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judith from naples

One note about the grisly paintings of Judith and Holofernes, Artemisia's signature work. She painted half a dozen of them, probably more, some that haven't been uncovered, or have been ascribed to other artists, depicting various moments in the Apocryphal story. Artemisia's father painted Judith. So did Caravaggio. So did every Italian painter of the day. Donatello sculpted Judith with sword raised over a supine Holofernes. But for Artemisia, though there may have been personal relish in artistic retribution against aggressive male behavior, that alone is a narrow interpretation. Baroque art sought out dramatic moments of history and myth, not just for shock value of portraying the grotesque on larger-than-life canvases. Such paintings often served political ends.

Judith was a Jewish widow at the time that her people were being threatened with capture and slavery by the Assyrian army. As a widow, and therefore with less personally at stake than if she were a marriageable maiden, she stole into the enemy camp pretending to seduce the Assyrian tyrant and military general, Holofernes. Instead, assisted by her maid, Abra, she got him drunk. She teased him, delaying the lovemaking, pouring him more wine until he fell asleep. Then she cut off his head and showed it to his soldiers the next day. Shocked by their vulnerability, the troops fled, and Judith saved her people. It was an act of political intrigue, not personal vendetta.

And it was a theme that particularly appealed to Florentines who saw themselves as the underdog against more powerful foes. In the Judith story, the underdog, the oppressed, the threatened wins, and this satisfied Florentine pride. Judith's strategy was to show the Assyrian's head to his troops, to make the opposing side believe it doesn't have the power that it really does still have, even without a general, and thereby dishearten their hopes for victory and their anticipated joy of plunder. The success of this strategy shows how susceptible to impression and suggestion people are, even people organized as a powerful force.

But Artemisia didn't stop there. In subsequent compositions done years apart, each successive painting portraying an older and more complex Judith, Artemisia depicts the aftermath of heroism for Judith, a woman who challenged male tyranny and struck down its source who must thereafter live in danger and be constantly vigilant against retribution, just as Artemisia herself had to do after painting the act.

The motif bears multiple themes. To men, then and perhaps how, the paintings of Judith in the act of slaying Holofernes are disquieting not simply because of the bloody, violent act, but because Holofernes is Everyman, and two women are controlling his fate. Geoffrey Chaucer used the story of Judith in The Monk's Tale as an example of the turn of the medieval wheel of fortune from a position of power to impotence.

That Artemisia took this popular motif, made it double as a personal statement depicting the strength of women (the underdog) even when threatened, and took it to the very heart of the moment, the sword half through the neck, portraying the emotions of three individuals caught in history and their own fates, eschewing the common interpretation of a passive or angelic Judith doing the act with the help of an intervening God and not even looking at the head, replacing that with a Judith intent on performing the act with calculated determination, conceiving a composition of enormous complexity involving foreshortening, an upside down head, six arms, and executed when she was eighteen years old and still suffering the trauma of her own victimization and exposure in court--all that was her particular genius which alone grants her a place of esteem in the annals of art history.


I wish to acknowledge Mary D. Garrard's Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton University Press, 1989), which was an invaluable scholarly source for me in researching Artemisia's life and the principal source for my interpretation of her individual paintings. Other valuable sources were Germaine Greer's The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1979) and R. Ward Bissell's Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art: Critical Reading and Catalogue Raisonn´┐Ż (Pennsylvania University Press, 1999). More recent but not available to me when I wrote the novel, is Mary Garrard's Artemisia Gentileschi Around 1622: The Shaping and Reshaping of Artistic Identity, (University of California Press, 2001).

The Image Gallery of this site shows the major works appearing in the novel with chapter references, and lists Artemisia's paintings in the museums of the United States.

Other Artemisia sites:

Life and Art of Artemisia Gentileschi, an annotated gallery of twenty seven paintings with details of the artist's life at the time they were painted.

Artemisia Gentileschi on the Internet, Artcyclopedia links

 

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