The Beauty and the Beast: Caravaggio and Gentileschi’s ‘Judith’ Compared by Claire Sandberg

Artemisia Gentileschi: 5 Extraordinary Facts | Barnebys Magazine
Left: Artemisia Gentileschi, ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes,’ Right: Caravaggio, ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’

When analyzing the works of a woman artist, the role of gender is frequently cited as a major influence on the creation of the work yet is rarely considered when conducting research on a work by a male artist. It is important to consider works by men and women with equal analysis and the role of gender should be used to consider works by male artists as well. This is particularly evident in the depiction of the same subject by two artists, one male (Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio) and one female (Artemisia Gentileschi). The following analysis examines the changing attitudes about the biblical figure Judith during the Baroque period and how those attitudes created a contrast between the way these two paintings depict the same subject because of the gender of the artists. Re-examining these works through the lens of gender allows us to challenges ideas of how these works fit into today’s art historical canon. 

The story of Judith and Holofernes comes from the Book of Judith in the Old Testament.  Judith is a beautiful and pure widow who lives in the fictionalized town of Bethulia. Her home is threatened by the encroaching attack of the Assyrian military lead by the fearsome general, Holofernes. She grows upset with her neighbors who have lost faith that God will deliver them from their attackers and develops a plan to help protect her home. She goes with her maid, Abra, to the Assyrian military camp. While staying at the Assyrian camp, she gains Holofernes’ trust by telling him that she will help the Assyrians win. One night while he is in a drunken stupor, Judith and Holofernes are left alone in the General’s tent. She follows God’s order to protect her people and beheads Holofernes. With Holofernes’ head in a sack, she returns home and proudly displays the head for all to see on the city gate. Without the guidance of their leader the army dispersed and Bethulia is saved. The story is widely accepted as fictional, even upon its introduction into the Old Testament. 

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes

The two paintings at the center of this article are Caravaggio’s 1599 painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes, and Gentileschi’s 1620 painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes. The formal qualities of these two paintings are important in the interpretation of gender in the two works of a popular subject during the Baroque period. Gentileschi’s 1620 painting is a revised copy of a painting of the same subject created in 1613 (fig.3). The 1620 version was created while Gentileschi was living in Florence and therefore the Florentine influence is evident in the opulence shown in the piece. In comparison to the earlier version, Judith is dressed in a rich golden gown with jewelry . This display of luxury was standard in the Medici’s Florence and shows Gentileschi’s attempt to suit to their tastes. The appeal for Medici support may have been successful, but was riskier as a woman because many of the works from women artists who worked for the Medici family were lost once the family died out. The 1620 version of Gentileschi’s Judith is recorded as being in the possession of Duke Cosimo II de’Medici before he died in 1621. This was unusual because the Duke’s wife, Archduchess Maria Maddalena, was a large supporter of the arts and collected many works by other women artists of the period, yet Gentileschi never reached out to the Archduchess during her time in Florence. Judith is an active subject as she is in the midst of the violent beheading. Blood sprays from Holofernes’ neck and runs down the table as the three subjects are cocooned in the intimate setting of Holofernes’ tent. The painting draws direct comparisons between it and its predecessor, Caravaggio’s Judith. Caravaggio’s Judith was created for a Genoese banker, Ottavio Costa. His painting is cited as the first departure from the traditional depictions of Judith as a static figure and displays an active scene, Judith’s sword mid-stroke like Gentileschi’s Judith. The scene is intimate and utilizes Caravaggio’s rich contrast of light and dark which Gentileschi adopted as well. A valuable way to consider the relationship between these two works and their subject is to examine them through the lens of gender and the artists’ lived experiences. 

In Caravaggio’s painting, the eye is drawn to Holofernes’ lively face, half alive, half dead. The Assyrian general screams out in protest and agony against the blade plunging into his neck. The title subject, Judith, is a secondary character in the scene. She is mannequin-like, her facial expression is soft, beautiful and unaffected by the violent act she is committing. The only sign of life in Caravaggio’s Judith is her state of arousal, illustrated by her erect nipples beneath her simple dress. Her nipples are closer to the focal point of the painting. Following the line of sight from Holofernes’ eyes, the viewer’s eyes land on Judith’s chest. She is sexualized. Looking at Gentileschi’s painting, the center of the painting is the knife, blood, and Judith’s hands. The viewer sees the blood, the violence, of the scene and does not shy away. Following the lines of the painting, the lines of her arms lead up to Judith’s face. She is expressive, strong, sturdy, much like Gentileschi’s other subjects who are described as “gory”, “animalistic”, “buxom”, and “sullen” (Pollack 1991, 21). Holofernes, laid out on the table, is mostly dead. His expression is lifeless as his head is held down by Judith and her maid. He is not the protagonist of the painting, the focus is on Judith and her strength and emotion, which is in stark contrast to Caravaggio’s earlier work which strips Judith of emotion and power. These visual cues of these two paintings, both how they were created and how they are interpreted, are important in understanding the inherent gendering of these two works. 

