Judith and Artemisia Gentileschi

In Catholic and Orthodox Christian versions of the Old Testament in the Bible, there is a small book called the Book of Judith.

The story is simple but powerful – her Israelite town under siege, a widowed woman named Judith – described as wealthy and “very beautiful, charming to see” (8:7) – demonstrates the brute force of her faith. She charms and ingratiates herself to the general of the enemy army (named Holofernes) by providing “insider” information, acting as if she is a traitor while slowly building his trust. One night she uses this trust to gain access to the general’s tent while he is drunk and utilizes the moment of weakness to her advantage – by decapitating the general.

She then takes the head and returns to her people, brandishing it as proof of God’s ability to deliver. The story notes that although she is courted afterward, she remains unmarried for the rest of her life – a powerful widow who will not be coupled again.

This story has been illustrated through classical paintings time and time again. Although I have an art background I had never honestly given these paintings or this story much thought until I recently read the graphic novel “Becoming Unbecoming” by Una (a pseudonym chosen because it is the Spanish feminine form of the word “one” – “one of many” as the book explains). The graphic novel – which deals with themes of misogyny, rape, and the objectification of women – points out something about the artwork telling this story that I found incredibly fascinating.

Here are a few examples of the numerous paintings depicting the story of Judith:

Simon Vouet’s Judith with the Head of Holophernes,
Caravaggio Judith Beheading Holofernes.jpg
Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599-1602
Gustav Klimt 039.jpg
Gustav Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes, 1901
Carlo Francesco Nuvolone’s Judith with the head of Holofernes
Cristofano Allori’s Judith with the Head of Holophernes, 1613

In the above paintings, Judith is portrayed displaying her beauty and wealth – note the rich fabrics of her clothing, the occasional gleam of buckles and earrings. Her skin is pale and smooth, her expression hardly betraying the brutality of the act she has committed – flushed with youth, delicate and undisturbed (no blood on her fine clothing, not a hair out of place), quietly buzzing with subtle sexual power. Where her maid servant is painted beside her the older woman acts as a foil, contrasting Judith’s youth with age.

Then, there is this painting depicting the same story:

File:Artemisia Gentileschi - Giuditta decapita Oloferne - Google Art Project-Adjust.jpg
Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614-20

What makes this painting so different?

Why does it feel so visceral, so raw in comparison to these other depictions of the same story?

Because this painting of Judith, unlike the previous set of paintings above, was painted by a woman.

The artist who created this piece was an Italian woman born in 1593. She became an accomplished artist living during an era where female artists were not widely accepted. Despite the status quo, this woman’s talent earned her a seat as the first female member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence and clients from around the world.

Her name was Artemisia Gentileschi.

Although Artemisia had an amazing artistic career, it was overshadowed during her lifetime by the scandal of being raped as a young woman by her art tutor. She wasn’t alone in the house when she was raped – another woman, Tuzia, lived in an apartment upstairs. When Artemisia cried out for help, Tuzia did nothing. Interestingly, this seemed to inspire a theme common in many of Artemisia’s later paintings – the theme of women working together in solidarity.

Because Artemisia had been a virgin when she was raped, her father was able to take her art tutor to trial for the act (?!?!). But the trial was not an easy experience for Artemisia. To verify the truthfulness of her claims, she was subjected to a gynecological exam and torture by thumbscrews.

Her depiction of the story of Judith shows female power not as something delicate, beautiful, youthful, or detached from the task at hand. Her female figures  do not stand carefully posed for the pleasure of the viewer, visual opposites. These women are united, a force of brutal strength completely engaged and stained by the gruesome task of severing a living man’s head from his neck.

Along with the author of “Becoming Unbecoming,” I am fascinated by how the difference in the life experiences (and genders) of the above artists has so dramatically affected the look and feel of their paintings – all masterfully crafted to be sure, but there is a stark contrast in how the same story is visually told.