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What is Judith and Holofernes' story? Artemisia Gentileschi show at the National Gallery

Samantha McGarry October 1, 2020
judith and holofernes story
Photo by © Summerfield Press/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

What is Judith and Holofernes’ story? What inspired Artemisia Gentileschi’s work? The opening of the Baroque painter’s exhibition at the London National Gallery this week provides the first public display of her work – a delay that seems all the more poignant for the realities behind her art.

One of Gentileschi’s most famous works is the accomplished yet harrowing Judith Beheading Holofernes. The Biblical story was a common source of inspiration during the Baroque era.

Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

However, Gentileschi’s interpretation had another meaning as well as the Biblical tale – her anguish and revenge having been raped by a man who was later found guilty but pardoned on account of his artistic talent. 

What is the story of Judith and Holofernes?

The character of Holofernes is drawn from the apocryphal Book Of Judith in the Old Testament. 

It depicts Holofernes as a general, despatched to wreak vengeance on those who failed to help Assyria wage war. After he occupied the coast and attacked Judith’s city, she resolved to defeat him, entered his camp, seduced him and beheaded him while he was drunk.

For the purposes of the tale, Holofernes was a source of oppression, with Judith intended to encourage feelings of courage and patriotism. 

The story was a popular source of inspiration in the Baroque era. Rembrandt, Rubens, Caravaggio and others have all brought the story gruesomely and dramatically to life.

For Gentileschi, it is said the work was much more personal – and cathartic. 

Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

How does the story relate to Gentileschi’s life?

Gentileschi painted the story of Judith and Holofernes twice. The first time was shortly after her rape by landscape artist Agostino Tassi at the age of 17, and the second when she was commissioned to recreate the work for the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

The first painting is considered to be the rawest one and reveals more of the artist’s anguish and betrayal than the second. The facial expressions, something Gentileschi was particularly masterful at depicting, deserve particular attention. The first version evokes much more of the emotional turmoil the artist was going through in the aftermath of her trauma.

Judith Beheading Holofernes forms part of a wide-ranging oeuvre Gentileschi created, which can be visited starting this Saturday (3 October) at the London National Gallery.

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