Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1623–25, oil on canvas, 187.2 x 142 cm (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Important terms to know:

  • woman artist
  • Baroque art
  • tenebrism

Additional resources:

Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (Uffizi) at the Google Art Project

Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (from the Art Institute of Chicago)

Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe (London: Reaktion Books, 2020)

Jesse M. Locker, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021)

Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Detroit Institute of Art, looking at “Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes,” by Artemisia Gentileschi.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] This story comes from the book of Judith, which is included in the Catholic version of the Old Testament but not considered part of the canonical books of the Jewish Bible. It’s a great story.

Dr. Zucker: [0:23] The town of Bethulia has been under siege by the Assyrian army for weeks. Bethulia is strategically important because it lies on the path to Jerusalem. Lack of water and provisions have caused the town to ready itself to capitulate.

[0:37] Before it does, Judith steps forward, and she uses her beauty and her eloquence to open the gates of the town, allowing her to move out with her maidservant. She’s almost immediately captured by the Assyrians, and she’s able to make her way to the camp of the Assyrian general, Holofernes.

Dr. Harris: [0:54] Judith is a widow. She’s cast off her widow’s clothing for a beautiful dress and jewelry so she can make herself very attractive to the leader of the Assyrian army, to Holofernes.

[1:06] Judith convinces Holofernes that she can help him to capture the town of Bethulia. They drink. They feast. They celebrate. Holofernes gets drunk. Judith takes his sword and cuts off his head, brings it back to Bethulia to show the town that she has saved her people.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] This is the moment immediately after the beheading. Judith holds the sword still dripping with blood. The maidservant is stuffing the head into a bag. Judith shields her eyes from the candlelight so that she can look out.

Dr. Harris: [1:38] She’s heard a sound. This could potentially be a moment of danger. They both look up, concerned about what’s about to happen and whether they’ll be caught.

Dr. Zucker: [1:47] This is a Baroque painting, and it displays so many characteristics that we associate with that style. We have a single source of light, the candle, deep shadows surrounding the figures creating this theatrical drama.

Dr. Harris: [2:02] The figures are so close to us. There’s no real architecture in the background. We just have this red curtain that’s been drawn up that’s typical of Baroque art, so all of this drama unfolding in our space thanks to Gentileschi’s use of foreshortening.

[2:16] The maid’s elbow presses out into our space. Both of Judith’s arms are somewhat foreshortened as they cross in front of her body. Even the corner of that table that holds the armor, the scabbard, and the candle protrudes into our space, breaking down the separation that typically exists between a work of art and the world of the viewer.

Dr. Zucker: [2:38] Their attention is outside of the canvas at a place that we can’t see, as if they’re looking beyond the door of the tent. Look at the arcs that cascade down from the upper left to the lower right of the canvas. First, the arc of the shadow that seems to almost mask Judith’s face, echoed by the arc of her arm, the arc of the sword, and then the arc of the maidservant’s arm.

Dr. Harris: [2:59] That series of arcing shapes creates a diagonal that moves from the upper left to the lower right. And that use of diagonals is something that’s very typical in Baroque art. Diagonals create a sense of energy and movement, so we have a sense of a caught moment in time.

Dr. Zucker: [3:15] But here the diagonal is slowed down. We don’t see a diagonal with the velocity that we might see, for example, in a Rubens. Instead, those arcs slow our eye down as we move through the canvas and accentuate the idea that both of these figures, even in this moment of action, have stopped. There’s this moment of stillness as they look to see if the coast is clear, if they’re in danger.

Dr. Harris: [3:36] It’s a compelling sense of stillness combined with the effects of violence, because we have that sword right in the middle of the composition, which is dripping with blood. Our eye moves down to the head of Holofernes, and we see blood on the cloth.

[3:52] We see blood on the hands of the maidservant. This caught moment of this incredibly violent act, but a violent act which saves the Israelites, and which is performed with the help of God.

Dr. Zucker: [4:06] One of the words that’s used to describe paintings like this is tenebroso, which in English translation means “in the dark manner.” What we’re talking about is a kind of extreme rendering of chiaroscuro.

Dr. Harris: [4:16] Where the lights are very light, and the shadows are very dark. There’s a sense almost of theatrical spotlighting on these figures, who are embedded in the darkness.

Dr. Zucker: [4:27] The three primary colors are evident. We have the red of the curtain above and subtly of the blood dripping from the sword, the blues and purples of the maidservant, and then the brilliant gold, the brilliant yellow of Judith, who’s shown here as this heroine that saves her people.

Dr. Harris: [4:43] That red of the curtain is picked up on a little tie around the bottom of the white headdress worn by the maidservant, these glowing colors here in this beautiful painting by Gentileschi.

[4:55] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes," in Smarthistory, February 9, 2021, accessed April 24, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/artemisia-gentileschi-judith-and-her-maidservant-with-the-head-of-holofernes/.