Throughout centuries, artists and painters have constantly been trying to find different ways to portray the significant biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. The story talks about a woman known as Judith, who is a Jewish widow. In order to try to stop the opposing enemy from attacking her people, she joins some sort of camp with her servant, who is also a woman. Here, these two women learn to fight in order to confront and take action against their leader. Both women were able to go into the camp by using their exquisite charm to bribe the guards of the camp with the alluring beauty, as well as Holofernes. Holofernes is then played by the women, where he is tricked. He believes that these two women are in fact on the side of his army, and he accepts Judith’s tactics in postponing the attack. Comes dinner time, he is up to the point where he is so drunk that he had passed out, making Holofernes very vulnerable, which in return, made it much easier for Judith to carry on her principal intentions of killing Holofernes. The women came home with victory, with Holofernes head in their hands, which assured the people that they were no longer in harms ways.
Artists have represented this story in numerous different ways. Some depict the time before Judith kills Holofernes, where she prays to God for guidance. Other artists capture the essence of Judith having Holofernes’ head placed in a basket, while she is on her way back home. Artemisia Gentileschi’s portrayal of this biblical story is titled Judith Decapitating Holofernes, which was painted around 1620. Her creation is ingenious, with a lot of energy and violence, showing the moment right when Judith slays Holofernes’ throat, bringing out a sense of feminine power, justice, and control, in where other artists in the past have not been able to depict. On the other hand, Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes painted around 1598, is a painting from a male’s point of view, portraying Judith as depending on God’s power and strength as a means that gives her power. Gentileschi, however, from a woman’s point of view, puts great emphasis that her courage, power, and strength comes from herself being a woman. When analyzing the characters in the paintings and what their body language is trying to show, there is a significant difference that surfaces because of gender difference of the artists.
In Judith Decapitating Holofernes, Gentileschi allows the viewer to perceive a great sense of realism and energy. Judith, dressed in a loud and bold blue dress and the servant is dressed in a vibrant red dress. These audacious and contrasting colors put the two women where it catches the viewers’ attention. There is an immense amount of dramatic and strong energy in the painting. She places these three characters in a tight and dark space, to where are main focus is just these charcters and the gruesome action that is going on. Gentileschi places one of her subect directly above Holofernes, showing struggle and energy. This also serves as a pupose to represent vertical dynamic, where the viewers’ eyes are moved from the dramatic energy of the women to the more significant action, Holofernes’ decapitation. Gentileschi’s talented is shown in this painting where she is able to reveal her magnificent skills in movement, light, energy, color, and space.
In Judith and Holofernes, Caravaggio interprets realism using precision and detail. The viewer is able to the horror of this action through Holofernes’ detail facial expression. Realism is rendered through the minute details in the expression of Judith and the body language of Holofernes. One can see the details in his muscle anatomy and how Caravaggio places Holofernes’ body, in a position to where he body and head are twisted. Holofernes is laying on a white sheet spread that contrast with his red blood. At the same time, the bed contrasts with the vibrant red curtain that is used as a baground for the painting. Even in the curtain, with the waves, grooves, and shading, one can see the great detail that Caravaggio put in in this painting. He uses Holofernes to show pain and energy. Holofernes’ body seems like it is convulsing in spasms, as he is screaming in pain while gripping the bed sheets, with his eyes turned up to the sky. One can see from where Judith’s arms are painted, that there is a horizontal dynamic. This serves as a purpose to more the viewers’ attention across the scene. From looking at Judith’s face and expression, the viewer is led to moving their eyes, through the diagonal arm placement, straight to Holofernes and him being beheaded. It is evident that Caravaggio also exemplifies great talents and skills in his painting, in where he masters the use of the elements of realism, color, energy, line, and chiaroscuro.
