judith and her maidservant with the head of holofernes
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The stoic figures of Judith and her maidservant, however, are trademarks of Artemisia’s own work. Holofernes’ grisly end was just one of many stories that inspired her brutal depictions of resolute young females conquering male adversaries. No source material communicated female resilience quite so adeptly as the Book of Judith. When the Assyrians lay siege to the city Bethulia, the widow Judith captivated general Holofernes with her beauty. The enemy commander dropped his guard, invited the young lady into his tent, and fell into a deep, drunken sleep, allowing Judith to saw his head off and becoming fodder for thousands of morbid Baroque paintings.
Judith and Her Maidservant is one of four paintings by the Italian baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi that depicts the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes.  This particular work, executed in about 1623 to 1625, now hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  The narrative is taken from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith, in which Judith seduces and then murders the general Holofernes. This precise moment illustrates the maidservant Abra wrapping the severed head in a bag, moments after the murder, while Judith keeps watch. The other three paintings are now shown in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, and the Musee de la Castre, Cannes. 
Much like her father, Gentileschi’s style in the formative years of her career followed that of Caravaggio, mirroring his methods of dark shadows and overall execution.  The artist utilized dramatic forms of chiaroscuro, most notably across Judith’s half-lit face, her hand shielding the glow of the candle. Jesse M. Locker expresses this particular painting’s definitive qualities that quintessentially represent the dramatization within baroque art.  Vivid tones of color, ranging from Judith’s golden dress to the deep crimson curtain, contribute to an elemental component that is unique to Gentileschi’s style, unlike Caravaggio.  The shadow cast on Judith’s face resembles a crescent moon which is a symbol of Artemis, a reoccurring connection the artist made between the female figures.  Artemisia’s Judith is always seen with a weapon at the ready.  Gentileschi painted the figures and components of the composition with a strong sense of realism. Art historian Mary Garrard attributes this detailed attention to the influence of the Caravaggesque style. The dramatic lighting, playing with the limited glow from the candle and dense shadows, builds tension in the scene.  The style of this composition is compared to Adam Elsheimer’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, with the tenebristic lighting from the single candle and the drapery at the top corner of the canvas.  The dramatically shadowed crossing of Judith’s arms connects to the manner and style of Simon Vouet’s Temptation of St. Francis, along with the theme of sexual power.  There is still much debate over the specific date in which this painting was created, however most scholars secure it within the mid-1620’s. 
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It is the suspense, the emotion of the painting and the painter behind it, that sets the scene apart from other religious paintings. Even similar scenes painted by the vaunted Caravaggio seem stiff, detached from the events with almost too much reverence. Gentileschi gave us a different vision, one closer to reality. It has not just a real feeling of revenge, but the thrill of these two characters finding themselves in a position of only being halfway there. Sure, they have his head, but it won’t matter much if they don’t escape.
Artemisia Gentileschi, “Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes”
This picture by Artemisia Gentilleschi of Judith slicing off Holofernes’ head is thought to have been painted shortly after she was raped by the painter she was studying under. 1 Interpreters have thus seen this grisly scene as some sort of reprisal. That might be so but it would not be poetry.
See Artemisia Gentileschi turned a biblical story into a lesson about art and reality