Judith…she was a bit of a dude wasn’t she. Sexy seductress, murdering temptress and victorious saviour. Caravaggio captures all of this in his picture, selecting the defining moment of Judith to portray. Painted in 1599 this work has been talked about as a masterpiece within a masterpiece, but let’s look at what is going on before I move in to the actual painting itself.
The story is told in the bible (the deuterocanonical book of Judith) and details when King Nebuchadnezzar sent his general Holofernes to subdue his “enemies” the Jews. Travelling to Bethulia, Holofernes and his men lay siege on the Jewish community, who have no chance of defeating the army, lose hope of a victory. As encampments around Bethulia stop any trade of food and goods famine starts to set in and undermines the Jewish potential victory further, and considerations are taken around surrender. Step forth Judith in to the arena. Stunningly beautiful and wanting to see victory she takes advantage of her status as a widow, and on overhearing the plans to surrender, creeps in to the camp where Holofernes is with her servant. Judith uses her beauty and grace to charm Holofernes and she is allowed in to his tent, where she proceeds in seducing him and getting him drunk. Holofernes falls to sleep lay in his bed and Judith takes the opportunity to decapitate him with his own sword. Taking the head back to Bethulia rendering victory. Who says good looks won’t get you far in life?
Caravaggio’s beheading interpretation, bucked the trend of paintings of Judith which had come before, most showing Judith with just the sword and the head after the deed had been done, but in his style he selected the most dramatic moment to show. This painting then inspired many others to paint this scene, some surpassing the overall aesthetics of Caravaggio’s work, but to me none capturing the expressions so well.
You can see the figure of Judith, with her alabaster skin, and understated dress, her servant by her side ready to catch the head. The expression on her face a true genius as you can see repulsion, detest and ambivalence towards the act that she is committing. The servant looking on almost like she is watching Judith peel potatoes. It’s a scene of an act of doing what has to be done. Holofernes displays confusion and fear as he tries to call out, but with his throat cut his mastery is useless.
The setting is almost as though it has been presented on a stage, the lighting coming from the right to highlight the piece perfectly, although this particular work has been critisised for the lack of back ground action, which has been deemed a downfalling in taking the 2D medium and presenting a 3D visual. Personally I like the darkness in the background, highlighting and focusing the audience on the true drama of the picture.
X-rays of this picture have shown that Caravaggio moved the head of Holofernes during the paint to detach it from the body more to show the power of Judith over this muscular and dominating man.
So WidowCranky…come on…you said that this was a masterpiece within a masterpiece….so where is it? Look at the servants face… look at the detail in the age of her skin. The weather beaten brow and worn in worry lines of the forehead. This is a crowning point in the painting and could have been a masterpiece on its own.
Judith is an on going symbol of triumph over tyranny. Although we could look at this painting as a depiction of the manipulative ways of women, or the pitfalls of men. Either way Caravaggio captures the drama, emotion and underlying meaning of the tale perfectly.