Judith and Holofernes - Baroque Depictions

Baroque Depictions

Judith remained popular in the Baroque period, but around 1600 images of Judith began to take on a more violent character, "and Judith became a threatening character to artist and viewer." Italian painters including Caravaggio, Leonello Spada, and Bartolomeo Manfredi depicted Judith and Holofernes; and in the north, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, and Eglon van der Neer used the story. The influential composition by Cristofano Allori (c. 1613 onwards), which exists in several versions, copied a conceit of Caravaggio's recent David with the Head of Goliath; Holofernes' head is a portrait of the artist, Judith is his ex-mistress, and the maid her mother. In Artemisia Gentileschi's painting Judith Slaying Holofernes (Naples) it is Judith who is the self-portrait, while Holofernes resembles her rapist Agostino Tassi. Like Caravaggio in his Judith Slaying Holofernes of 1612 she chooses to show the actual moment of the killing. A different composition in the Pitti Palace in Florence shows a more traditional scene with the head in a basket.

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."

When Rubens began commissioning reproductive prints of his work, the first was an engraving by Cornelius Galle the Elder, done "somewhat clumsily," of his violent Judith Slaying Holofernes (1606-1610). Other prints were made by such artists as Jacques Callot.

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