Art, women, and strength

Judith Beheading Holofernes

Judith was a biblical heroine who single handedly took down an Assyrian general. It is believed she seduced him, snuck into his tent, and cut off his head.

In Gentileschi’s painting, top, Judith is depicted as an equal to Holofernes. It almost looks as though she did not need to behead him; she could have taken him in a fair fight. By using size, she shows Judith physically as she is represented historically.

Caravaggio’s Judith is more demure (bottom). Even such a historically important figure is diminished in his work. She is shown off to the side, the center of the painting is Holofernes. Caravaggio’s woman is physically less intense, maybe even a young girl. The hesitant look on her face suggests she may not have come up with this idea entirely on her own.

Gentileschi’s Judith is shown as the centre of the work. She is the reason we are looking at this. The painting is powerful – there is a struggle as Holofernes futilely fights back. Judith dominates him, and cuts off his head, blood splattering all around. Caravaggio’s painting is believed to be the influence for Gentileschi’s. The similarities are there: the bare background, the sword, the violence, are all borrowed from Caravaggio. But Judith shows no hesitance in Gentileschi’s work. There is no doubt in the viewer’s mind that she came here to do exactly what she is shown doing. There is no doubt she is strong, both physically and mentally.

Perhaps Caravaggio’s opinion on strength is different. Just because Judith is shown as a small woman, maybe even very young, doesn’t mean she could not come up with a perverse and violent way to kill someone. Maybe to Caravaggio, strength doesn’t lie in size or gore. Showing Judith as small and demure, he gives women a strength that is beyond size. This tiny girl could take down an enemy’s entire army; something the physically stronger soldiers could not do. He shows the paradox of size, strength, and violence by painting Judith as a small, unintimidating woman.

Do you think Gentileschi took the easy way out? Judith was a powerful woman, and she is shown equal and powerful to Holofernes. By painting Judith in equal size to him, there is no paradox, no alternative views on strength as present in Caravaggio’s piece.