects and highlights the areas of Holofernes' body, mattress and some parts of the Judith.
Now that you finally understand the entire painting; let us move towards discussing the elements of the art. But before, let us read what Mary said about the composition in her book,
" Judith slices off Holofernes head with sword, blood spurts from the almost completely separated head and neck, and the maidservant Abra holds down the body of still-struggling victim."
Elements Of The Composition.
The subjects include the persistent use of inorganic lines. These lines are generally straight or perfectly curving lines, similar to the usage in geometry. Further, there is minimal use of implied lines, which means they guide you throughout the image. For example, the glance passing through the Judith and maidservant directs towards the head of the Holofernes and then to his body. Further, there is curling of his legs through the knees, which runs towards the head of Holofernes.
If you look closer at Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes, each of the subject faces is somewhat circular. Further, you can witness the usage of positive shapes throughout the subject matter and a negative shape through the background, consisting of a bed or mattress.
Also, there is an overlap of positive shapes on the negative ones. It means the subject is sizeable than the background, which tends to make these figures appear larger.
3. Light And Value.
There is the use of contrasting light on the maidservant, body of Holofernes and Judith. However, you must notice that few parts are in the darker region. For instance, the side face of Judith remains in shadow, similar to the Holofernes' face.
A further aspect of the artwork is that it depicts the Carravagism technique, which makes use of light in dark backgrounds. Dark colour usability is for a sense of mystery or foreboding, which the picture rightly portrays.
The primary colours of the Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes remain yellow, red and white. Further, there is the use of minimal fair skin tone with the usage of pink blush on the maidservant and Judith. The artwork features warm colour composition here.
Opinions And Conclusions.
Well, we are nearly at the end of the painting analysis of Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes. After her version, many tried sketching the composition on the canvas, but something in the artwork kept it from being left behind. Many critics refer to it as psychological therapy, but as I mentioned earlier, Mary Garrard treated it as a no and recommended seeing it through a viewer's eye for art. According to my reading of so many books and versions, every artist incorporates emotions in the best way possible when painting something, and few who have felt the feelings can benefit from it. Putting ourselves through Gentileschi's artwork is possible because it connects a way out. So, it is necessary to acknowledge how we feel about it. For me, the true display of emotions and aggression behind Artemsia's artwork is due to her past, but it is her creativity and talent, which make us appreciate the artwork as a whole.
On a note, I am adding a few book resources below, which you can refer to and that are easy to read. You can check them out and spend a weekend to know more about Gentileschi.
Frequently Asked Questions.
What movement was Artemisia Gentileschi Judith Slaying Holofernes?
The painting belongs to the Baroque art movement. Gentileschi was a late renaissance and early baroque painter, but this painting displays early baroque due to its contrasts, naturalism and realism. She showed the technique of Carravagism in this composition.
What period did Artemisia Gentileschi paint Judith Slaying Holofernes?
Artemisia painted the composition in the early baroque period. The timespan consisted of the famous painters Carravagio, Annibale Carracci and Guido Reni. The artists of Baroque art made extraordinary efforts to create real people in their paintings. By observing man's behaviour in moments and tracing it to his postures and expressions, they created artwork.
When did Artemisia Gentileschi paint Judith Slaying Holofernes?
Very few sources tell us the exact timespan of the painting, but according to the historian Mary Garrard, it dated back to 1614. It was after few months after her defloration trials with Tassi.
Why did Artemisia Gentileschi paint Judith Slaying Holofernes?
Artemisia learned under Caravaggio, and his famous painting Judith Slaying Holofernes from 1598 inspired her to draw her own version. You can learn the complete history of the artwork from here.
Harris and Nochlin, Women Artists.
Elizabeth S. Cohen's, “The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi".
Italian Women Artists: From Renaissance to Baroque.
Women, art, and society by Whitney Chadwick.
Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe By Mary D. Garrard.