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Friday, March 23, 2012

Judith and Holofernes

There is hardly a day goes by that we don't read the words (or hear them) of some distraught columnist, politician, or other irate individual lamenting the perceived sad state of affairs now besetting our entertainment media. Television, being the most invasive of these, is usually singled out to bear the brunt of such an attack, and somewhere between the opening paragraph and the final period, the words "sex" and "violence" usually pop up. You would think television invented these nasty nostrums just to sell pantie liners and prescription drugs. A generation ago, one might have thought the movies were purveying such pestilence just to sell popcorn. And a generation before that, the spears were pointed at burlesque houses and dime novels. Of course the intensity has changed and the pervasiveness of the method of delivery has too, but basically, not much in the way of content between then and now. And while the 20th century may have invented new methods of delivery, it by no means invented sex or violence, either in fact or as entertainment.

Judith and Holofernes, 1455, Donatello
Around four hundred years ago, painting was one of the most viable entertainment mediums going.  It was crude of course, by today's standards, but it offered much the same impact for its time as today's movies or television. And about this time, one of the most brutal acts of violence (with some degree of sexual undercurrent) ever to appear on canvas was that of a lovely young widow by the name of Judith and her maid, graphically depicted in the act of decapitating the tyrant, Holofernes. The Early Italian Renaissance sculptor, Donatello, may have been the first to bring this legend to light and art. His gruesome, though bloodless, embodiment (right) stands today in the center of Florence next to a copy of Michelangelo's David. Building on this, perhaps even borrowing from it, the great, Italian, baroque artist, Caravaggio, was the first to paint it in 1598 (below, left). His version is dark, dramatic, and bloody enough; but he embodies in his female assailants a certain detached quality reducing the emotional impact of the act to a level not unlike carving roast beef.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-99,
Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612,
Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi was a follower of Caravaggio. Her father may have been one of his students. In any case, in 1612, this talented young lady poured every ounce of hatred and violence resting within her as a result of having been raped by her art instructor, into her own horrific version (above, right). And if there were some kind of competition to see who could depict the most squirting blood, this image would win, hands down. There is a struggle, there is pathos, there is sexually charged violence on a scale seldom seen in painting before or after. About the same time, another Italian artists, Cristofano Allori, also chose Judith (bottom). It was one of his last painting efforts. In contrast, his work is almost totally bloodless, Judith's sword extending well outside the picture plane, and his figures come across more as elegant than violent. There is still the severed head, held by the hair in the lovely young lady's gripping fist, but the coolness in her expression, after the fact, is devoid of emotion. The expression of the maid, peering over her shoulder, seems reduced to worrying that blood may besmirch milady's rich brocades. Strangely though, it may be this cool detachment that makes this image the most chilling of them all. Tune in next week when we see Judith, sword in hand, bargaining with a terrified taxidermist over the cost of mounting her gruesome trophy on the wall of her boudoir.
Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613, Cristofano Allori

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