“Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi depicts the beheading of an Assyrian general by an Israelite heroine, as recorded in the apocryphal Book of Judith in the Old Testament. In the story, the Assyrian General Holofernes who lusts after Judith, a beautiful widow, invites her to his tent. Holofernes was planning to destroy the city of Bethulia which was Judith’s home, so during the encounter, when the general was drunk and passes out, Judith with the help of her servant killed the general by decapitation.
The painting shows the moment when Judith, helped by her maidservant, starts to behead the general, who has just woken from his drunken sleep to realise he is being killed. The scene of Judith beheading Holofernes was popular in art since the early Renaissance. It is part of the group of subjects, that art critics have called the “Power of Women”, which show women triumphing over powerful men.
The painting is explicitly physical and violent, with blood and determined energy by the two women to kill the general. The women’s difficult task is visually represented by the delicate face of the maid, which is contrasted with the oversized, muscular fist of Holofernes as he struggles to resist. Although the painting depicts a scene from the Bible, the artist Gentileschi painted herself as Judith, and as Holofernesher she painted her mentor, who was tried for and convicted of her rape. Gentileschi painted several versions of the work and the 1620s, version is in the Uffizi in Florence, while another similar version is in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.
Book of Judith
The Book of Judith is a deuterocanonical book, included in the earliest surviving Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures and the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian Old Testament of the Bible, but excluded from Jewish texts and assigned by Protestants to the Apocrypha.
Artemisia Gentileschi was a female Italian Baroque painter, in an era when the artistic community or patrons did not readily accept female painters, she was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia in Florence. Artemisia specialised in painting pictures of women from myths, allegories, and the Bible.
That she was a woman painting in the seventeenth century and that she was raped as a young woman and she participated in the prosecution of her rapist overshadowed her achievements as an artist. Fortunately, today she is regarded as one of the most progressive and expressive painters of her generation.
- When Artemisia was 13, Caravaggio was implicated in a murder and forced to flee from Rome to Naples. Can you see Caravaggio’s influence in this work by Artemisia?
- Artemisia was a 17-year-old when her tutor, during one of their tutoring sessions, raped her. What does this picture tell us about how she felt about her tutor?
- Tassi, the tutor, was found guilty and was punished by being exiled from Rome. However, the sentence was never enforced as Tassi received protection from the Pope due to his artistic skill.
- How challenging would it have been for Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman of the seventeenth century, to be an independent painter?
- She was an Italian Baroque painter who was one of the most accomplished painters, of the generation, that followed Caravaggio?
- Is she the most accomplished painter of her generation, painting the Power of Women?
Exploring the Uffizi Gallery
- “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli
- “Primavera” by Sandro Botticelli
- Venus de’ Medici
- “The Battle of San Romano” by Paolo Uccello
- “Adoration of the Magi” by Botticelli
- “Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith Slaying Holofernes
- Title: Judith Slaying Holofernes
- Artist: Artemisia Gentileschi
- Year: 1620
- Medium: Oil on canvas
- Dimensions Height: 199 cm (78.3 ″); Width: 162.5 cm (63.9 ″)
- Museum: Uffizi Gallery
- Name: Artemisia Gentileschi
- Other Name: Artemisia Lomi
- Born: 1593 – Rome
- Died: 1656 – Naples
- Nationality: Italian
- Movement: Baroque, Mannerism
- Notable works:
- Judith Slaying Holofernes
- Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting
- Susanna and the Elders
- Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist
- Jael and Sisera
- Mary Magdalene
“There are three classes of people:
Those who see.
Those who see when they are shown.
Those who do not see.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
Photo Credit: Artemisia Gentileschi [Public domain]