20. April 2024

Great Art Encounters – Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi Uffizi Florence

The art of female fury


I can’t be the only woman for whom looking at Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery feels like a certain validation.

Here we see the Old Testament heroine Judith engaged in the gruesome act of beheading the Assyrian army general Holofernes with a sword, ably assisted by her maid Abra [1]. Blood sprays across Judith’s arms and clothes and runs in rivulets down the sheets of the bed as Holofernes struggles to repel his attackers and stay alive.

Unapologetically violent, it’s among the most shocking images I’ve seen hanging on the walls of an art gallery [2]. It’s a vision of bloody revenge, but also of female courage, daring and patriotism. And one which has provided inspiration to many painters over the centuries, from Caravaggio to Klimt. However, it is Gentileschi’s interpretation which remains the most arresting.

Rooted to the spot

Observing the reactions of the other viewers in the Uffizi, I think many would agree.

First, a smile of joy and surprise as they walk into the room, look to their right and catch their first glimpse of the painting (“Oh, look – there it is! Gosh, how impressive!”) Then, as the initial rush wears off, the smile fades and they sink into their personal contemplation of the picture. Some visitors are so engrossed that they have to be politely nudged out of the way, or discreetly coughed out of their reverie, so that others can get a look-in.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the women who most look the longest, or take a seat on the bench opposite to enter into an extended reflection. I’m one of them. In fact, I find myself quite unable to move away.

And the reason is this: while I was prepared to be impressed, even hypnotised by Judith Slaying Holofernes – I was not expecting to feel so gratified by it.

Be a good girl, don’t rock the boat

Women, after all, aren’t supposed to be violent, or support violence, or enjoy looking at portrayals of violence. Rather, one expects us to be the victims of it. And then to keep quiet, let the incident pass by uncommented, push our anger and frustration down, and resist talking back so no one gets upset or uncomfortable.

The #metoo movement exposed for all to see the extent of the damage that this omertà has done to women. And it showed that when we do actually speak up, the world changes.

If only it was easier to do so.

There is still a special sort of turpitude which attaches itself to angry women. Our rage offends those dictates of society which require us to be meek childbearers rather than argumentative trailblazers. And so female fury continues to be blocked out, discredited, belittled. Only rarely is it taken seriously.

Licence to be livid

When it comes to gender-based violence and discrimination, we ladies still have a whole shedload to be angry about.

In fact, it feels rather apropos that I saw Judith Slaying Holofernes just a couple of months after Hamas’s appalling attack on southern Israel on 7th October 2023 during which women were subject to horrific sexual violence.

The attack itself, as well as how it has been reported on in the media and discussed in the public domain had been weighing on my mind since. Standing there in the Uffizi, Gentileschi’s image of Judith and Holofernes seemed to grant me licence to acknowledge my true feelings about it.

They are – quite frankly – incandescent.

I am angry that womens’ lesser physical strength has damned us to being the victims of sexualised violence as a weapon of war.

I am angry that it was ever thus, and thus it ever will be.

What’s more, I am angry at how quickly female sexual integrity goes out the window when the rules of civilisation break down. I’ve read the accounts of gang rapes, broken pelvises, women begging to be killed rather than have to live with the aftermath of the ordeal. I’ve seen the pictures of girls being loaded into trucks by their attackers, blood soaking through the crotch of their trousers, only for questions to be asked about whether the claims of sexual violence are legitimate…and I am livid.

I am furious that, when peace dissolves, none of the progress women have made in the last hundred years – our political suffrage, our reproductive rights, our education, all our hard work – means a thing. It matters not one iota. When push comes to shove, women are always going to be the ones having our faces slammed into the floor and fighting to keep our legs shut while some primitive male drops his trousers behind us.

If you need me, I’ll be over here – fuming

And there’s an awful lot of other stuff below that appalling high watermark of sexual violence which adds to the ledger of a female life marked “bullsh*t”. Over the years, it accumulates.

Every time a man talks over you, talks down to you, or treats you like a kid.

Every time you find yourself in a male-dominated environment and know for sure that keeping your mouth shut or dumbing down is going to get you further than speaking your mind.

All the times you’ve been called “aggressive” or told to “calm down” for doing something that a man would be patted on the shoulder for, because he has – I quote – “natural authority”.

Every time you feel like you have to run faster, jump higher, do better, do more just to keep level with even the most mediocre men on the job.

When, once again, you feel like you have to act like “one of the guys” to get on in this job and you’re just so tired of this god-damned fight and trying to get your voice heard…

The tide of crap is never-ending and every woman I know has got a story to tell.

This is why, looking at Judith’s fist clenched rough and unyielding in Holofernes’ hair, all I can think is “YES! Go for it, Judith! Pull his hair out – yank it out in chunks!”

Paintings of enduring impact

And it is why Artemisia Gentileschi’s pictures still have such impact and resonance 400 years after they were painted.

Because, when it came to harassment and discrimination at the hands of men, she knew a thing or two.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593 as the only daughter of the respected painter Orazio Gentileschi. Orazio recognised Artemisia’s prodigious artistic talents for painting early on and – rather unusually for the time – encouraged her to develop and hone her skills.

Indeed, Artemisia’s painting style would always bear Orazio’s fingerprint. On the other hand, she drew much of her inspiration from Caravaggio – frequently employing the technique of tenebrism in her paintings and adopting the kind of dynamic, highly theatrical scenes favoured by the baroque master.

