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In Caravaggio’s oil on canvas painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-99), tenebrism, a stark play of light and shadow, illuminates the strength and courage of Judith’s actions while simultaneously presenting an image of such gore that many of Caravaggio’s contemporaries would have recoiled in horror and disgust.
According to the Apocryphal Book of Judith, the beautiful Jewish woman flatters, seduces, pleasures, and then, while he is drunk within his tent, savagely murders the great and cruel Assyrian general.
As a result, the Assyrians are driven away in confusion and disarray. Israel is thus saved.
In Judith Beheading Holofernes, we see Caravaggio’s ferocious passion for his muse, the Roman prostitute, Fillide Melandroni.
The alluring Fillide was Caravaggio’s model on several occasions and he seemed to delight in using prostitutes to represent biblical heroines.
The painting’s violence and seduction is as much about late sixteenth century Rome as it is about biblical times.
Both Fillide and Judith, underestimated by the worlds that they inhabit, surprise and amaze their contemporaries.
Like Holofernes who did not perceive Judith’s true power, Caravaggio reveals how the men of Rome, who profited from Fillide, are incapable of fully understanding or appreciating her strength and power.
While Caravaggio chose to paint the exact moment of the slaying, he communicates to his audience that Judith (and Fillide) will continue to thwart convention through the unwomanly task of carrying forth Holofernes’s head.
Division among Caravaggio’s contemporaries regarding Judith Beheading Holofernes relates strongly to his adherence to realism.
While many, who preferred the more idealistic representations of the great Renaissance masters, found his paintings startlingly vulgar and wildly offensive, his supporters appreciated his departure from convention.
Murder, no matter how justified, is a grizzly undertaking, and Caravaggio wanted to present it as such. Typical of Caravaggio’s work, the image unapologetically reveals the climax of Judith’s story.
The original can be viewed at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.