Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Masterpiece of the Week: Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620

Judith Slaying Holofernes
Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620
Uffizi Gallery
The Biblical figure of Judith has often been used to represent Judaism itself. A Jewish widow, Judith was a noblewoman in the town of Bethulia which was under siege by an Assyrian army led by a tyrant called Holofernes. One night, Judith enchanted Holofernes with her great beauty as she and her maid, Abra, got the man intoxicated with wine. When Holofernes, passed out, Judith seized the opportunity to murder him so that she could protect her people. With Abra’s help, Judith used a sword to decapitate Holofernes—bringing his head as a trophy to Bethulia. Her people, so encouraged by the display, battled the Assyrians and won.

The story of Judith was a favorite of Artemisia Gentileschi who painted the subject twice. She was intrigued by the idea of a powerful woman. The first version, painted in Naples, is an excellent painting. However, her 1620 version, painted in Florence, is a superior work. Artemisia portrayed Judith in her trademark Artemisia gold—a symbol of strength. The strength of the women seems to reflect Artemisia’s personal fortitude.

Indicative of her quest for realism, Judith shows the veins and muscles of the dying man as he struggles—his legs tangled in his blood-red bed clothes—against the sword at his throat. Blood spurts from his wound onto the two women. Judith’s determination is readily apparent in her face and the tension in her arms as she wields the heavy sword is palpable.

This work is indicative of the power of Artemisia’s painting. Seeing this scene makes her historic induction as the first woman in the Academia seem very fitting indeed. Her talent knew no gender.

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