caravaggio judith and holofernes
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 ).
When Caravaggio left Naples on 14 June 1607, he left two paintings – the Madonna of the Rosary and Judith beheading Holofernes – in the studio in Naples that was shared by the two Flemish painters and art dealers Louis Finson and Abraham Vinck. Vinck likely took the two paintings with him when he left Naples and settled in Amsterdam around 1609. Later Finson also moved to Amsterdam. The two paintings are mentioned again, this time in the will and testament dated 19 September 1617 prepared by Finson in Amsterdam. In his will Finson left Vinck his share in the two Caravaggio paintings that they had owned in common since Naples. Finson died shortly after making his will and his heir Vinck died two years later. After Vinck died his heirs sold the Madonna of the Rosary after 1619 for 1800 florins to a committee of Flemish painters and ‘amateurs’ led by Peter Paul Rubens for the Saint Paul’s Church of the Dominican friars in Antwerp.  In 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria first ordered the closure of all ‘useless’ monastic orders and then claimed the painting of Caravaggio for his art collection. It can now be admired in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Caravaggio’s work, which was a gift of Antwerp’s leading artists and an expression of their deep religious devotion had thus become the object of looting by the Austrian rulers of Flanders. 
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.
While many of the above paintings resulted from private patronage, important paintings and cycles were made also by church commission and were made to promote a new allegorical reading of the story—that Judith defeats Protestant heresy. This is the period of the Counter-Reformation, and many images (including a fresco cycle in the Lateran Palace commissioned by Pope Sixtus V and designed by Giovanni Guerra and Cesare Nebbia) “proclaim her rhetorical appropriation by the Catholic or Counter-Reformation Church against the ‘heresies’ of Protestantism. Judith saved her people by vanquishing an adversary she described as not just one heathen but ‘all unbelievers’ (Jdt 13:27); she thus stood as an ideal agent of anti-heretical propaganda.” 
Especially in Germany an interest developed in female “worthies” and heroines, to match the traditional male sets. Subjects combining sex and violence were also popular with collectors. Like Lucretia, Judith was the subject of a disproportionate number of old master prints, sometimes shown nude. Barthel Beham engraved three compositions of the subject, and other of the “Little Masters” did several more. Jacopo de’ Barberi, Girolamo Mocetto (after a design by Andrea Mantegna), and Parmigianino also made prints of the subject.
Many definitive versions of the Judith picture appear at the turn of a Century: the Austrian manuscript in 1300; Caravaggio’s version (1598) and Gentileschi’s (1610) straddling the same boundary 300 years later; Klimt at that most enormous divide, when history fell away and modernity took hold, in the first year of the 20th century; Russian artists Alexander Melamid and Vitaly Komar, in their Judith on the Red Square (1993) casting Stalin in the Holofernes role as the end of the second Millennium breathes down everyone’s necks. The simultaneous ‘crisis of self’ and ‘assertion of self’ which grips the scene causes artists to return to this story in times of historic revolution.
Artemisia Gentileschi uses many of the same pictorial techniques and atmospheres, but reclaims positional perspective. She paints women out of the corner and into the centre stage. She exacts bodily revenge on men.