Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi
Interpretation of Baroque Biblical Painting

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Judith Beheading Holofernes
By Artemisia Gentileschi.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620)


Explanation of Other Baroque Paintings


Name: Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620) (Judith Slaying Holofernes)
Artist: Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-1651)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History painting (religious)
Movement/Style: Baroque art
Location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence

For analysis and explanation of other important pictures from the Renaissance, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of some of the
best Baroque paintings by
artists like Artemisia
Gentileschi, please see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi

Among the most famous female Old Masters of the 17th century, Artemisia Gentileschi was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) and the first woman artist to be elected a member of the Academy of Art in Florence (Accademia dell'Arte del Disegno). Greatly admired by art collectors and fellow academicians, for her vivid and sometimes violent Biblical art, she specialized in the 'Judith and Holofernes' story. The two best known versions are in the Capodimonte Museum (1614-20) and the Uffizi (1620). As a painter she was heavily influenced by Caravaggism and its founder Caravaggio (1571-1610), who happened to be a friend of her father and who also produced his own version of this Biblical story - see: Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599, Palazzo Barberini, Rome). Unfortunately, as a young woman, Artemisia was raped by one of her father's assistants - Agostino Tassi (1578-1644). The latter was a violent, unpleasant man who reportedly also raped his sister-in-law and murdered his wife. But because he was one of the most outstanding exponents of quadratura illusionist painting and was pardoned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, after serving only 12 months in jail. As a result, art critics - both then and now - view her paintings of Judith Beheading Holofernes as an autobiographical statement of revenge. Whether true or not, her reputation as an outstanding exponent of Baroque painting is stronger than ever.

Judith Beheading Holofernes - also called Judith Slaying Holofernes - is based on the Old Testament story contained in the deuterocanonical Book of Judith, which details the assassination of the Assyrian general Holofernes by the Israelite Judith, a traditional example of virtue and chastity. In the story, Holofernes is about to destroy Judith's home city of Bethulia, but she uses her beauty to gain access to the general's tent, and decapitates him after getting him helplessly drunk. The painting depicts the moment that Holfernes wakes from his stupor, just as Judith, aided by Abra her maidservant, is trying to behead him. It was a popular story often used by Italian Baroque artists to show women triumphing over tyrannical men. Gentileschi used herself as the model for Judith, and Tassi as the model for Holofernes.



Quite unlike the anodyne, almost effortless, assault portrayed in Caravaggio's version of the event, Gentileschi creates a far more violent and graphic scene, dramatizing the intense physical effort required on the part of Judith and her maid to kill their enemy, as he fights for his life. Holfernes' head becomes the brutal focus of the violence, as limbs, sword and blood radiate from it in the vicious struggle. The gruesome physicality of the painting is utterly riveting, with its plunging arms and gripping hands, and the blood-soaked sawing of the blade through spine and gristle of the neck. A masterpiece of murderous action! On a quieter note, the work is also memorable for its rendition of the rich gowns and bed linen, as well as the folds of the different fabrics, and the skin of all three figures. Above all, notice Gentileschi's outstanding use of chiaroscuro which gives real volume to the arms and legs in the picture, and her use of tenebrism to focus attention on key parts of the work.

It is believed that the picture was painted for Cosimo II de' Medici (1590-1621), the same man who pardoned Tassi, and completed in Rome immediately after Artemisia’s return there after having spent 7 years in Florence. Due to its graphic nature, the painting was hidden away in a quiet corner of the Pitti Palace, and Gentileschi wasn't even paid for it, until after Cosimo's death. Eight years after the completion of Judith Beheading Holofernes, Artemisia settled in Naples. For more, see: Neapolitan School of Painting (1600-56).

As mentioned above, Artemisia painted at least one other (fairly similar) version of this story - now in the Capodimonte Museum, Naples - as well as Judith and her Maidservant (1612-13) at the Pitti Palace, Florence.

Explanation of Other Baroque Paintings

Samson and Delilah (1609-10) by Rubens.
National Gallery, London.

Descent from the Cross (Rubens) (1612-14)
Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp.

The Surrender of Breda (1634-5) by Velazquez.
Prado, Madrid.

Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-5) by Nicolas Poussin.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Et in Arcadia Ego (1637) by Nicolas Poussin.
Louvre, Paris.

The Rokeby Venus (1647-51) by Velazquez.
National Gallery, London.

The Night Watch (1642) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
By Rembrandt.


• For an explanation of other Baroque religious paintings, see: Homepage.

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