Vengeful Seductress: Judith

I’m so excited about this post. Since it obviously can’t be book or even research paper length, I have to warn you that it will not do justice to the topics it addresses (Artemisia Gentileschi, Caravaggio, Caravaggisti, Judith, Judith Slaying Holofernes, women in art). That being said, the goal of this post is to be informative, provide some insight, and examine two paintings by two Baroque masters. Like the previous two Seductress posts, this one will focus on a couple paintings and have a gallery with different representations of Judith at the end.   On the Entry Bibliographies page, you’ll find a list of recommended reading for the life and art of Artemisia Gentileschi.

Judith’s story can be found in the deuterocanonical book of Judith. The entire book is worth the  read, and naturally all the events it discusses are relevant to Judith’s motives for slaying Holofernes. Nebuchadnezzar has decided to go to war with all the nations that refuse to worship him as their god. (Side note: the book of Daniel has some great stores about Nebuchadnezzar.) Based out of Nineveh (the same city Jonah was told to go to before he was swallowed by a whale), Nebuchadnezzar trusts greatly in the city’s fortifications and vast army, both described at length. He anticipates a sweeping victory across these lands and believes that the sight of his armies  alone is enough to make any nation surrender. He puts his general, Holofernes, in charge of this war and tells him to kill everyone unless they agree to worship him. Holofernes goes out to destroy or convert the nations. When his armies get close to Israel, they set up camp and decide to destroy Israel by taking their water supply, waiting until they are faint with thirst and hunger, and then sweep in and demolish them. News of the nearby armies reaches the ruler of Israel and the High Priest.

Enter Judith. She is a widow whose wealthy husband,  when he died in the barley harvest, left her his entire estate. Judith is described as a very beautiful woman. Yet since her husband’s death she has fasted nearly daily, worn only her mourning clothes, and spent all her time in her husband’s home. When she hears about the impending attack, she goes to the leaders of Israel and recommends that they do nothing until she’s had a chance to remedy the situation. She is respected as a woman of great wisdom and faith, so Israel’s king trusts her when she says that the Lord has delivered Holofernes and his armies into her hand. She admonishes them not to ask how she will achieve this victory.

Judith goes home after her talk with Israel’s leaders. She prostrates herself on the floor and asks God to bless her lips which will speak deception and to use her beauty and words as tools to defeat Holofernes. Then she proceeds to bathe, put on her precious jewels and fine clothes (which she “used to wear when her husband was alive”), and comb her hair. Her maidservant packs Judith a bag with food and supplies. At night, Judith and her maid go to the camp of Holofernes. They are greeted by guards who are stunned by Judith’s beauty and fine regalia. She claims that she has run away from Jerusalem because they were treating her poorly and she wants Nebuchadnezzar’s armies to destroy them. She promises, if they take her to Holofernes, to give him insider information that will help him defeat Israel. The guards take her to Holofernes, and the deception begins.

Since the moment he saw Judith, Holofernes wants her for himself. Judith wants Holofernes dead. She tells him what she told the guards, that the Lord will allow the Assyrians to smite Israel because of their sin. Holofernes’ men set up a tent for Judith and he offers her food, but she says that her supply will not run out. She stays with them for a number of days, each night going out to pray with her maid.

One night, Holofernes has a party and insists on inviting Judith. He drinks too much wine. It is here that his sexual desires for Judith are revealed. She stays with him through the night, and eventually, a drunk Holofernes passes out on his finely ornamented bed. Judith seizes the opportunity. She takes the sword hanging above the general and brings it down with all her might onto his neck. He’s asleep – keep that in mind for the artwork we’ll see. She eventually cuts off his head. Her maid rushes in with the supply bag that held their food and they place the head in the bag, leaving the body sprawled out and bloody. They leave the tent together, and the guards think nothing of it because they went to pray together every night.

The next morning, Holofernes’ trusted servant knocks on the door of his tent. There is no answer. He assumes that his master and Judith slept together the previous night so he pokes his head in the door and lets out a scream. Holofernes’ headless body is laid out before him and he can’t find the head! Meanwhile, Judith reports her victory to Israel’s leaders and shows them the head. She tells them to go down to the camp ready to attack. The men will be scared and in want of their fearless general. They will retreat and Israel will kill them and plunder their goods. This is exactly what happens. After, the entire city rejoices that the great armies of Nebuchadnezzar were defeated at the hands of a woman. Judith was praised and crowned with garlands. She remained a widow for the rest of her life despite men vying for her affections.

Judith’s song of thanksgiving in Judith 16:7-10 provides a summary of her defeat of the feared Assyrian general:

For their mighty one did not fall by the hands
of the young men,
nor did the sons of the Titans smite him,
nor did tall giants set upon him;
but Judith the daughter of Merari undid him
with the beauty of her countenance.

For she took off her widow’s mourning
to exalt the oppressed in Israel.
She anointed her face with ointment
and fastened her hair with a tiara
and put on a linen gown to deceive him.
Her sandal ravished his eyes,
her beauty captivated his mind,
and the sword severed his neck.
The Persians trembled at her boldness,
the Medes were daunted at her daring.

How is Judith portrayed in art history? As a beautiful, graceful woman? As a woman of power and strength? Or does it depend on the time and artist?

