Judith and Holofernes

Judith and Holofernes

Nobody can argue that the COVID Pandemic is not changing the way our lives are enjoyed. So much is either cancelled or on hold. At this time of year, we typically travel to various events around the region. Donaschwauben’s Oktoberfest, The Wool Festival in Falmouth, and the Ohio Renaissance Fair are all on the list. Kings Island’s Halloween Haunt and at least one pumpkin patch are also favorites. Unfortunately, all of these are cancelled. What really hurts is that the weekends these were scheduled to occur saw beautiful weather. Given that last year’s Wool Festival, an event dedicated to the fall harvest of sheep shearing and the products that go with it, saw a sweltering weekend in October with temps in the mid 90s makes it seem just like another kick in the pants.

I happened to be going through some old books when I dug up a forgotten work I purchased at the Uffizi in Florence, Italy. I was suddenly struck with the remembrance that I used to really love art museums. I am a very visual type of person. I do not “feel” music the way others do, although I wish I did. I do however love art and looking at it and the ideas that come with it. Art I have found is much better when you know the history behind it and the artist’s life. Just looking at a spattering of a Pollock probably does nothing until you understand its place in art history and who Jackson Pollock was and how he worked.

I thumbed through the book and fell on a painting by the late female Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi titled “Judith Beheading Holofernes.” I remembered the painting in the gallery and how gory I thought it was at the time. Evidently others thought the same and for some time it was hidden from view. The background of the painting from the Uffizi gallery:

“The Lord has struck him down by the hand of a woman”. So says Judith, a young Jew from Bethulia, in the bible when she describes her heroic act that freed the people of Israel from the siege by Nebuchadnezzar’s army. Judith went to the encampment of the fierce Holofernes, general of the enemy army, dressed in her best clothes and feigning a wish to forge an alliance. Struck by her beauty, the Assyrian general invited her to a lavish banquet in his tent. After eating and drinking, Holofernes, now drunk, fell asleep on his bed, allowing Judith to seize her chance to draw her scimitar and strike the deadly blow. In this powerful painting in the Gallery of the Statues and Paintings of the Uffizi, (c. 1620), Artemisia Gentileschi portrays the moment that Holofernes is killed by the hand of the determined and powerful Judith. The overall effect is both powerful and frightening: the drunk corpulent general is lying on the bed, his head grasped by his hair and the sword plunged into his neck. Furthermore, Artemisia did not shy away from adding the gory detail of blood spurting so profusely as to stain Judith’s breast. The painting was completed in Rome where Artemisia returned after spending seven years in Florence and where she was able to appreciate Caravaggio’s works once more. The naturalistic “virility” of the work provoked strong reactions on its arrival in Florence and the painting was denied the honor of being exhibited in the Gallery; in fact, it was only with great difficulty and the help of her friend Galileo Galilei that the painter managed to extract the payment, with a significant delay, that had been agreed with Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici, who died in 1621 shortly after the great canvas was completed. Today, this painting also represents the human and professional tale of a woman who chose to be an artist in an era dominated by men; in this she succeeded, working in the courts of Rome, Florence and Naples, traveling to England and finally becoming the first woman to enter the Academy of Art and Design in Florence.

Judith Beheading Holofernes
Judith Beheading Holofernes

What also struck me about the painting was that I could not remember the story of Judith from the Old Testament. When I was a child I attended daily Catholic Mass and once on Sunday. Typically in the Catholic year a section of the Bible is read at every mass, and if you attend daily over a certain cycle you can hear the entire Bible. So I sat down to read the book of Judith and wow, am I impressed. I probably know now why we did not study this book much in Catholic school because it is fairly violent and sensational. It might be my new favorite story in the bible. I would encourage you to read it.

Lastly, what struck me about this work when I researched it was the intensity of the subject. Evidently the artist herself used her likeness for Judith. She chose for Holofernes her mentor, and unbelievably also her convicted rapist. How incredibly personal this painting must have been for her. It is a symbol of strength that parallels to one of the strongest women in the bible, Judith. It is an incredible painting when you put all of this together.

I think I am going to share a few more of my favorite paintings on my blog just in remembrance of a time when we could actually go to museums and enjoy them. Hopefully that time is not too far off in the future.

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