Venting her frustration?

Although she was not the only female painter around at the time, Artemisia was unusual in that she devoted herself to historical painting. The two versions of Judith Slaying Holofernes fit into this oeuvre perfectly.

The motif may have also provided an outlet for Artemisia’s frustration after her rape in 1611 by Agostino Tassi, an artist who worked with her father. Despite her cries for help, none of the other people who were present in the house at the time (including the female lodger Tuzia, who had been a friend of Artemisia’s) came to her aid.

Adding insult to injury, at the ensuing trial, Artemisia bore the onus of proving what had happened to her. This did not simply amount to providing evidence and giving her testimony under oath; Artemisia had thumbscrews put on her while giving her account in court. This primitive measure was meant to ensure the veracity of her statements, but was of course utterly debilitating for someone whose profession requires them to work finely with their hands. Obtaining justice was almost as cruel and humiliating as the crime itself. Artemisia was just 17 years old.

While Tassi was convicted of the crime, he never served his sentence. His contacts in high places made sure that he got off with as little damage and inconvenience as possible. Meanwhile, Artemisia went back to her easel and paintbrushes, producing the first version of “Judith Slaying Holofernes” soon afterwards.

Painting a world of powerful women

Some critics would reject this opinion as too reductive, but I dare say it: Judith Slaying Holofernes is an image which could only have been painted by a woman. And, more specifically: a woman wronged.

While male painters have depicted the victorious Judith as emotionally cool and slightly erotic (Klimt), or as a virginal young girl apparently scared and disgusted by her own actions (Caravaggio), Artemisia’s Judith is vigorous and vengeful; matter-of-fact and workmanlike.

Unencumbered by the common artistic tropes that dictate that women are timid and fragile creatures, Artemisia clearly felt empowered to paint her heroines with their sleeves rolled up, their powerful forearms exposed, and getting on with the job at hand. Which, in the case of Jael or Judith, was killing men in cold blood.

In Judith Slaying Holofernes, the heroine leans into her violent task, kneeling on the bed to pin down the massive Holofernes as she saws through his neck. She seems unmoved by the fountains of blood that splatter her arms and fine clothes. In fact, she might as well be unblocking a drain or performing some other unpleasant domestic task, for the lack of emotion in her face. She wants Holofernes dead and has all of her physical and mental strength focused on achieving that goal. She has no time for either sentimentality or pity.

Yes, I am sure of it. This is Artemisia blowing off steam about her own private frustrations. As if we needed further proof of the painting’s personal message, Judith is wearing a bracelet decorated with images of the artist’s namesake Artemis, Greek god of the hunt.

When women work together

While other artists (Caravaggio, Pittoni) have depicted Judith’s servant Abra as an old crone watching passively over the murder with more or less bloodlust, the maid who springs from Gentileschi’s brush is a full accomplice and comrade. Like her mistress, Abra is employing her entire physical strength to hold the victim down as Judith wields the sword. She calmly defies his desperate clawing struggle, even as he grabs at the folds of her dress at her throat.

Gentileschi repeats this image of teamwork among equals in the painting “Judith and Her Maidservant” (1613-1614, below). In this work, the beheading is complete but the women must still make their escape. Judith, bloody sword slung over her shoulder in warrior-like fashion, has her hand placed protectively on Abra’s. They gaze tensely beyond the reach of the canvas – presumably to see whether they are about to be discovered.

Judith and Her Maidservant by Artemisia Gentileschi

They are clearly in this together. Perhaps it is a reflection of Artemisia’s disappointment in her friend Tuzia for refusing to help when Tassi attacked her. And her yearning for a world in which women work together to throw off male domination and oppression.

A legacy lost and found

Even though Artemisia was a well-known and respected painter in her own lifetime, enjoying commissions from well-respected figures such as members of the powerful Medici family, she did not escape the fate of so many other female artists. For over 300 years, she was written out of art history, her works attributed to other male painters – including her own father.

Raped, tortured, ignored, forgotten – it would be so easy to read Artemisia’s life as one of a victim.

Yet I resist this interpretation. While it is true that Artemisia Gentileschi’s life was shaped by injustice and male sexual violence, we should flip the negative reading of her life just as she flipped the narrative of male power and domination with her fearless female subjects.

Like the courageous Judith, who overcame the superior strength of men to save her people, Artemisia should go down in history as a strong, resilient woman who faced down the challenges thrown at her to become one of Italy’s most important artists.


[1] Judith’s home city, Bethulia, had been under attack by the Assyrian army, led by Holofernes. Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, was able to enter Holofernes’ tent because of his desire for her. Over the course of an evening, Judith plied Holofernes with more and more alcohol. He became drunk and passed out, whereupon Judith relieves him of his head, thus delivering her native town and its people from their bloody fate.

[2] The painting in the Uffizi is the second version of this picture that Gentileschi painted, and dates back to about 1620. The first was painted in 1611 and hangs in the Museo Capodimonte in Naples.


More from the “Great Art Encounters” series:

“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso

“The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli

“The Slav Epic” by Alphonse Mucha

“Portrait of Trude Engel” by Egon Schiele

“Tribute to Chopin” by Jerzy Duda-Gracz


Picture credits: Artemisia Gentileschi, public domain