Oil on canvas.
1.59m by 1.26m
Museo di Capolodimonte, Naples.
This is a dramatic and brutally graphic version of this biblical scene, but less so than a larger and even bloodier setting by Artemisia around 1620. She based her first glimpse of Caravaggio’s famous painting from c. 1598-1599, but enlivens the action with realism and powerful female protagonists.
Judith was a Jewish widow of noble rank in Bethulia, a town besieged by the army of the Assyrian general Holofernes. She approached his tent as an emissary and captivated him with her beauty. He ordered a feast with much wine. After he passed out in his tent, Judith and her maid Abra saw their opportunity. Judith decapitated Holofernes with his sword and smuggled his head back to Bethulia. On seeing her trophy, the townsfolk routed the leaderless Assyrians. The story is an allegory picturing Judith as Judaism in triumph over its pagan enemy.
Poor restoration has cost the women’s foreheads the furrows indicating intense concentration and effort.
I viewed this painting at the NSW Art Gallery in Sydney on 26th January, 2004, when it was part of the Caravaggio Exhibition. It is an impressive painting when viewed first hand.
The Artist’s Life
Trtemisia may have painted the scene during or just after the trial of Tassi for raping her. He denied the charges but couldn’t shrug off his record of sex crimes. He had previously served time for raping his sister-in-law and conspiring to murder his wife, whom he “acquired” by rape.
It appears that after a long period of sexual harassment by Tassi and the other male artists in his studio, he violated Artemisia’s virginity, a requisite for marriage between decent people. A consensual sexual relationship continued because he promised to marry her. It is likely that Artemisia hoped that he would marry her to restore her reputation. Her father discovered the assault and charged Tassi with rape.
The trial was a painful public humiliation for Artemisia. During the proceedings, she underwent vaginal examination and torture with thumbscrews. She was accused of being unchaste when she met Tassi and also of promiscuity. He also attacked her professional reputation. A transcript of the seven-month court case survives.
It was not until recent years that research by Lapierre revealed that Tassi was found guilty. He was given the choice of five years hard labour or exile from Rome. He choose the latter, but he was back in Rome within 4 months, probably due to influence in high places.
Is this painting Artemisia’s means of brandishing symbolic justice for herself and other victims?