Disclaimer: I’m not an art historian, nor a theologist or pathologist, I have taught musicology (but the more I studied music the less I understood it), I’m not a painter nor a photographer…(but I take pictures)
I am nothing.
I’ll never be anything.
I couldn’t want to be something.
Apart from that, I have in me all the dreams in the world.
As a regular of Marple, Sherlock, Poirot, Horatio, Vera, Nikki, Barnaby, Maigret and especially Clouseaureferring to the TV series or movies rather than the book versions you might think “aha, we’re witnessing a homicide”. Who is the victim, who is the perpetrator and who is the accomplice? What is the motif? Where and when did it take place?
It is well known that most crimes take place in the family, so probably the lady on the right has been brutally maltreated by the chap with the beard, possibly her husband, brother-in-law, father, uncle or other relative. The girl in the middle could be a sister or a friend. Judging by the high quality boxspring on which the action takes place the victim is obviously rich, and so is the perpetrator by the looks of the material of which her dress is made. It is definitely haute couture. The tool here is a sword (fig. 1, below). A sword is normally used in battle, duel or execution, the corresponding action is slaying or beheading, not murdering. It’s really quite unpractical and unwieldy, even a good kitchen knife is more suitable. We may conclude then that she just used whatever was at hand, an improvisation. The victim doesn’t seem to be dressed properly, perhaps he was asleep, an excellent moment for cleaving the neck. Rather gruesome you might say, and to be honest this is not a picture I would hang over my bed. Or worse, on the opposite wall. In the TV detectives mentioned above slicing a throat is a common offense but we do not usually see it happen. Close, but at the last moment the camera turns away. Sometime later we may see the victim lying on the pathologist’s table. So see the pathologist at work, for instance Nikki and her team, is itself not a particularly pleasant sight, but seeing the moment supreme is really something else like Polanski’s Macbeth, the head rolling down from the staircase and the blood gushing out of the neck. Shocking.
This is not some simple common sword, it clearly fits in with the earlier assessment of a wealthy ambience. Note the bracelet, pure gold with precious stones in a refined setting. En passant notice the little threads that keep the sleeve up, which is really nice as otherwise you get all the blood spatters on the dress. The way the perpetrator, who we shall call Judy for convenience, holds the sword suggests she has had practice, perhaps with sheep or goats. She exerts considerable force with her right arm and her fist is tightly clinching the handle. Of course, to cut through the throat and the carotids is easy, but the spine is another story. We shall hear more of this problem below.
A careful examination of the face of Judy (fig. 2) shows skill, detachment and determination. This is not an angry or desperate woman, she really knows what she is doing and it even gives her some sort of pleasure. Her accomplice, let her be known as Abby (fig. 3), is also quite confident that the matter at hand is going satisfactorily. The victim, who we shall call Olof, for that its a good name for a sufferer, looks sort of surprised. Judging by the amount of blood gushing from his neck he must be as good as gone, and his efforts to ward off the girls are no more than final convulsions. We do note an ever so slight frown on Judy’s forehead which shown concentration, but not worry. Similarly the muscles on Abby’s forehead are slightly contracted. Naturally, this job of polishing of Olof is not entirely child’s play. It does require some effort and application.
Whence have these personages come and what are they really up to? Well ye atheists, protestants, heathens and heretics, let me enlighten you: this is the tale of Judith (Judy) and Holofernes (Olof), and it comes from the ancient testament, the first part of the bible so to speak. Allow me to summarize the story. Olof was general of the army of the Assyrians, and their emperor, Nebuchadnezzar (Nabuco), had decided he would conquer the Middle East and the rest of the world. However, there was a small part where the Jews were living that resisted his army as it was mountainous and difficult to invade. To subjugate them he cut off all water supplies. The Jews became desperate. But Judy had a plan: she would go to Olof, tell him that she had deserted the Jews and wanted to join the Assyrians. She suggested she could tell Olof how to easily take over Judea, the country of the Jews. As she was a woman of great beauty Olof thought he could as well shag her to pass the time. Judy had counted on the general’s inclination and brought with her a bag of very tasty—and very salty—cheese biscuits. Olof became thirsty, drank goblet after goblet of wine and had an alcohol blackout. Judy took his sword and chopped his head off (we now understand why she had to use a sword, she could hardly bring her own kitchen knife into the enemy lines). Abra (Abby) put the head in a bag, they slipped out of the tent of Olof, sped to Judea and exhibited the head. The Jews then knew the Assyrians had no leader, took up arms, attacked the enemy who was in total disarray and dispersed them. Judy lived happily ever after. Abby, who had been a servant, was emancipated. The story is not historical (Nabuco for instance was Babylonian, not Assyrian), but in case you didn’t know, that is also true for Marple, Sherlock and the others in the band. Being in the bible it has a moral message, something about chastity and patriotism, while the TV detectives (and corresponding books) are just entertainment. Which is fine as we don’t need more morality than we already have. And by the way, the bible is not the law, laws are laid down in the civil codes of nations and in the case of Judith international law would apply. In some countries ancient religious scriptures are the law, better stay away.
