Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes – a refined mixture of violence and desire

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, fragment, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, fragment, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini

Caravaggio, while breathing in the atmosphere of the late XVI century, created a work which was impressive in its uncompromising brutality. Prior to him many painters took up this subject, but in their paintings Judith was a lone heroine, while her attribute – the head of the Assyrian general lying at her feet, or held in her hand. This time she was shows as if in flagranti, while her enemy is butchered by her as a sacrificial animal.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, fragment, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, approx. 1600, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, fragment, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini
Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini

Caravaggio, while breathing in the atmosphere of the late XVI century, created a work which was impressive in its uncompromising brutality. Prior to him many painters took up this subject, but in their paintings Judith was a lone heroine, while her attribute – the head of the Assyrian general lying at her feet, or held in her hand. This time she was shows as if in flagranti, while her enemy is butchered by her as a sacrificial animal.

The painting was created for a wealthy Ligurian banker Octavio Costa. It depicts the Old Testament scene of decapitation of the Assyrian general Holofernes by Judith. Let us recall this Biblical story. The rich and beautiful widow Judith accuses her compatriot Israelites of fear and lack of faith. Desiring to save the city from destruction, which Holofernes intended to bring down upon it after a 40-day siege, she entrusts her prayers to God at sets off into the camp of the enemy, pretending to betray her nation. Confident of her charms, to which the man submits, four days later, after a feast, she murders him when he is completely drunk. She is accompanied by her servant Abra, who hides the severed head in a sack. The women leave the enemy encampment, and the head of Holofernes is set on a pike on the walls of Bethulia, which strikes so much fear into the hearts of the Assyrian armies, that they flee in panic. 

Judith is shown here as a personification of courage, patriotism, purity, determination, and utter devotion to a higher cause – she is a sort of a tool in the hands of God, also being a person of heroic faith in divine providence. Holofernes on  the other hand, appears as a personification of evil, arrogance, ungodliness, additionally disgraced by a humiliating death at the hand of a weak woman.

 

This cruel and enlightening story found its artistic expression in Caravaggio’s painting. He was however, a subtle and refined painter – his vision is not realistic which makes it become even more sinister. The way, in which Judith commits the murder (she seems to be cutting a sheaf of grain), and also the gushing blood which is reminiscent of ribbons, speaks of theatricality of expression, of a grand staging, of which the aim was to show the symbolic struggle of good against evil. He is filled with pain, screaming, she and her servant exhibit Stoic calm. The rhythm in the painting is slowed down, the act takes but a few seconds but seems to last a lifetime, which gives the viewer the opportunity to look on until he has had his fill, but also makes the painting seem less real. Judith’s face is a picture of concentration and determination, while her recoiled body – disgust. Her posture and mimicry are so convincing, that we do not feel compassion for the murdered person. His visage was additionally characterized by the painter into a twisted grimace of a mask reminiscent of the head of a monster with bulging eyes. The emotion is also emphasized by a conscious selection of colors – the whiteness of the woman’s shirt and the bedsheet, on which the murder occurs, signifies purity of her act, the yellowness of her dress betrayal, while the red sheet spread over Holofernes’s bed is a symbol of his pride. Here, we are not faced with a murder, but rather with a glorious crime, almost an exemplary one.

Piquancy is added to the whole scene by Judith’s face, which Caravaggio, as he has done numerous times prior, took from his friend and courtesan Fillide Melandroni. The image of Holofernes is perhaps an auto-portrait of the artist himself. The slaughter was thus associated with sexuality, which is in the background of Caravaggio’s story. It speaks of a man’s desire and its sad consequences, of a woman’s fickleness and betrayal, which hidden under a robe of allure and coquetry, become a deadly weapon. Caravaggio, does not hide, as painters before him had done, the erotic part of the scene, on the contrary he almost emphasizes it. The nude, prostrate Holofernes and the sensual Judith, hiding her breasts under a semi-transparent tulle, which can be opened with a single movement, clearly suggest an act of love. As X-ray photographs of the painting indicate, her breasts were initially uncovered, only later being painted over by the artist. Therefore, the whiteness of the bedsheet suggests not only purity of the act, but also erotic passion, while the red, desire. Judith’s servant – a hideous crone is also a kind of a doubly symbolic figure. Her face covered with wrinkles, painted right next to Judith’s face, accentuates the allure and youthfulness of the latter, but also (as was often the case in paintings of the epoch) becomes a face of a procuress, facilitating romantic encounters. In this way Caravaggio created in his painting, a refined mixture combining a bloody scene with erotic tension, disgust with desire.

 

The painting perfectly fit in with the climate of those times, it corresponded with the mood prevalent in Rome, in which violence was part of everyday life, while each day brought about bloodshed and murder. Let us just remind ourselves – at the end of the XVI century a brutal execution of the Cenci family was carried out (Beatrice Cenci), the miraculously preserved body of St. Cecilia was discovered with its head missing, Giordano Bruno was burned alive, while in addition Rome was besieged by a horrendous flood and plague – all this accompanied the pontificate of Clement VIII. These were also times of fear of Protestants, who desecrated Catholic churches and who were synonymous with a barbaric force, threatening the Church in a visibly brutal manner. It should come as no surprise that the figure of the beautiful Judith inspired Caravaggio, even more so because the Catholic Church saw in her the Old Testament pre-figure of the Virgin Mary – the one, who will cleanse and strengthen  the Church. It was an answer of the Church to all types of attacks (oral and physical) – a warning, that revenge will be terrible.

 

Caravaggio’s, Judith and Holofernes, 1600 r., 145 x 195 cm, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini