At Large  May 20, 2022  Gail Ostbye

Feminism & Violence Coexist in Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith

Wikimedia Commons. 

Artemisia Gentileschi, detail of Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1620. Naples, Italy.

The deuterocanonical Book of Judith tells the story of a gorgeous widow who, utilizing her looks and wit, ultimately decapitates a sleeping Holofernes, the Assyrian general whose army threatened to besiege her home city Bethulia.

This tale has inspired many pieces of art throughout history, but there is one painting in particular that noticeably highlights the story’s violence in a manner that many have come to see as feminist. Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes stands out because it explicitly shows the act of a woman forcefully decapitating a man. One could argue that any depiction of this tale carries an inherent violence, since the story itself is a violent one. However, many believe Gentileschi’s deliberate inclusion of female brutality sends a feminist message that is absent from other iterations.

Judith stands with a sword in her right hand and Holofernes’s head in her left. Judith’s maid stands to the left of her, and the blade of the sword is not visible.
Pitti Palace, Florence.

Cristofano Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1610-2.

detail of previous painting's edge, features Judith's arm and the hilt of the sword.
Pitti Palace, Florence.

Cristofano Allori, detail of Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1610-2. Pitti Palace, Florence.

For example, Christofano Allori’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes features Judith standing with a sword in her right hand and Holofernes’s head in her left. Given the context of the story, we know what she has done, but the way she is presented barely indicates this. Her clothes are vibrant and flawless, not a speck of blood to be seen. She is poised and calm with little emotion on her face. The sword she holds is almost completely out of frame, leaving only the hint of a delicate hilt in her hand. This Judith is bright against a bleak background, a symbol of grace and purity, a portrait of what society thought strong women should be: Flawless; strong, but only in theory; and forever passive.

This is in direct contrast to Gentileschi’s decision to depict Judith as an active agent, in the midst of a physical struggle.

With her left hand, Judith firmly grips Holofernes’s hair as she slashes the sword across his throat, imposing her own physicality. Her maid holds Holofernes down, limiting his ability to fight back. Both Judith and her maid’s sleeves are rolled up; they’re here to get the job done.

Wikimedia Commons.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1620. Naples, Italy.

Additionally, Holofernes is not a stagnant decapitated head on a platter or in a basket, nor is he deep in his drunken slumber. Holofernes is awake. His eyes are wide as he struggles against Judith and her maid with one arm raised. Blood sprays from Holofernes’s neck, running in deep rivulets down the mattress and lightly speckling Judith’s yellow gown and chest.

Gentileschi gave Judith a sense of true agency. She did not separate Judith from the blatant aggression of her actions like so many other artists. In doing so, Gentileschi made something that we would now describe as feminist. Not because it is a painting of two women killing a man, but because Judith, and even her maid, have not been clinically separated from the ferocity of their heroism.

In this instance, the connection between violence and feminism is an essential one. While Judith herself is a powerful character, depictions of her are not inherently feminist, and censoring or brushing aside her act of decapitation only serves to take her power away. Gentileschi understood the importance of showing Judith exacting her plan. Even though Gentileschi may not have intended Judith Slaying Holofernes to be a feminist piece in the modern sense, it has certainly become one for many contemporary viewers. Perhaps most importantly, this piece is unapologetically visceral but not overly so, its violence is empowering without being exploitative.

About the Author

Gail Ostbye

Gail Ostbye is a rising senior at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a current intern at Art & Object. She is majoring in English and hopes to enter a career in editing. When she isn’t working she enjoys writing songs in her free time.

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