From the perspective of the Jews this is not “the murder of Holophernes” as the scene is often referred to but rather a legitimate act of warElena Ciletti, “GRAN MACCHINA E BELLEZZA” Looking at the Gentileschi Judiths, in The Artemisia Files. We don’t have the victim’s side of the story, the losers don’t have voice, especially when their heads are chopped off.
There are similar stories, one of them is about Jael who seduced Sisera and drove a tent herring though his head when he was out. Way to go baby! Both of these paintings are by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653). Evidently Artemisia had a certain penchant for painting women slaying men. Much psychological analysis has been applied to this, particularly relating to the machist world she lived in and suffered from. She was raped in youth, went through a grueling court process prosecuting her rapist in which she was tortured to tell the truth and blamed for being beautiful. She was an exceptional painter, undoubtedly an electric personality, befriended the great of her times and very successful. I will come back to her in a moment.
The story of Judith has been subject of many paintings and a few sculptures too. In fact the charming website judith2you found 728 versions. Not only there are images of all stages of the story—being arrested by the guards, entering the tent, dining with Holophernes, chopping of his head, putting the head in the bag, bringing the head on a platter to Bethulia in Judea, the disarray of the Assyrians finding the beheaded body—but also each of these stages are portrayed in infinitely different ways, from the middle ages till recent times. The undaunting character of warrior women have intrigued since ancient times. Kautilya mentioned female spies using their guiles and charms in his Arthashastra in ancient India. More recently the exotic and erotic spy Mata Hari (Margaretha Geertruida Zelle) attracted great attention. Below a few examples of paintings of the Judith story. We don’t know the nitty-gritty of what really happened in Holophernes’ tent, the story gives no detail, but there is suggestion that rumpy pumpy did not take place—Judith is supposed to have been rigorously chaste after her husband died. Anyway, in such situations details are generally left to the imagination. In the case of Jael however, it is told that she copulated with Sisera seven times to exhaust him, which makes sense. In the small sample below the painting by Hans Baldung Grien does suggest Judith went all the way. Interestingly her expression shows the same contentment and subtle smile as in Artemisia’s version. By the way, in Artemisia’s Judith we see delicate cleavage at her bossom, she certainly had a plan there.
Figures 5 to 9: A few samples of the Judith story in painting
Before coming back to Artemisia I should discuss a few of my favorites by Tintoretto, Veronese and Caravaggio.
