Artemisia's heroines

Artemisia Gentileschi's strong and virtuous women of the Old Testament

The National Gallery, London

Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1612-13) by Artemisia GentileschiMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte

Many of Artemisia Gentileschi's most famous paintings depict the decisive, brave, and often violent actions undertaken by heroines of the Bible's Old Testament and Apocrypha.

In Artemisia's depiction of Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes, the horror of the execution is unavoidable.

But the picture's subject – which was a popular one in Artemisia's day – was perceived as a tale of pious, female virtue triumphing over impious and oppressive brute force. 

When the Assyrians besieged her town of Bethulia, the Jewish widow Judith dressed in her finery and made her way to the enemy camp. 

Flattering the general Holofernes with her attention, she dined with him in his tent. Once he had fallen into a drunk sleep, she took his sword and beheaded him.

Judith's actions saved her people from attack.

Artemisia's vividly imagined scene presents Judith not only as beautiful and stately, but also as brave and resourceful.

Judith sets to her grim task with fearless resolve.

Her strong arms and determination make her more than equal to the task.

Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (Between 1623 and 1625) by Artemisia GentileschiDetroit Institute of Arts

In this later return to the subject, where her figures are painted over life size, Artemisia depicts a later moment in the story.


The deed is done, and Judith's maidservant hastily bundles Holofernes' head into a bag.

Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1645-50) by Artemisia GentileschiMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte

The general's blood still drips from the sword Judith holds across her body.

But neither woman pays this any attention. 

They both start as they hear something stirring beyond the general's tent.

With great presence of mind and regal calm, Judith raises her hand to silently tell her maidservant to pause and also to shield her eyes from the candle flame. This allows her to see who is coming.

In the end both women are safe and return home not only carrying the general's head, but also the hangings in his tent as a trophy.

Jael and Sisera (1620) by Artemisia GentileschiMuseum of Fine Arts, Budapest

The story of Jael, recounted in the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, tells of a similarly brave and resourceful woman.

On giving shelter to Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army, she drives a tent peg through his head as he sleeps.

Although not Jewish herself, Jael was revered as a heroine of ancient Israel as her presence of mind defeated a great enemy of the Jewish people.

Artemisia depicts her with her sleeves rolled up to perform her grim task. 

She grips a hammer in her strong fist and calmly raises it high to deliver the blow. 

Artemisia uses the dark and dramatic void on the left to paint her name and date in Latin, as if carved in stone on the pilaster in the shadows  

Artemitia. Lomi Faciebat M.D.CXX
which translates:

Artemisia Lomi [an alternative surname she often used] made this, 1620

In doing this, Artemisia brings the viewer's attention to the fact that this is not only a picture about a female hand at work, but a picture by a female hand.

Judith and Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, ca. 1612-13, From the collection of: Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte
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Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, Between 1623 and 1625, From the collection of: Detroit Institute of Arts
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Jael and Sisera, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620, From the collection of: Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
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Artemisia depicted her heroines to show them as women of great inner resources. Through strength and resolve they had the courage to take matters into their own hands and act for the common good. Against overwhelming odds they triumphed.  

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