Bloody Judy

When Holofernes, the warriorgeneral of Nebuchadnezzar, laid siege to Bethulia, the city, famished and without water, almost surrendered. The story, however, had a happy if somewhat bloody ending…

In the dark of the night Judith, a beautiful Hebrew widow, entered the general’s camp and offered wine, cheese and her virtuous self. Some party it must’ve been…

“Judith was left alone in the tent, with Holofernes stretched out on the bed, for he was overcome with wine (Judith 13,2)… She went up to the post at the end of the bed, above Holofernes’ head, and took down his sword that hung there. She came close to the bed and took hold of the hair of his head, and said: “Give me strength this day, O Lord God of Israel!”. And she struck his neck twice with all her might, and severed his head from his body (Judith 13,6-8)… After a moment she went out and gave Holofernes’ head to her maid (Judith 13, 9)”.

In the morning Judith returned to Bethulia with the severed head of hapless Holofernes, and the enemy, now leaderless, was defeated.  Nice proto-feminist story. Inspiring, too. Over the centuries, many painters — bless their brushes! — spilled plenty of quinacridone red, vermilion, carmine and alizarin crimson to portray Holofernes’ bloody neck.

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And incomparable Michelangelo Merisi o Amerighi da Caravaggio. (1573 – 1610).

Caravaggio. Judith Slaying Holofernes

Caravaggio. Judith Slaying Holofernes. (c. 1599)

Notice how incongruously contemporary Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes look! How cool and tranquil is Judith’s expression!

But no one depicted the Biblical story of Judith quite as violently and gruesomely as Artemisia Gentileschi — one of the most accomplished painters in the generation following that of Caravaggio, and a woman at that. Her Judith is no shrinking violet sent by a romantic impulse to perform a heroic act. Artemisia drew her inspiration not as much from The Book of Judith. She drew it from her own life.

There is a consent among biographers that Artemisia’s Judith Slaying Holofernes deserves an autobiographical reading.  She portrayed herself and her own vengeful rage in the image of Judith, and her her tutor Agostino Tassi as Holofernes. At the age of 18, she was raped and abandoned by the man who happened to be a vicious rogue and a thief. The victim of a rape, Artemisia was subjected to a trial-by-torture with thumbscrews to verify her testimony at the trial brought against her rapist…

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656) Judith Beheading Holofernes. Oil on canvas (159 × 125 cm) — 1612 Museum Museo di Capodimonte, Naples
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1656) Judith Beheading Holofernes. Oil on canvas (159 × 125 cm) — 1612
Museum Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

Within the next decade, Artemisia painted yet another version of Judith Beheading Holofernes. Judith’s face is older now, aged just as Artemisia herself had aged. But Judith on this painting is just as enraged and determined, her avenging spirit is just as high and her sword-wielding hand is just as sure. Murderous as she is, she is righteous in the eyes of God and people.  Even Caravaggio’s blood soaked canvas seems mellow next to this.   

Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith Slaying Holofernes. (c. 1620.Uffizii)

Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith Slaying Holofernes. (c. 1620.Uffizi)

And, in conclusion, a contemporary rendition of the bloody Judy story on canvas:

Oleg Dozortsev. Judith

Oleg Dozortsev. Judith

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