Though probably not by the hand of the master himself, this is an excellent painting. I used to dislike Tintoretto. All those huge paintings full of biblical figures floating around in the most improbable poses. Quel horreur! Tintoretto, really a nickname meaning ‘the paint maker’s boy’, born as Jacopo Robusti though in reality his family name was Comin which had been changed to Robusti as his father was quite a hulk, was best known as ‘il furioso’ for his lifestyle as a relentless painter in ecstatic devotion (sorry for this puzzle phrase). But I came to realize in one of my visits to Venice that he might just be the best painter ever (sorry for that phrase also, it’s obviously nonsense, there simply is no such thing as the best painter ever and for that matter it should be added: West of the Bosporus and after Van Eyck). But the ease and power with which Tintoretto handles the brush is amazing. The secret of his art is not that it is lifelike but that it creates an impression of lifelikeness. He painted so much it is truly unbelievable. OK, he probably had a number of assistants as was common in those days, but then he must really have trained them well. Which makes him a leader as well as a painter. Tintoretto was a follower of Tiziano (Titian), who probably really deserves the epithet of best painter ever (sorry for that …). Tintoretto actually became a student of Tiziano, but was thrown out very quickly. Tiziano probably felt threatened by the talent of Tintoretto and remained critical of him forever. Tintoretto on the other hand continued to admire Tiziano. The Judith painting shows everything Tintoretto is criticized for: arrangement and poses of the personages that is so smooth and realistic that it seems unnatural. Such superb mastery of anatomy, light and shadow, texture of skin and cloth that it almost makes me uncomfortable. Let’s start with Abra on the left. She’s putting the head of Holophernes in the bag but at the same time she turns her head towards Judith seeking approval for her assistance, which is represented by the raised eyebrow. Just look at the way the dress shows the manner in which her body is twisted. Somehow it could be a man but when you look carefully at the hair you realize it’s a woman. Judy is utterly splendid in this painting. The glamour women of Italian painting of this period are still quite acceptable in today’s conception of beauty. Not surprising, as the classic concept of beauty was their inspiration, think Venus of Milo. To the contrary the women of the North are really not attractive, I wouldn’t let Rembrandt’s Judith into my tent. But then, with the cold winters of the North you need some extra layers of blubber. The dress is done in Tintoretto’s smooth style although the cloth around her waste would have been tighter in the hands of the master himself. Her knee is showing as a token of her seductive skills, and so is the decolleté accentuated by a transparent muslin. The upper arms and the hairdo are splendid, such incredible detail, what fashionable jewelry. To the left of her we see an empty wine flask on the table and in the background the mountainous land of Judea. Like the maidservant Judith’s body is twisted. She holds a cloth with which she is covering Holofernes but at the same time she turns her face away from the headless body. Holofernes is lying on a very luxurious boxspring, and the striped rug is another display of perfect technique. Apart from a loin cloth the body of is naked in a display of excellent musculature. By the way, notice the similarity of the bed in this painting and Artemisia’s version.
Almost at the same time Paulo Caliari, born in Verona and therefore known as the Veronese, painted this version. Again Judith’s hairdo is utterly splendid and it forms a good contrast to the chopped off head and the trunk with the original socket. The maidservant, a lady of colour, is holding the bag open so that Judith can easily slip in the head. Judith’s eyes are directed towards the bag and her mouth shows that same detached competence in getting a job done. As with Tintoretto the handling of light and texture is superb and Veronese’s colors are always delicious. In your painting box the famous Veronese green cannot be missing. But his pinks are also inimitable. What went on before the head chopping business is clear from the disarray of Judith’s upper part of the dress with one breast discovered and in fact “there is nipple”.
Though just a few decades later, art historians generally consider this image—and all the work of Caravaggio—revolutionary. As a dutchman I grew up with Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh. I had never heard of Caravaggio and was taught that ‘those Italian painters’ where exaggerated, abundant, redundant and even chaotic. But when I first saw Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Judith I was flabbergasted. I think it is the most powerful image I have ever seen, and Judith is so incredibly beautiful. Beautiful in the sense of attractive. I cannot quite explain that feeling, it may have to do with what Darwin called sexual selection. As I grew up in a long tradition of staunch atheists I had no notion of the story of Judith. My father had some knowledge of biblical fables and occasionally recounted one. This invariably provoked a sarcastic response from my mother like “spuit elf geeft modder”please don’t come with this balderdash. Anyway, I wondered, what’s this chick up to? And the old lady seems waiting to bag the head.
Artemisia and her teacher-father Orazio were deeply influenced by Caravaggio and it shows: the sword, the frown on Judith’s forehead, the open mouth of Holofernes, the blood spurting from his neck, the position of arms and hands of Judith… And let us not mince words: Rembrandt was a caravaggisto as were Rubens, de la Tour, de Ribera and most painters after. The use of chiaroscuro (light/dark), the drama, the narration, those were the innovations he brought to painting. Whereas the oil painters before him would light the scene in a more or less even manner avoiding washed out whites and run in blacks Caravaggio went the other way, thus heightening a 3D impression and raising the emotive power. If you compare the muscles of Holofernes in this painting with Tintoretto you see what I mean. As the 20th-century art historian André Berne-Joffroy stated: “What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”Wikipedia citing Lambert, fn. 6 Apart from being an amazing painter, who painted directly from model in reality rather than after drawing as was the habit before, he was quite a violent madman who ran into trouble all the time. Apparently he was as good at home in brawls as in painting. He was very famous in his time, but also controversial. Like Da Vinci he had a great liking for old faces, and like Da Vinci he was fond of young boys. The maidservant in the Judith is a characteristic old woman and her expression says “jolly good job”. In Caravaggio’s representation of the entombment of Jesus he portrays Mary as an old woman, a plausible but controversial interpretation as Mary was supposed to possess eternal youth.
