Day 17 – Judith Beheading Holofernes

Day 17 – Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1620, The Uffizi, Florence.

Originally posted on 4 April 2020

Today should have seen the opening of ‘Artemisia’ at the National Gallery – and there is still some hope that we may yet see it. But in the meanwhile, let’s enjoy this painting. By now, after a little light cannibalism thanks to Giulia Lama (#POTD 16) I’m sure you will be inured to violence, and to the fact that women were perfectly capable of depicting it. You will also probably know more about today’s artist than yesterday’s, and know more about her life than about that of many other artists. If you do, you will probably know why she wanted to paint this image – although in reality, it is unlikely that she chose the subject matter. It was probably a commission, and probably from the Medici family, who by the 17th Century were the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. It was their personal collection that formed the nucleus of ‘The Uffizi’, where the painting is today. The gallery found its home in what had been the administrative offices of the Grand Duchy – hence the name.

This was the second version of the subject she had painted. I always used to prefer the earlier version, painted around 1611-12, and currently in the Capodimonte in Naples, but that might have been because it was easier to see. It was presented in the centre of a wall, directly opposite the entrance to the room, at the end of a short enfilade – or succession of rooms. The hang of the Capodimonte is very clear – the most important paintings (if that means anything) are always at the end of a ‘vista’. You can identify their Caravaggio from 200m (nowadays that would be a supermarket queue of 100 people…) The Uffizi, on the other hand, displayed their ‘Judith and Holofernes’ at the left-hand end of a wall, in a corner which, as a result of the structure of the building, was at an acute angle – so you couldn’t even stand in front of it very easily. Now, following their re-hang, it can be seen far more easily and clearly, and reveals its full, gory glory.

The story of Judith comes from the eponymous book, which is either in the Bible, if you are Roman Catholic, or among the Apocrypha, if you are Protestant or Jewish. It tells the tale of a virtuous woman of the city of Bethulia, which is besieged by an army led by Holofernes. One night Judith creeps out of the city and approaches the enemy camp pretending to have defected. To cut a long story short, one night she dresses up in her finery and heads to Holofernes’ tent – at his invitation – and, as the story says, ‘Holofernes was so enchanted with her that he drank far more wine than he had drunk on any other day in his life’. So, at the appropriate moment, she took down his sword and chopped of his head.

It was a popular subject. Which is surprising, as most art was commissioned by men. But through her act Judith saved her people – and so she was seen as a precursor of the Virgin Mary, who, through her own personal sacrifices, saves her people. She is a model of Virtue triumphing over Vice. She was particularly important in Florence, for reasons I shall explain when I talk about Donatello’s ‘Judith’ – which, I’m afraid to say, is my favourite. Artemisia’s is definitely the best painting. I love Botticelli’s: he tells the story in two tiny paintings each the size of a large post-card. The first shows Holofernes’ troops finding the headless body in his tent. In the second we see Judith sashaying through the countryside followed by her maid Abra, who is holding the head on her own like a bag of laundry. They might just as well have been out shopping, returning home victorious having found the last bag of flour. It is beautiful, richly coloured, and elegantly drawn – but misses the fact that a man has just been beheaded.

It says something that Artemisia is even better than Caravaggio at depicting this scene – particularly as Caravaggio is one of my favourite artists. He must have been having an off day – or an off three months, the least time it would have taken, surely. It’s the one painting by Caravaggio that I really don’t like, simply because – well, I’m disappointed by him. He is so good at thinking about the most dramatic moment in a story, the most human aspect, and how that would work in real life, even if the situation itself is anything but real. But here… it just doesn’t work. His Judith might be very good at flower arranging, and could conceivably cope with cutting Holofernes’ hair (no help, as he isn’t Samson), but in terms of engineering alone this would never work. That sword simply would not go through that neck at that angle, while she lifts a limp lock of hair. And she really doesn’t want to get any blood on that pristine white blouse, does she? He is so young, so muscular, and so vigorous she doesn’t stand a chance. I suspect Caravaggio might have been distracted by the youthful vigour.

