caravaggio judith and holofernes
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. 
The Book of Judith was accepted by Jerome as canonical and accepted in the Vulgate and was referred to by Clement of Rome in the late first century (1 Clement 55), and thus images of Judith were as acceptable as those of other scriptural women. In early Christianity, however, images of Judith were far from sexual or violent: she was usually depicted as “a type of the praying Virgin or the church or as a figure who tramples Satan and harrows Hell,” that is, in a way that betrayed no sexual ambivalence: “the figure of Judith herself remained unmoved and unreal, separated from real sexual images and thus protected.” 
Judith remained popular in the Baroque period, but around 1600, images of Judith began to take on a more violent character, “and Judith became a threatening character to artist and viewer.”  Italian painters including Caravaggio, Leonello Spada, and Bartolomeo Manfredi depicted Judith and Holofernes; and in the north, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, and Eglon van der Neer  used the story. The influential composition by Cristofano Allori (c. 1613 onwards), which exists in several versions, copied a conceit of Caravaggio’s recent David with the Head of Goliath: Holofernes’ head is a portrait of the artist, Judith is his ex-mistress, and the maid her mother.   In Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Slaying Holofernes (Naples), she demonstrates her knowledge of the Caravaggio Judith Slaying Holofernes of 1612; like Caravaggio, she chooses to show the actual moment of the killing.  A different composition in the Pitti Palace in Florence shows a more traditional scene with the head in a basket.
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.
Judith Beheading Holofernes went on display in Paris after its rediscovery in early 2014 and, for good reason, has sparked controversy within the art world.
Experts believe that Judith Beheading Holofernes, which depicts the biblical figure of Judith decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes, was painted around 1599 and disappeared from circulation 100 years later. Assuming this Caravaggio in the attic is an original work, it exists as one of two versions of the painting done by Caravaggio in the late 16th century. The other version, depicting a more gentile Judith, is on display at the National Gallery of Ancient Art, at Pallazo Barberini.