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-99

In Caravaggio’s famous 1599 depiction of Judith, she is a combination of graceful beauty and fearless strength. Caravaggio chooses the moment when the sword is still stuck on Holofernes neck. Judith is standing upright as if to keep herself from the blood that’s  spluttering down on the bed under her, focused on the task at hand. Her old friend, her maid, that came with her, is fascinated by what she’s seeing. True to his oeuvre, Caravaggio chose the moment of execution when there is the most dramatic impact – the most startling and theatric moment. There is historical evidence to suggest that Caravaggio had seen real executions, which explains the realism of Holofernes’ neck wound and facial expression, and strength with which Judith is bringing his sword down onto him.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612 (one version)

Caravaggio’s painting of this story is interesting, but more interesting (yes, it is amazing that I think something can be  more interesting than a Caravaggio) are Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings of the scene, produced from 1612, two years after Caravaggio died, to 1620. Artemisia’s biography is of extreme importance. In 1612, her father, Orazio Gentileschi (one of the Caravaggisti), brought Agostino Tassi to trial. Tassi was working on a Papal commission with Orazio and in this time, became acquainted with his daughter. Tassi raped Artemisia, which he was found guilty of but never confessed to. She resisted his advances and wounded him with a knife. (Some scholars read the Holofernes paintings, with the Artemisia-esque Judith taking a knife to her enemy, as a visual metaphor of Artemisia’s resistance against Tassi.) During the trial, Artemisia was tortured with thumbscrews  and she was accused of being promiscuous prior to the rape. She told the court that she continued a sexual relationship with Tassi after the rape because he said he would marry her: “What I was doing with him, I did only so that, as he had dishonored me, he would marry me.” Marriage was the socially acceptable band-aid for rape in seventeenth century Italy. It was also discovered that Tassi (who didn’t marry Artemisia) had a history of sex crimes – raping his sister-in-law (who became pregnant) and one of his wives (who he possibly hired bandits to kill). Tassi was exiled from Rome, although due to noble influence he was back in the city a few months later.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1612-20.

Artemisia painted  Judith Slaying Holofernes multiple times. The 1612 painting “has been interpreted by art historian Mary Garrard as a metaphoric expression of female resistance to masculine sexual dominance.” Artemisia’s oeuvre consisted mostly of iconography that involved strong female subjects. The violent scene of Holofernes’ beheading wasn’t Artemisia’s first foray into violence, and it certainly wasn’t her last, but the historical moment surrounding her first Judith painting, and the fact that she didn’t abandon this scene after one representation (much like Caravaggio didn’t abandon David and Goliath), speaks to its paramount importance to our understanding of her life and how she perceived and related to the story of Judith.

I asked my readers to weigh in on the issue of Caravaggio vs. Artemisia and the iconography of Judith Slaying Holofernes. These are their wonderful and thoughtful responses:

grow-up-frozen: C’s is a bit more conservative for the time, both in terms of gore and also putting the power and action of the hands of a young woman. In C’s, the old crone (reminiscent of a witch figure) is holding the bag, implying that she had some sway over Judith in convincing her to commit an out-of-character act of violence. You can see the fear and hesitation on her face. G’s is a lot more shocking, there’s more of a blood spray and both women (closer in age, neither is witch-like) are acting decisively and are dominant in the situation, rather than one leading the other. I’m partial to Gentileschi’s myself, it seems more physiologically and psychologically “naturalistic” while Caravaggio’s feels much more posed.

vivalacacka: yo! So, i’m doing a series of modern feminists twists within the art history subjects of heroines. My first subject I’m working is Judith and Holofernes and I’m working around the subject matter that she basically seduced him/screwed him, than cut his head off. I’m just wondering if we have any theories of this whole sexual side of the story? I’ve only heard she got him into a drunken stupor. What’s your opinion?

angelkissingonasinner: This is regarding vivalacacka’s question. In terms of biblical text, Judith didn’t actually had sex with him. She only got him into a drunken stupor. I think painters depict her as a seductress because it’s more exciting. It’s moralizing to men (don’t trust beautiful women), and moralizing to women (your sexuality is your highest value). It creates a more dramatic scene if Judith did seduce him before killing him because it creates a vengeful woman who sacrificed her purity. It’s more B & W.

artisandoflove: I think, in response to the seductress question, that her reaction to the “feminist” aspect of the “sexual” trope is a little misguided. Nineteenth-century artists (decadents, aesthetes) who depicted “Salome” and “Judith” characters were responding to anxieties surrounding gender boundaries and sexuality, similar to those late Rennaisance and Baroque artists who depicted the same subjects- they are manifestations of morality and virtue, seen through the distorted lens of social norm. Context !!!

I’ve discussed what I think, and you’ve read what these fine folk think. What do you think? Do you agree with vivalacacka that Judith seduced Holofernes before killing him? Or do you side more with the textual and socio-historical bases for these paintings and their iconography?

Obviously, there is a lot more to be said about these paintings and this post barely scratches the surface. The goal was to get you thinking about how the text relates to Judith paintings: how artists visually interpret the text, if their representations are really true to the text, and how their personal lives and experiences may or may not affect their art.

In the mean time, see more images of Judith Slaying Holofernes here, and check out a wonderful Artemisia-themed recommending reading list on this site.

It’s well into December and time to move on to examinations of the Annunciation and Nativity story in art history, so we’ll return to this topic in the New Year! Feel free to leave a comment or email your thoughts!

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