caravaggio judith and holofernes 1599
Caravaggio’s approach was, typically, to choose the moment of greatest dramatic impact: the moment of decapitation itself. The figures are set out in a shallow stage, theatrically lit from the side, isolated against the inky black background. Judith’s maid Abra stands beside her mistress to the right as Judith extends her arm to hold a blade against Holofernes’s neck; lying on his stomach, neck contorted as he turns his head towards his assassin, he is vulnerable. X-rays have revealed that Caravaggio adjusted the placement of Holofernes’ head as he proceeded, separating it slightly from the torso and moving it minutely to the right. The faces of the three characters demonstrate the artist’s mastery of emotion, Judith’s countenance in particular showing a mix of determination and repulsion. Artemisia Gentileschi and others were deeply influenced by this work; while they even surpassed Caravaggio’s physical realism, it has been argued that none matched his capture of Judith’s psychological ambivalence. 
The model for Judith is probably the Roman courtesan Fillide Melandroni, who posed for several other works by Caravaggio around this year; the scene itself, especially the details of blood and decapitation, were presumably drawn from his observations of the public execution of Beatrice Cenci in 1599. 
Judith Beheading Holofernes tells the story Biblical story of Judith, who saved her people by seducing and beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes, which was a common theme in the 16th century. The same story has also been painted by artists such as Sandro Botticelli, Donatello, Artemesia Gentileshi, Giorgione, and Andrea Mantegna. Caravaggio was certainly aware of Judith’s traditional identity as a symbol of triumph over tyranny; but he presented the subject primarily as a melodrama, choosing the relatively rarely represented climactic moment of the actual beheading of Holofernes. Judith, young, beautiful, and physically weak, draws back distastefully as she seizes Holofernes’s hair and cleaves through his neck with his own sword. Holofernes, on his bed, powerful but drunk, nude, and bellowing helplessly, has frozen in the futile struggle of his last instant of consciousness. The bloodthirsty old servant, popeyed as she strains forward, clutches the bag in readiness for the disembodied head. It is a ghastly image, with primary interest in the protagonists’ states of mind: the old woman’s grim satisfaction, Holofernes’s shock, and Judith’s sense of determination. Caravaggio intensifies the body language not only in the poses, gestures, and facial expressions but also in the clenched hands. Drama has displaced the charm of his earlier epicurean paintings, as if the world had ceased to be his oyster and become a battlefield.
If the figures have become static, they continue to be made of convincingly solid flesh, displacing space. But the voids around them are at least as black and two-dimensional as they are empty and three-dimensional. The picture resembles a photograph taken with a wide-angle lens, unfolding panoramically rather than penetrating depth within a single frame of vision. The starting point, strangely enough, is the least important figure, the servant, whose precisely profiled head- in relief rather than fully rounded – implies a viewpoint from in front of the right edge of the painting rather than from the center. This peculiarity was probably the result of Caravaggio’s having not yet fully developed the technique of rendering on a two-dimensional surface the effect of vigorous action within fully convincing three-dimensional space. Or conceivably the painting was designed to be seen from the right, and he was already experimenting with anamorphic composition. The influence of Da Vinci is apparent in Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. Here, the grotesquely intense face of the old crone holding the bag for Holofernes’s head is undeniably evocative of da Vinci’s caricatures.
Caravaggio, whose name in full was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, was active from approximately 1595 up until his death in 1610. The ‘greatest artist in Rome’, who was a pioneer on the Baroque artistic scene, lived an unconventional and somewhat violent life, and was even reported to have killed a man.
The painting, which was first rediscovered in April 2014, has hit headlines a mere month after another lost-and-found Caravaggio went on display in Tokyo. Mary Magdelene in Ecstasy was revealed to the public at an exhibition in the Japanese capital in early March this year.
(b. 1573, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)
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