Artemisia, on the other hand, shows she knows exactly how to do it: wait until he is flat out on the bed (no, I didn’t mention the bed, but it’s clearly what Holofernes had in mind) and get your maid to hold him down. At this point it helps to have a younger maid. Notice how Abra is directly above Holofernes, and putting her full weight into it. His face is also central, as is Judith’s right hand holding the sword, which is cutting through the neck along the central axis of the painting. The full force of both women is going into this. Judith is really going for it – pulling with her right hand, and pushing the head in the opposite direction with her left. I bet Artemisia practiced this, a tearing, ripping action, assisted by the slice of the sword. And the blood – this is blood. Not those scarlet ribbons fluttering away from Caravaggio’s Holofernes.  It spurts out, dark against his brightly lit arm, runs across the clean white sheets, and trickles down the folds from one mattress to another. It’s the same colour as the royal red velvet bedspread, and the rolled-up under-sleeves of Judith’s dress. They are all in this together, besmirched with the same blood.

A couple of days ago (#POTD 15) I talked about the advantage Mary Cassatt had over some of the male Impressionists – she knew how women behaved when men weren’t around. And I’ve always thought that Artemisia has a similar advantage here. She understands female anatomy in a way that men couldn’t. She knew about breasts. So many male artists didn’t – Michelangelo being the most famous example. Now, I have very little experience, but I’m imagining that, if you’re wearing a bodice, pulling with you right arm and pushing with your left, this is exactly what will happen to your bust – please tell me if I’m wrong (particularly any actors (f) out there, or anyone else who has worn a bodiced gown). It just looks so… real.

One problem with looking at Artemisia’s paiintings is that we know too much about her. In general we tend to talk about the biography of female artists even more than that of the men: how did they get to be artists in the first place? What did they do? What happened to them? Well, Artemisia got there because her father Orazio was an artist, and initially she would have trained with him. He was a great friend of Caravaggio’s, and one of the first people to be influenced by his revolutionary style. He even leant Caravaggio a pair of wings, probably to use for the more-than-slightly unnerving painting ‘Love Victorious’. Artemisia then went to work as an assistant for one of Orazio;s other colleagues, Agostino Tassi, who raped her. Unusually, she took him to court, and even more unusually she won. But as it was his word against hers, she had to prove that what she was saying was true. So they tortured her, and she didn’t step down.

You can understand why she would have it in for men, but that is not why she painted this painting. She would have been commissioned. In any case, the situation is not entirely parallel, as Judith knew what she was doing. Not only that, but Artemisia got no help from her chaperone, who had an agreement with Tassi, and left the two of them alone together. But that’s not to say she didn’t understand Judith, or associate herself with the Jewish heroine. And she certainly defended herself with a knife. There are several, minor differences between the earlier version of the subject and this one. The composition has been slightly rethought, and Judith is dressed differently. Her hair is also more finely coiffured, and she wears a bracelet on her left arm.

This all fits in with a re-reading of the text, where it says that Judith dressed herself in all her finery and bedecked herself with jewels. It’s just that the bracelet is in such a prominent position, halfway along her brilliantly illuminated forearm. It matches her bodice in terms of colour, and lines up with a darker fold in the fabric, so it stands out more. Look at the detail – each section bears an image of a standing woman. It’s hard to see what this is, as the detail is so small, but it is probably the Greek goddess Artemis – the Romans called her Diana – the chaste, virgin goddess of the hunt. The goddess who, when Actaeon chanced to see her naked, turned him into a stag so he was hunted to death by his own hounds. The goddess after whom Artemisia was named. And yes, you’re right, those are not coral beads next to the bracelet, that is a stream of Holofernes’ blood. She knows what she wants, and she knows how to do it.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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