Judith the Man Slayer

Men create; women inspire. While men stand behind the easel painting masterpieces rich in beauty, women have simply stood in front to model. One woman, though, Artemisia Gentileschi traversed the barrier.

Rather than paint innocent and cheery little pictures, hers is a masterpiece of violence and revenge.  Judith Slaying Holofernes depicts the Biblical scene in which Judith and her maidservant murder the General Holofernes in his sleep to save the Jewish people. Artemisia’s painting stands alone in the extreme portrayal of violence, seen in the anguished face of the general and in the vividness of the blood streaming down the white sheets.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1620.   Oil on canvas, 158.8 x 125.5 cm. National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1620.
Oil on canvas, 158.8 x 125.5 cm.
National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples

Artemisia’s works are significant in that the protagonists are usually women, but they are not fragile Madonnas or innocent little maidservants. Juxtaposed against the victim’s pained expression in Judith Slaying Holofernes is the serene, but determined look on Judith, the slayer and murderess.

Unlike her male contemporaries (or even today’s male artists), Artemisia manages to adeptly capture the complexity of women. Men usually, and erroneously, typecast women as innocent and feminine. But women embody a whole range of emotions and qualities. Madonna is the ideal, but Judith is the truth.

No one can look at Artemisia’s works and say, “She paints well…for a woman” because Artemisia didn’t just paint well, she painted like a master.

To see the great masterpiece in person, check out the exhibition Violence and Virtue at the Art Institute of Chicago running until January 9, 2013. Or admire the adaption of Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio.

–          DR