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Yet another severed head.....


Okay, I apologize for being flippant. Severed heads are no laughing matter. But they can be an important symbol, and post-Renaissance Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi was striking a blow against tyranny with her depiction of Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Artemisia, who knew something about tyrants and tyranny herself, painted this sometime between 1612-21. It now hangs in Florence’s Galleria degli Uffizi.

I found these reproductions of Artemisia’s paintings after I was reminded of her work by Colleen, a Slow Travel friend, who was commenting on yesterday’s post about Caravaggio and the growing body of academic research into his work. To illustrate the post, I had used Caravaggio’s take on the same theme, Judith and Holofernes.

The Old Testament tale tells of the Jewish heroine, Judith, who seeks out the Babylonian general Holofernes in his tent, gets him drunk, then beheads him. It’s a perfect tactic: the sight of their commander's bloodstained head on the battlements of Bethulia caused the soldiers, the enemies of Judith’s people, to flee.

Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in Rome in 1593, lived a bit later than Caravaggio and clearly struggled long and hard to establish herself as a painter in 17th century Italy, a near impossible time for a woman in any milieu, let alone art.

She was publicly tortured and humiliated by Roman authorities – who, in a particularly vindictive move, focused their torture on the painter’s fingers – during a very public 7-month trial, after her father brought a claim against a fellow artist who raped Artemisia. It seems the focus of the trial was “proving” that Artemisia had been a virgin before the attack, for otherwise, there was no crime.

Ultimately, the accused wasn’t severely punished, unlike Artemisia herself.


Above is a variation by Artemisia on the same theme: Judith and Her Maidservant. They’re shown as they creep away from the scene with Holofernes’ head in their basket. This was likely painted about the same time, somewhere between 1614-20 and is in the Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti) in Florence.

Colleen shared an interesting link to a website devoted to Artemisia:

Comments (6)

In 2002 I went to Rome for only 24 hours just to see the Orazio & Artemisia Gentileschi exhibit at Palazzo Venezia. (I'd been staying in Florence with a friend.) It was an AMAZING exhibit, and the audio tour was very well done.

Something about "Judith and her Maidservant" struck a chord with me, I don't know why! Maybe because it doesn't show the gouts of blood spurting like the other painting, or maybe it's the severed head neatly tucked in the basket. The dynamics of the picture are interesting - a moment of surprise after the deadly deed, Judith still holding the bloody blade...

I'll look for the Vreeland book - I read her "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" and liked it very much.

Very interesting, Sandra, I don't think I've known much if anything about Artemisia before I read your post and checked the link.

OMG, Sandra. Artemisia is my FAVORITE! Thanks for posting that link.

Have you read Susan Vreeland's historical fiction about her? "The Passion of Artemisia"


Colleen, I especially like the painting of Judith and her Maidservant as well! There's such a sense of drama about it -- you just know these women are involved in something extremely dangerous (even if you don't notice the severed head right away.)

The Vreeland book is really interesting and spends a lot of time imaging the artist's motivation, especially with the Judith paintings.

Candi, the next time you're in Florence, you'll have to check out her works!

Deborah, I so agree. And I really enjoyed Vreeland's novel.

I too loved the Vreeland book. I read it shortly before I went to the Uffizi for the first time so I went looking for her painting when I was there.

Another lover of Artemesia. We skipped over a couple of rooms at the Uffizi just so we could make certain we saw this painting. Have you seen the movie on her? It is called Artemsia. I liked it although some think it is was not factual. I did think it was bit inconsistent at times but it does give a good overview of her life and struggles to paint. I'm going to have to check out the Vreeland books. I can't remember if I've read it or not.

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