“Judith and Holofernes” in Italy’s 17th-century art

Orazio Gentileschi,

Orazio Gentileschi, "Judith and Her Maid", c. 1608-09, oil on canvas, Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design, Oslo

“Judith and Holofernes” continued to be portrayed a number of times by artists in the 17th century, in various styles from Classicism to Baroque.

The biblical episode was also explored by Caravaggisti such as Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, deeply influenced by the works of the great Michelangelo Merisi.

Art critic Maurizio Calvesi explains, “Since the Middle Ages, some Bible commentaries identified Judith with the Virgin Mary and Holofernes with the devil. We can say almost for sure that Caravaggio himself wished to recall this symbolism: Holofernes, in his contortions, is reminiscent of a number of works representing the devil, including Raphael’s ‘Saint Michael Vanquishing Satan’ […] Thus, while Holofernes represents the devil, Judith embodies the Virgin Mary, that is the Church, and is able to defeat evil despite her weakness. Indeed, Judith’s gesture in the painting as she cuts off the head is not realistic: how could such a delicate arm decapitate a general? The incongruence had some assert this was not one of Caravaggio’s works. But in fact it is crucial to the painter’s symbolism: Judith does not succeed in killing and decapitating Holofernes thanks to her own physical strength, but thanks to the strength God gives her. And the light coming down from above is the divine light guiding her hand” (Massimiliano Finazzer Flory [edited by], “Il gioco serio dell’arte”, Bur, Milan 2008).

April 30, 2015