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Violent Triumph or Just Triumph?

If you find the gore of this piece shocking, so did the patron who commissioned it. After one look he almost didn’t make his promised payment. The scene comes from the collection of Biblical books called the Apocrypha. When the Assyrian general Holofernes invaded Israel, the widow Judith took it upon herself to defend her homeland. Through seductive beauty and subterfuge, she gained access to the general’s tent. When he collapsed in a drunken stupor, she deprived him of his head.

This was a popular topic with artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Michelangelo put a version on the Sistine Ceiling and Donatello cast one in bronze for a Florentine plaza. Caravaggio did one, too, and his Judith has a very intriguing face. It was an admirer of Caravaggio’s who painted this piece, actually. Her name was Artemisia Gentileschi and this is her second version of Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620). She composed them both similarly and she was obviously inspired by Caravaggio’s work. The light and dark focus us intently on the assassination, emphasizing Judith as the embodied wrath of God. Her face is very intense and focused; she is disturbingly undeterred in the gruesome act.

So why this piece and artist in particular? I used it primarily because some interpreters have seen this as a kind of virtual revenge. Artemisia was raped by one Agostino Tassi—an artist himself—in 1611. After centuries of social change, some elements of the story are shocking to modern observers. And since their world is a foreign country and social media posts should be short, I’ll have to skip over those details. In any case, the story goes that she painted herself as Judith and turned Tassi into the struggling, dying image of Holofernes. This is a debated interpretation and I honestly can’t say that I buy it. The figure of Judith is believable as a self-portrait but the broader context of all her work is a solid case against seeing the painting this way, too. It’s hard to travel unbiased into the heads of people who lived centuries ago. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll just skip the debate about a painting and focus on something more important to me.

Because the larger story is that she carried on and overcame. She married then raised five children while making her name as an artist. She painted for the Medici and for the Royals in London. In 1616 she was the first woman to gain admission to Florence’s Academy of the Arts and Drawing. All of those are accomplishments in and of themselves in the 17th century. That she did them after such a terrible thing makes them even more amazing.

I chose one of her darkly violent pieces because it’s Halloween. But if Judith really is a self-portrait, I hope now her determined face can tell you a very different story.

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