In some ways I consider Artemisia’s Judiths “better” than Caravaggio’s. The composition is more balanced, especially the involvement of the maid and the overall movement. The maid holding down Holofernes who really woke up too late to put up a fight but could still disturb the work of Judith is an excellent solution. Artemisia’s skill is undoubtedly perfect, the handling of cloth, the foreshortening of the maid’s face, the oblique position of Judith’s face, the convergence of lines in the head of Holofernes. It all speaks of a painter who knows what she’s doing, much like Judith herself. I haven’t chopped off anybody’s head both as the cook of the house I know well how to wield a large kitchen knife and when dealing with a sturdy opponent on the sink I know exactly how the muscles of the face contract. There, I must say, Caravaggio rightly accentuated the frown a little more and the slight pouting of the mouth is also correct. Anyway, those are minor details. But the hair of Judith in Artemisia’s version really disturbs me (see fig. 2 above). It sort of looks like a wig, and a cheap one at that. Why did she decide to move away from the wonderful hairdos of predecessors? I suppose she thought that Judith being a widow should not adorn herself but after all, she was supposed to seduce Holofernes and she is described as a woman of great beauty.
Whatever. Artemisia surely knew how to paint hair. In fact, when she was not even twenty, her father proclaimed the had mastered all facets of the art of painting and was second to none. Indeed she was very successful and famous in her time and her works evidence her competence. Yet, after her demise her work sank into oblivion. Machist notions about women not being able to paint, to compose music, or to drive a car for that matter. Patriarchal norms making it difficult for women to establish themselves in such fields.
In ancient story and history there are women who went way beyond being (house)wife and mother. Judith and Artemisia are examples. Mieke Bal says art history is much about comparison, and “comparison has two drawbacks”: it leads to “establishing hierarchies” and it “distracts from looking”. “Is it art or kitsch? Great art or secondary art?” she asks. She also suggests that judgements reflect tastes and vice versa.The Artemisia Files, p. 129In the above I have been comparing a bit but since I’m not an art historian it is of no importance. I’m only reporting my own observations and considerations. It’s just my way of looking at these things, as a part of my world. Perhaps I have been a bit harsh on Rembrandt, but that is because I feel dutch nationalism in art needs dimming.
It is wise not to use expressions like “this is real art” or “so and so is the greatest painter”. And when I was speaking of “the best ever” you surely knew what I meant. The title of this post, “following the evidence”, refers to the suggestion that the protagonist in TV detectives will find out the truth, the whole truth, what really happened. This page is to remind you that it is anything but the truth. It’s entertainment, fiction. Art is not evidence and yet it reveals a greater truth than what it represents.
In the accompanying slideshow/gallery there are some images relating to this page in full size. It starts out with paintings of Judith by predecessors of Artemisia, then a couple of versions of the theme by Artemisia herself and finally some more paintings by Artemisia of different subjects. Most images come from wikimedia, a couple are taken by me at the Artemisia exhibition in Rijksmueseum Twenthe. If you want to see the slideshow click here, and if you want an overview of the pictures in the gallery click here.
The website judith2you mentioned before is an enormous source for the Judith story and its representation in art. The exhibition guide “Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi” by Judith W. Mann and Keith Christiansen, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001 is invaluable. Deep thought is found in Mieke Bal (ed.), The Artemisia Files, Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People, University of Chicago Press, 2005. Even if you can’t think Bal and the other authors will do it for you. Mary Garrard is probably the Artemisia scholar, she wrote several books about her. Michael Palin made a nice documentary in which Garrard speaks.
Artemisia has become a hype and consumable and as expected and understandably she has been hijacked by feminists. But even if you are “other people” you don’t necessarily need to think to enjoy her.