Decapitating Judith Holofernes



Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598–1599 or 1602
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612–1613
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1620–1621

Here we see two versions of the same scene handled by two great artists. First image, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's “Judith Decapitating Holofernes”, 1598-1599 – Baroque Period. (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Oil on Canvas)

The second example is “Judith Decapitating Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi, a follower of Caravaggio and one of the female painters of the period, 1612-1621 – Baroque Period. (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Oil on Canvas.)

Artemisia Gentileschi's bloody masterpiece “Judith Beheading Holofernes” has a special place in the history of feminist art. Artemisia Gentileschi has drawn on this subject many times.

Artemisia Gentileschi admires Caravaggio and is the most famous female artist of the period. It is even more remarkable today, as it is open to autobiographical and feminist readings.

The story of the painting begins with the Assyrians occupying the place where the Jews lived. The Jews somehow want to oppose and defeat the Assyrians. One of those who want this the most is the widowed Judith. She is a young and beautiful woman. A woman who will do anything to expel the Pagan Assyrians from their lands without much bloodshed… Judith soon pretends to betray the Jews and begins to get closer to the Assyrians. This rapprochement soon accelerates and he manages to enter the Assyrian camp with his old maid Abra. Judith Genarali, who said that she would give confidential information about the Israelites in order to get closer to Holofernes, the General of the Assyrians, also managed to impress. This effect soon becomes stronger and Holofernes falls in love with Judith. Finally, one night, a great feast is held and Holofernes returns to his tent in the night, very drunk. Judith, on the other hand, enters the tent at night with her maid Abra and cuts off Holofernes' head. Its purpose is to scare the Assyrians and make them flee.

If we come to the story of Artemissia Gentileschi, who frequently uses strong and confident female characters and Judith figure: Artemissia Gentileschi, the most powerful painter of the Baroque Period, is the daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi. For this reason, he grew up with painting from an early age. His father, on the other hand, was the painter Caravaggio, whom he admired the most. Her father supported Artemissia and sent her daughter to the workshop of her old friend Agustino Tassi, as she could not find a school that accepted female painters. But Artemissia was raped in this workshop by a man named Tassi and her friend Cosimo Quaris. Orazio sued Tassi for 'rape and stealing a painting from their home', but Tassi was only sentenced to exile from Rome. According to a rumor, he accepted to be tortured to prove that he was telling the truth in the lawsuit he filed against the person who raped him, and he successfully came out of this process. As it is learned from the court records that have survived to the present day, Artemisia was subjected to the humiliation of the court during the trial, which lasted for seven months; passed a virginity check in the courtroom; he was tortured to drop his charges; but he still did not give up on his claims. Agostino Tassi, like all men in this situation, denied the accusations; suggested that the girl was a mild woman who had affairs with countless men; he also accused his family of harsh language; he also supported his statement with perjured witnesses, so much so that even the judges reacted to his allegations; Father Orazio also sued the perjury witnesses. At the same time, it was revealed that Agostino had previously been convicted of rape, was married, was suspected of having her killed because his wife had been missing for a long time, and that he had also seduced his sister-in-law. In the end, although Tassi was sentenced to a few months in prison and expulsion from Rome, this sentence was not fully implemented, the man was released from prison in a short time, and continued to work in Rome. Like all rape cases, this case hurt the victim more than the criminal. Afterwards, the incident was reflected in the court, but when the rapist got away with a small penalty, Artemisia decided to take her anger out in another way.

Rumors about Artemissia, who was already trying to make her name known by struggling with the difficulties of being a woman painter, increased and she was tried by the society as the perpetrator of the crime she was the victim of. In order to prevent the rumors, her father wanted Artemissia to marry as soon as possible and eventually married Piero Antonio Satiattesi. Artemissia and her husband settled in Florence to stay away from gossip. Artemissia wanted to continue her education and painting here. In a very short time, his paintings attracted the attention of even the Medici family. He both received painting orders from noble and wealthy families and struggled to enter the Florence Drawing Academy. Artemissia became the first woman painter to enter this academy. The artist, who made a name for himself in Florence, Rome, Genoa, Venice and other places where he lived, achieved great success. He was one of the most important artists of the Baroque Period and made paintings that stood out among them.

Artemisia Gentileschi drew the first two major versions of “Judith Beheading Holofernes” right after her sexual assault in 1611-12 (Picture 2). In Rome, she had probably seen Caravaggio's painting Judith beheading Holofernes (Picture 1), but Artemisia was going to paint her own. According to the popular view, he paints Judith exactly as herself and Holofernes as her rapist, Agostino Tassi. In the painting, with great composure and even mild delight, Judith slits Holofernes' throat. Thus, the pain of Artemisia, who appears as Judith in this exemplary painting, would be felt by every viewer of this painting, and she would not feel pity for Holofernes and therefore Agostino Tassi with this feeling. Because everyone knew the story. Shortly after the painting was made, Agostino Tassi would be called a dishonorable man. Justice had cleared him, but those around him were not so sure about it. A man who has lost his honor for a woman who has lost his honor. The paintings depict Judith and her maid Abra in blood and brutality. But it should not be forgotten that, apart from the attack, the Baroque period was the golden age of uncensored violence. His father's friend, Caravaggio, undoubtedly impressed him greatly. So much so that the first version of the painting was mistakenly attributed to Caravaggio in the 1800s.

 Here we see how Judith cuts off the head of Holofernes with her own sword, while her assistant helps to contain the man. Both women have very determined facial expressions. This is one of the important details that increases the power of the picture. In addition, a strong shadow-light play, which we are accustomed to seeing in Caravaggio's paintings, makes the scene more striking and disrupts the form integrity of the figures.

In other words, no figure is fully visible because of this light and shadow. We only see the parts of the figures struggling in the shadows coming into the light. Artemisia's frequent handling of the figure of Judith and this scene has been interpreted as a psychological trauma of the rape she experienced. In a different version of these scenes, which he frequently handles, he shows the aftermath of the event instead of giving a 'memory' (Picture 4). In addition, while the source of the light is not clear in the other pictures, the source of the light here is the candle. As Judith reaches out her hand to the candlelight, the shadow of her hand hits her face, and her face is barely visible. There are also comments that Artemisa was inspired by her own image while making the Judith figure. (Picture 5)

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting,Artemisia Gentileschi, 1638–1639

In her version in 1620 (Picture 3), Judith was active and warrior. The biggest proof that she was drawn as Artemis was the bracelet on her arm. (Picture 6)


The virgin goddess of the hunt and the hunt, the prototype of the Virgin Mary, became the reflection of both Judith and the painter here. Considering that the painter's name, Artemisia, comes from Artemis, it is once again proven how accurate these readings are.

The spread of blood in the beheading scene is the same as in a real murder scene. The one who taught him this is Galileo, whom he met and befriended in Florence, where he moved in 1614, and who discovered the escape trajectory in those years. In other words, the formula for the blood gushing from Holofernes' neck is from Galilei… (Picture 7)



The Story of Art, EH Gombrich, Remzi Bookstore

Footprints of Civilization Art Geniuses from the Renaissance to the Baroque Era, Celil Sadık, Epsilon

Baroque Painting and Sculpture by EH Gombrich

Mythology and Iconography Victor Tapie, Baroque

Will the Red Orb Make Us Forget All?


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