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“Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi

"Judith Slaying Holofernes" by Artemisia Gentileschi
“Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi

“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. This knowledge forced Judith to find a way to kill the general. Judith, with the help of her servant, decapitated the general when he was drunk and passed out.

The painting shows the moment when Judith, helped by her maidservant, starts to behead the general. He has just woken from his drunken sleep to realize he is being killed. The scene of Judith beheading Holofernes was famous 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. As Holofernesher, she painted her mentor, who was tried for and convicted of her rape. Gentileschi painted several versions of the work, and the 1620’s 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.

The book revolves around Judith, a daring widow, who is upset with her countrymen for not trusting God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors. She goes with her loyal maid to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, with whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him information on the Israelites.

Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent. One night as he lies in a drunken stupor, she decapitates him, then takes his head back to her fearful countrymen. The Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel, is saved. Though she is courted by many, Judith remains unmarried for the rest of her life.

Artemisia Gentileschi

‘Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter, in an era when the artistic community and patrons did not readily accept female painters. She was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia in Florence. Artemisia specialized in painting pictures of women from myths, allegories, and the Bible.

Gentileschi, notoriety as a woman painter in the seventeenth century, her rape and her courage in the prosecution of her rapist, overshadowed her artistic achievements. Fortunately, today, her art is recognized as one of the most progressive and expressive painters of her generation.

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

Artemisia Gentileschi

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  • 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?

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“As long as I live, I will have control over my being.”
– Artemisia Gentileschi


Photo Credit: Artemisia Gentileschi [Public domain]