“Judith was left alone in the tent, with Holofernes stretched out on the bed, for he was overcome with wine (Judith 13,2)… She went up to the post at the end of the bed, above Holofernes’ head, and took down his sword that hung there. She came close to the bed and took hold of the hair of his head, and said: “Give me strength this day, O Lord God of Israel!”. And she struck his neck twice with all her might, and severed his head from his body (Judith 13,6-8)… After a moment she went out and gave Holofernes’ head to her maid (Judith 13, 9)”.
When it comes to the mechanics of dialogue, one wonders what words were exchanged between maidservant and mistress when Judith slipped under the tent flap into the night and plopped a bloody head into the woman’s outstretched hands. “Here, get rid of it,” she might have said, “And here, wash my apron while you’re at it. Maybe some baking soda will do the trick.”
The Old Testament makes an interesting read, what with all the gore and the debauchery and the turning of people into pillars of salt — truly a moment of inspired creative thinking in the field of retribution. It’s provided centuries of inspiration for artists; Judith and her maid appear in a number of paintings, and it’s interesting to compare how different artists have interpreted the above passage.
Judith Beheading Holofernes, by Caravaggio
Caravaggio’s Judith looks a bit prissy, hanging back to keep her crisp white frock out of the path of the spray. She looks hesitant, delicate, and unsure, while the maid at her elbow, a haggard old woman with sack in hand, seems to be urging her on. Holofernes looks startled, surprised, and shaken, but come on — look at those bright, comprehensive eyes. He could knock the sword out of Judith’s hand, if he just gathered his wits together. The picture, with its soft light and gentle death, seems out-of-place. Caravaggio had skill, there’s a romance to the painting that appears at odds with the nature of the tale. Holofernes doesn’t seem true to character, Judith looks like she’s slicing through a stick of butter, and the maid waits patiently for everyone to finish up so she can go home.
Judith Slaying Holofernes, by Gentileschi
Meanwhile, Gentileschi has portrayed Judith as a get-things-done sort of girl, throwing her back into the job, and using a little elbow grease to slaughter Holofernes. It’s full of savage butchery. The maid isn’t hanging back, passively watching. She’s holding the victim down. These girls know, you don’t kill a man at arms’ length; you’ve got to get your hands dirty. Holofernes doesn’t look as afraid as he ought to, but who knows — he was drunk. Maybe he’s almost dead by this point. The effort portrayed in this version is wonderful, and apparently a poor restoration job smoothed out the wrinkles on Judith’s head, meaning that the original painting’s face held even more strain, emotion and violence.
Gentileschi created “Judith Slaying Holofernes” while undergoing her trial against Tassi for his rape of her in 1612. Court records show that Gentileschi was required to give her testimony voluntarily under extreme torture, for the prevaling attitude of the time was, if you could make the same accusation in agony as you did in good health, then it must be true. Imagine, testifying against your rapist while your thumbs are being crushed, then coming home and painting — yes, a little eesy-weesy tiny bit of rage might leak onto the canvas.
It’s interesting to compare the maids, who are represented quite differently, and yet who (in the Old Testament) are not present at all for the murder. Caravaggio uses his maid to juxtapose Judith’s youth and beauty, and the old woman becomes a passive reflection of mortality cast alongside Holoferne’s dying gasps. Gentileschi, however, uses her maid as a comrade-in-arms, equally young and strong, equally determined, equally embroiled in the drama. Caravaggio’s maid would have said something like, “Now, you give me the head, dearie, and I’ll take care of it, and I’ll make you a cup of tea afterwards,” while Gentileschi’s maid would have said, “C’mon, let’s feed the bastard’s brains to the dogs.”
Never let it be said that art is boring. People who think art is boring are just looking at the wrong pictures.
Let’s conclude with one more painting: Gustav Klimt’s version of the beheading. How many people look at this image, and see only the come-hither smile of a seductress, instead of the severed head gripped in her fingers?