Peter Paul Rubens, Judith with the Head of Holofernes. 1616 – 1618

The changing perceptions of Judith during the Baroque period are an important part of understanding the way the two artists depict the subject based on their gender. Up until the 14th and 15th century, the subject of Judith was accepted as an analogy of Judaism. She was considered amongst the ranks of the great and pious female leaders and women in the Bible. This reputation began to change entering into the 17th century. The widow was no longer amongst the pious women of the Bible, but joined the ranks of the “fatal beauties” (Pollack 1999, 292), such as Salome, Delilah, and even Eve, whose beauty and seduction was the demise of men. Judith became a symbol of female defiance of male power and the numerous depictions of Judith and Holofernes during the Baroque period highlight the sexual aspect to Judith. Her victory was made possible through deception and seduction. Throughout the rich history of depictions of Judith, she is portrayed as a beautiful maiden, but it is entering into the 17th century that the maiden begins to be shown dressed indecently or nude. The original story of Judith was inherently political, the story of a woman fighting to protect her people from war, and was reworked to specify a sexual dimension because it was important to note that sex, not politics, kill people. In Caravaggio’s painting, Judith’s nipples are erect as she kills Holofernes, taking pleasure in killing him and a reminder that Judith is only a woman, who were believed at the time to be inherently sexual creatures. We also see the common theme of opposites throughout Caravaggio’s work, in this case the contrasts of age, sex, and appearance. The youthful Judith is balanced by the elderly Abra. The weathered Abra is there to balance out the beauty, but also personify the evil and negative aspects of Judith which can not be seen in the emotionless maiden face as it would be incomprehensible to have a beautiful maiden capable of such evil. In other Baroque depictions, her appearance addresses her role as murderer. The most memorable “evil” Judith is the 1616 painting by Rubens, Judith with the Head of Holofernes. In this painting, she is still a sexual creature with her breast exposed, but her other appearance is lacking femininity. She is an unnatural woman because of her ability to kill. These depictions show stern faces and masculine features to mark her as unnatural. She has unnatural masculine strength and therefore she was able to kill him. The image of the woman as the assailant was so uncommon for many male artists and writers to comprehend during this period that their depictions of Judith were unconvincing and unrealistic, especially in contrast to the liveliness and emotion shown in the expressions of Holofernes throughout art history.

Judith, from the series “Heroes of the Old Testament”; After Hendrik Goltzius (Netherlandish, 1558 – 1617)

These shifting attitudes towards Judith during this period lead to a drastic change in the way artists, particularly male artists such as Caravaggio, created depictions of Judith. The image of the pious and pure woman was gone and instead she becomes a warning to men against lust and hubris. Often inscribed on prints depicting Judith and Holofernes from this period were the words fastus praecedit lapsum, “pride goes before a fall”. Holofernes becomes the central figure as an example of the danger to men that lust can bring. During the 17th century, dramas dedicated to the theme of Judith and Holofernes were entitled “Holofernes” or “The Tragedy of Holofernes” rather than “Judith”. In Caravaggio’s painting of Judith and Holofernes, the focus is on Holofernes and his demise, while Judith is beautiful, a seductress who lured Holofernes to this fate. Caravaggio is a man following in an already established narrative of Judith as the seductress. The fall of Holofernes because of his vices was just as interesting to artists and writers as the heroism of Judith, perhaps even more so. The subject was popular to many men because it was relevant to their lives as men, they related with Holofernes over Judith. Because they related to Holofernes they could accurately depict the emotions felt by Holofernes and it was easy for them to show Judith as unforgettable.  Caravaggio knew too well that pride can bring a man to his end from his own personal experiences, and in creating this piece, it is unsurprising that he depicted Holofernes with more life because he understood Holofernes’ struggle with pride. He saw himself in Holofernes, or if not specifically as Holofernes, he saw himself in the unfolding scene of male demise.

