Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes by Orazio Gentileschi

Circa 1608

Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (Ca. 1608) by Orazio GentileschiThe National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

The contorted face of Holofernes in the wicker basket stands at the centre of the composition.

Judith and her Maidservant stand with their back towards the spectator, listening if anyone heard them.

It is minutes after Judith decapitated the intoxicated Holofernes, his blood is dripping out of the basket.

The biblical story sets a dramatic stage which made it a popular topic among Caravaggio and his followers. The painting was created during Artemisia Gentileschi’s apprentice years in her father’s studio.

Judith was a subject she revisited several times in her career. The recent cleaning of the painting renewed interest into the depiction.

The painting must have been a prestigious commission. The clothing, jewellery and the use of the expensive pigment ultramarine point to this. The maidservant’s blue dress sleeve is painted with a very pure form of ultramarine (lazurite).

To make this oil paint, the expensive stone Lapis Lazuli, mainly found in Afghanistan, is ground into powder.

Judith’s red damask dress features a variant of the 16th century pomegranate patterns. It was typically a pomegranate, pineapple or cone motif surrounded by branches.

This exact pattern was woven in Venice and Florence but spread among the courts of Europe.

The Florentine Medici family is known to have worn this fabric, which has made some scholars read the painting’s composition of red, white and green as the heraldic Medici colours.

Both the red dress (sottana), and the white linen camicia she is wearing underneath appears to be contemporary clothing pieces from Northern Italy.

But by using the historical fabric that dates to the mid-16th century the story is placed firmly in the past.

A similar historical reference is made with the cameo brooch in Judith’s hair which was worn in such fashion during the 15th century. By showing Athena, the Greek Goddess of warfare amplifies Judith’s strength and courage.

Orazio Gentileschi was initially trained as a goldsmith before becoming a painter. He was praised for his ability to convey fabrics and textures. The jewellery in the painting is interesting in this context. Hairbands were worn by women at the time such as Isabella de’ Medici. Hair covering elements could be attached to it once a woman was married.

The belt fastened around her waist mirrors the blue gems and pearls design of the headband. Contemporary belt designs would hang more loosely around a woman’s waist; here it rather evokes references to a sword belt.

Judith and her maidservant escape unseen from Holofernes’ tent. Represented in the painting by the luxurious olive-green fabric. With the death of their leader the Assyrian army fell apart. Israel is saved by their hero Judith.

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