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: