The biblical story of Judith features in countless works of art: but the most iconic of all was painted by Artemisia Gentileschi when she was just 19 years old. In her life she visited the subject of Judith repeatedly, focusing on the moment of Holoferne’s beheading: in the painting that Artemisia finished in 1613, Judith has pushed up her sleeves and wedged her knee on the bed to counter Holoferne’s resistance. The picture is highly realistic and its effect is a very direct emotional appeal to viewers.
Who was this artist and why is her painting so special?
Artemisia Gentileschi was a very talented Italian artist who lived between the 16th and the 17th century. She received her artistic training in Rome from her father, Orazio Gentileschi, who trained her in the dramatic style pioneered by Caravaggio: the Baroque. This art style is built upon the earlier Renaissance traditions of the time, but if Renaissance depicts moments of calmness, the Baroque focuses on the moment of a story through dynamic action, composition and the chiaroscuro (or tenebrism) technique making paintings more emotional.
Crediti Artemisia Gentileschi, Pubblico dominio, Wikimedia Commons
In 1613 Artemisia got married and moved to Florence following a very difficult period in her artist’s life, because in 1611 she was raped by Agostino Tassi, one of her father’s colleagues who was nicknamed “lo Smargiasso” (the bully). When she told her father, he filed charges for the crime of “forcible violation of a virgin” because in the rape laws of the time young women were viewed as commodities owned by their fathers and rape was just an action that damaged the property of a man. The trial lasted for seven months, during which Artemisia was put under interrogation and tortured with thumbscrews. In the end Tassi was found guilty but his powerful patrons were able to have his sentence revoked, so Artemisia never really got justice.
Experts say that this event is probably reflected in her art and in the depictions of women that she made we can see symbols of female rage and power like Judith, a screaming Gorgon or Artemis, the goddess of hunt.