When looking at Gentileschi’s work of art, Judith is dressed in blue sloppy and disarrayed dress with a mighty sword in her hand, with the sense that she is strong in character, person, and will. Judith is confident and aggressive as she hold the sword up to Holofernes neck and decapitates him. Her left hand is forcefully grabbing a chunk of his hair to keep him from squirming around as her right hand grasps the sword, with such great strength, is slashed across his throat. It is evident to see that Judith is portrayed with a lot of upper body strength with the way she leans away from Holofornes. This could possibly insinuate that she does not want his filthy blood all over her clothes, just like when a person is slaughtering an animal. Her body language shows composure, in where she is calm, confident, and at the same time, determined to carry out her mission. Her imperturbable glare at Holfernes reflects that she does not feel any attachment for the victim, at the same time, it suggests a sense of strong and determined assertiveness. The expression on her face, even more so around the area of her eyebrows, shows a great deal of perseverance and intensity. She is represented as a deliberate and apathetic being who is just decapitating Holofernes. Even though this story from the bible implies that God had a part in giving the instructions for Judith to demonstrate the killing of Holofernes, but Gentileschi portrays otherwise. She shows that even God may have given Judith the approval and order, it was all Judith who did this act on her will, force, and ingenuity.
On the other hand, Caravaggio portrays Judith in a very different way. Instead of depicting great strength like in Gentileschi’s representation of Judith, Caravaggio’s character of Judith almost seems like she is timid and repelled by the actions that she is taking. She does not seem to have the strong composure the other Judith has in Gentileschi’s artwork. She insinuates, judging by her facial expression, that she is doing this by God’s will, not because she wants to. While Gentileschi show that Judith is carrying out this act on her own discretion and Caravaggio shows that Judith is killing Holofernes because of her devotion and loyalty to God. It is bery obvious that the two paintings demonstrate the artist’s own difference in gender perspective. Caravaggio paints a scene from the perspective of a man, showing that women can only perform such acts that require the help of God. On the contrary, Gentileschi paints from a woman’s perspective, in where women are represented as people who can take control of situation that are laid out to them.
The representation of the servant in both paintings also differ in several ways. Gentileschi represents the servant as having a role and action in assassinating Holofernes. She shows that two young, beautiful, and powerful women commiting to taking part of Holofernes’ death. The artist acknowledges her characters as being able to step away from the stereotypical female role and taking such action, that gives women the power and will of their own to go beyond what society views them to be. It cannot be argued that Gentileschi’s painting, without a doubt, emerges as a strong painting that comes from a woman’s perspective. Caravaggio represents the two characters in a totally different way. Judith as being young and scared, while the servant is old and weak.
Moreover, both artists have quite different interpretation of Holofernes at the time of his death, which also arises from the differentiating gender approach. Gentileschi’s version of Holofernes’ death shows that Judith’s servant presses Holofernes down and Judith, with her great rendering force, holds Holofernes’ head. This depiction of Holofernes is that of helplessness. On the other hand, Caravaggio shows Holofernes as already knowing that God had prepared this to happen upon him, as it is seen in how he looks up, as if looking up at the sky and at God. Even though Judith is slightly holding Holofernes’ head back, neither Judith or the servant are pressing down on the leader’s body. This is a very major detail in this painting, seeing how Holofernes obviously has the strength, from his detailed muscular body, to feign off the women. Caravaggio depicts Holofernes as struggling with God, instead of Judith who is physically slaying him.
In these two paintings, the artist’s not only try to interpret a significant biblical story, but with their different styles, they bring about a piece of themselves and their perspectives to show the world. The two very different interpretations are depicted through gender differences and their contrasting perpectives. While Gentileschi centers the action on the two strong women, Caravaggio places most of the focus on the expression of Holofernes. Gentileschi contributes to the sense that women can break free from the stereotypical views of female gender roles. Caravaggio, on the other hand demonstrates that women are indeed delicate, weak, and fragile.
The violence that is portrayed in these two women in Gentileschi’ painting, can possibly be closely related to her own personal life and feelings. It is very much possible that because Gentileschi was raped and possibly psychologically traumatized in some way, that she places her pain and suffering on canvas to express herself, creating magnificent masterpieces for the world to experience. Her experiences in life had a significant influence in her painting. Whether this is the reason why, both artists, Gentileschi and Caravaggio were both able to portray the beheading of Holofernes in a magnificent and talented way.