caravaggio judith and holofernes analysis
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. 
The deuterocanonical Book of Judith tells how Judith served her people by seducing and pleasuring Holofernes, the Syrian General. Judith gets Holofernes drunk, then seizes her sword and slays him: “Approaching to his bed, she took hold of the hair of his head” ( Judith 13:7–8 ).
The brightness of the light that falls on Judith illuminates her youthful flesh and the clean linen of her bodice and emphasizes her virtue. The sweep of her skirt asserts that she’s recoiling from all this, as well she might. The look on her face confirms to the viewer that she’s finding such hands on decapitation very distasteful, and it’s frankly hilarious. Her brows knit together as if she’s been presented with a chicken to pluck and clean after putting on her best party dress. At least she’s rolled up her sleeves.
If the painting exists to extol the Jewish heroine, it also exists to showcase Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro and the expressiveness that can be found in the human face and body. Like much of Caravaggio’s work, the scene is brightly lit against a mysteriously dark background. A rich fold of red velvet at the top of the painting, also painted in sumptuous light and shadow, hints that it’s the curtain pulled back to admit Judith and the maidservant into Holofernes’ tent. The artist also uses light and dark to outline the massive, hairless muscles of the general as he discovers that he doesn’t even have time to pull away from what’s being done to him.
It has been suggested that the painting made its way to France 150 years ago when an ancestor of the existing owners brought it home from a Spanish military campaign under Napoleon.
For the time being, the provenance of Judith Beheading Holofernes remains questionable, despite there being considerable evidence to suggest that the painting is indeed an original Caravaggio. It seems likely, however, that a couple from Toulouse, who thought they were merely forcing a door open to fix a broken water pipe, in fact forced open a door onto a majestic and lucrative discovery, and a re-routing of the trajectory of art-history.
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.