The difficult question becomes if Caravaggio can be related to Holofernes, is Gentileschi connected to Judith? Following the same thought process with Caravaggio’s connection to Holofernes due to their shared gender, Gentileschi and Judith are both women. Gentileschi understands women better and can paint women more realistically because she is one. She understands that women would require all their strength to hold down a man as large and strong as Holofernes without resorting to depicting Judith as a masculine woman. She knows that Judith’s face would be twisted up with the effort of holding the man down and piercing the knife through his neck. The depiction does not rely on creating a contrast between Abra and Judith to create the complexity of Judith’s personality but rather allows the two females to be shown as equal parts of the action. Many interpreters throughout the decades have proclaimed Gentileschi’s Judith as a work of revenge for her 1612 rape and trial. They claim that in the painting, Gentileschi’s depicts herself as Judith, Judith’s maid Abra is her chaperone Tuzia, and Holofernes is Agostino Tassi, and through the slaying of Holofernes, Gentileschi is hypothetically slaying Tassi as a way of changing the outcome of the trial. While the events of the rape and the trial may have have a significant influence on her, proclaiming Gentileschi’s Judith as a psychological release from the event is anachronistic and does not take into account the reality of the events and the societal context they took place in. Labeling Gentileschi’s piece as an act of revenge makes the assumption that the rape had a great psychological impact on her, but these ideas come from later understandings of psychology as well as modern understandings of the body. The attack was not viewed solely as a violent attack against her body, but rather an attack against her honor and her family’s economic status. During the 17th century, the act of rape was different from the act of deflowering a young girl. Gentileschi proved in her trial that she was a virgin before the rape, so Tassi committed the crime of deflowering her. By doing this, Tassi damaged her marriage prospects and this is why Gentileschi’s father may not have called the trial until it was revealed Tassi would not marry his daughter. The trial restored Gentileschi’s honor and with it, her family’s finances as she was successfully married and she went on to have a fruitful career. It is also important to note that the painting examined in this research is a later version of the same subject. Gentileschi painted this same subject with the same composition right after the trial in 1612, as well as two other works depicting Judith and her handmaid after the slaying of Holofernes. Yet, her 1620 version is much more violent, with blood spraying from Holofernes’ neck and the women’s faces and bodies exerting more strength and power over the body. From a study of Gentileschi’s trial, it is clear that that the months that she spent on trial gave her experience with violence and strength which can be translated into this piece. During the course of the trial, she was submitted to a number of examinations as well as torture to verify and legitimize her claims in court. Throughout these examinations and painful procedures, she remained poised and strong throughout the trial. During the course of the trial, she had to recount the events of her rape and it was extremely important that she emphasized the fact she fought back because without that evidence, the court would not believe the intercourse was forced. The trial shows that Gentileschi knew violence and she knew strength in the face of it. She fought her attacker, as recounted in the trial transcripts, she “scratched his face and pulled his hair and before he penetrated [her] again, [she] grasped his penis so tight that [she] even removed a piece of flesh” (Garrard, 114). Once he had finished and pulled off of her, she fetched a knife from her bedside, saying she would kill him for dishonoring her. Tassi taunted her, opening his jacket and inviting the attack. Gentileschi threw the knife at the man and missed, but she did draw blood as the knife hit his chest. 

This account shows she knew violence, particularly that she knew how to enact violence on another man, and she knew honor and was ready to hurt, possibly even kill to protect her honor. In her depiction of Judith, Gentileschi shows a woman protecting the honor and lives of her village and her people. She depicted the subject of Judith, a well established and very popular subject during the period, but in a way that caused many to look away in horror. This horror comes from the fact that the image of a woman able to kill was frightening. Looking to Caravaggio’s Judith, the young woman is motionless and beautiful, and while she plunges the knife into the neck, she does not look capable of actual murder. Gentileschi’s Judith is bloody and dark and forces the viewer to be confronted with an image of woman enacting violence and actually looking capable of inflicting death. The woman depicted in Gentileschi’s Judith is not seductive like her predecessors, but determined, strong and unyielding in the face of danger and death. She is not a fatal beauty, but a dishonored woman who will not go down without a fight. In that case, perhaps Judith is Gentileschi and Gentileschi is Judith, in the same way that Caravaggio is the man on the table, facing his death because of his pride. It is better to find Gentileschi’s identity as a woman within the whole composition, in a painting of strong women overcoming an evil force that threatened their home and their families. Gentileschi is a woman who faced dishonor and ruin and rather than allowing those barriers to dictate the outcome of her life, she fought back. 

The creation of these two works depicting the same subject carry the significant weight of the lives and attitudes of their creators. Caravaggio as a man saw the story of Judith and Holofernes through the lens of his own life as a man who struggled against his impending demise because of lust and pride like Holofernes, while Gentileschi was a woman who had faced dishonor and ruin at the hands of a man and had the strength to fight back with elegance and power like Judith. The lives these two artists lived did influence the way they create art and by examining the way their gender affected their lives helps us understand the way they viewed the subject of Judith and Holofernes. 

-Claire Sandberg


Resources:

Cohen, Elizabeth S. “The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Rape as History.” Sixteenth Century Journal 31, no. 1 (2000): 47-75.

Garrard, Mary D., and Artemisia Gentileschi. Artemisia Gentileschi. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, 1993.

Pollock, Griselda. Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology, edited by Rozsika Parker, Pandora Press, 1991.

Pollock, Griselda. Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art’s Histories. Routledge, 1999.

Straussman-Pflanzer, Eve. Violence Et Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes;. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2013.

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