Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654) was the daughter of a painter, a close friend of Caravaggio. At the age of 18 she was raped by a painter associate of her father and, after a notorious trial, this experience unsurprisingly influenced her own work.
In the same year as the end of her rapist’s trial she started work on the picture Judith and Holofernes. On face value, it shows Judith, a rich widow, decapitating the drunk Assyrian general Holofernes with the assistance of her maid. Caravaggio had painted the same scene before Artemisia and you can see his influence, especially in the harsh light, the facial features and the frozen movement.
But look closely at this shocking painting.
The cool, calculating look on the faces of the women. The maid presses Holofernes down as he vainly tries to push her away. Meanwhile the strong arms of Judith grab his hair and hack at his neck with the dagger. The dark, arterial blood flows down the crisp sheets. Holofernes’ startled, confused expression is placed in the centre of the picture at the moment of death. It’s a savage, primal image of butchery. From the violence, it is tempting to see it as a visual act of female revenge against her attacker, a catharsis – the purification and purgation of emotions. Her other works used similar voyeristic, sexually charged or violent themes.
Artemisia Gentileschi was a Roman but she spent the last 25 odd years of her life in Naples, bringing this picture with her. You can see this picture and many other masterpieces in a large, under visited collection at the former Royal palace at Capodimonte, set above the city in a large park.
Image: Via Wiki.