Judith Beheading Holofernes

Judith Beheading Holofernes
Artist Caravaggio
Year 1598-1599
Medium Oil on canvas
Location Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at Palazzo Barberini, Rome
Dimensions 57 in × 77 in
145 cm × 195 cm
Famous Paintings by Caravaggio
David with the Head of Goliath
Conversion of St. Paul
Ecce Homo
Judith Beheading Holofernes
Supper At Emmaus
Sacrifice of Isaac
Complete Works

Caravaggio’s mastery of art in Judith Beheading Holofernes distracts, somewhat, from the weirdness of the painting. Dressed as a well-born Renaissance young lady, Judith, standing at a safe distance, does the deed which made her famous. As for the brutal Assyrian general Holofernes, he is caught completely off-guard. Primed for a night of hijinks with this refined young widow, he just barely manages to utter a shocked scream as his own sword goes through his neck. The blood flows, rather decorously, like so much red yarn, over his white bed linens. Judith’s elderly maidservant eagerly holds the bag that will soon contain Holofernes’ head.

Caravaggio’s Mastery

If the painting exists to extol the Jewish heroine, it also exists to showcase Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro and the expressiveness that can be found in the human face and body. Like much of Caravaggio’s work, the scene is brightly lit against a mysteriously dark background. A rich fold of red velvet at the top of the painting, also painted in sumptuous light and shadow, hints that it’s the curtain pulled back to admit Judith and the maidservant into Holofernes’ tent. The artist also uses light and dark to outline the massive, hairless muscles of the general as he discovers that he doesn’t even have time to pull away from what’s being done to him.

The brightness of the light that falls on Judith illuminates her youthful flesh and the clean linen of her bodice and emphasizes her virtue. The sweep of her skirt asserts that she’s recoiling from all this, as well she might. The look on her face confirms to the viewer that she’s finding such hands on decapitation very distasteful, and it’s frankly hilarious. Her brows knit together as if she’s been presented with a chicken to pluck and clean after putting on her best party dress. At least she’s rolled up her sleeves.

Fascinated Disgust

Caravaggio’s old serving woman, however, is a small masterpiece within a masterpiece. Her skin as leathery and tanned as the bag she carries, Caravaggio does much with her wrinkles, her large, elderly ears, the wisps of gray hair that just manage to peek out from beneath her cap. The look on her face is priceless and can be described as fascinated disgust and pure hatred. Holofernes has been a scourge of her people, and she wants to see his blood. Unlike Judith, the viewer thinks she wouldn’t even mind if a spot or two of it got on her.

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