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Sweet but Sinister - Judith Beheading Holofernes

What: Judith Beheading Holofernes

Who: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

When: 1599 CE

Where: Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy

Hello and welcome back to Carivaggio.

Today we are continuing on our Caravaggio journey and discussing another one of my favorite works - Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Charming and unassuming Judith performs an act so sinister and defiant, she herself cannot comprehend her actions. While sacrificing herself for her people, she sweetly murders her own innocence more than anything or anyone else.

The subject comes from the Deuterocanonical book of Judith. The Deuterocanonical books are considered canonical to the Old Testament by the Catholic Church. The book of Judith tells of a Jewish widow, Judith, who seduces then decapitates the evil Assyrian general Holofernes. Holofernes had plans to eliminate the Jewish people and Judith took their fate into her own hands. She was a heroine as she single-handedly saved the Jewish people. Although this was a common scene to paint at this time, Caravaggio decided to paint the exact moment of Holofernes's decapitation. An overwhelmingly disturbing snapshot. The viewer cannot look away. This work is DARK. Caravaggio is starting to develop his quintessential tenebristic style - a dark background and bright light source. Look how the light comes from Judith and beams onto Holofernes. She is the savior, she is the light.

Here, Caravaggio chose to show us the moment of decapitation. A moment filled with drama. This moment sort of speaks for itself. We can see what is happening simply by looking. Everything is laid out plainly. Take a look at the background, it is so simple. We see only a red drape. There is really not much in this work except raw emotion. It takes over the canvas and bleeds (literally) onto the viewer. The color palette is also interesting here. It its subdued but also quite vibrant. The red drape tells us that blood is in the air - juxtaposed with the bright white of Judith's blouse. It is so crisp you can see her breasts through it. A sign of her purity. Moments later her shirt would be covered in blood - ruining her clothes and her innocence. Caravaggio does not show us the moment she loses her innocence but rather one moment before, preserving her innocence forever. This painting keeps her purity in eternal purgatory.

Abra, Judith's maid, stands to her right - Abra is a young woman in the bible story, but here she is depicted as old and weathered, a sign that her life has dramatically changed because of the horrors she's witnessed. She holds the bag for the head of the evil general. It is interesting that Caravaggio has already aged the face of Abra but not that of Judith's. Maybe Abra has seen a lot of death and evil in her lifetime. She wears it on her face. Abra does not have sympathy Holofernes; she wants his blood like he has taken the blood of her people. Judith however, is still youthful and bouncy. Will she too become like Abra? What does life do to us?

Despite all of this, Caravaggio paints the old woman with extreme mastery. Painting weathered skin is not an easy skill to master.

I think the most interesting part of this whole piece is the expression on Judith's face. Many art historians have tried to decode Judith's expression - but here is my take.

Judith gazes at Holofernes - the life she is taking. This moment would be terrifying for all parties involved, yet here we see a one brief millisecond of regret, confusion, and grief. Judith furrows her brow, almost as if her hands are acting independently from her brain. How am I even doing this? She reminds herself that her cause is just and true. But she quickly gazes into the general's eyes, almost to say she is sorry. Her sweet lips pursed to draw strength and to complete the job she started. She knows that she has saved her people, but at what cost? She knows she will never been the same woman again. Is she a killer? Is she a savior? Or is she just a girl that wanted to help? She knew what she was doing; she did not know what it would do to her.

Lastly, we look at poor Holofernes. For a big strong general, he looks pretty vulnerable here. But does he? He does not look to be screaming or pleading for his life (although many art historians say that he is letting out an inhuman scream- I just do not see it. His death has a tender quality about it). He seems to be as equally confused as Judith. His mouth is open as if he is asking her why. Or maybe he whispers a sweet "I'm sorry." He gazes at her. He will see her beauty forever.

One cannot ignore the erotic undertone in this work. Like many of Caravaggio's pieces, sexuality flows throughout. Holofernes's naked body is sculpted and chiseled. He exudes strength. Judith stands there - sweetly holding her sword, in her see-through blouse, radiating her sensuality. It the book of Judith, it is said that Judith spent many weeks getting close to Holofernes, in order to infiltrate his camp and ultimately kill him. They know each other. Perhaps they had been intimate. Look how there is an empty spot next to Holofernes in his bed. What we are seeing is intimate. Killing is an intimate act. Caravaggio takes all those ideas and wraps them into one. We do not only see what we see - we see the past, present, and future.

Although this is not an image like David With the Head of Goliath, (see previous posts) in which Caravaggio paints himself directly in the work, I believe that Caravaggio uses himself as a reflection in each of his pieces. This would be Caravaggio's first highly dramatic work. One that is said to have been inspired by real life Roman executions. Maybe Caravaggio is noting that once he paints a piece of such dark nature, he will never be the same. He too is losing his innocence of a young painter. Similarly to the Cardsharps, Caravaggio is telling us that we all must do things for the greater good - sometimes at great personal cost.

The traditional reading of this image is the triumph of virtue over evil. For some reason I do not see it that way. I see it as duty clouding judgment. Although Judith's cause was just, she too questions her own actions. She sacrificed herself for the greater good, but maybe she thinks, "why me?" Maybe we do not all want to be heroes. Some of us do not even know what it means to be one until we have to learn for ourself. I think that is the case for poor Judith. She is scarred for life. She saved her people, but killed herself.

Later, female artist Artemisia Gentileschi, whose father shared a studio with Caravaggio and was one of the only people to see him work firsthand, will take this scene and turn it into a symbol of female empowerment (see figure 1). I love this work and believe that she created a more powerful symbol than Caravaggio did originally. Compare this work to the original and see what messages you can draw out from each.

Alright, well there you have it folks. Please let me know what you think about this piece and please let me know what other pieces you would like to see! I so enjoy writing these and hope you enjoy reading them.

See you next time,


Figure 1:

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610, Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy.

*I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THESE IMAGES* all images acquired from Wikipedia.

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