Judith and her maidservant with the head of Holofernes
Artist: Orazio Gentileschi
Year: ca. 1608
The artwork is an oil painting on canvas. Against a dark background stand two young women who almost fill the picture surface. They are pictured from the knees up, both wearing dresses, the women are facing each other. They gaze towards the right hand side of the picture, leaning slightly in the same direction as if listening. The woman on the left has a sword in one hand. The other woman has her back to the viewer and carries a basket with a severed, bloody male head on top.
It is night in the Assyrian camp.
The army’s commander, Holofernes, is no longer asleep after too much wine.
He is also no longer lusting after Judith, a Jewish widow from Bethulia,
a city he has conquered.
Holofernes’s sword is in Judith’s hand.
Holofernes’s head is in her maidservant Abra’s basket.
There are soldiers outside in the night.
Wait, not a sound.
The night’s dangers and the night’s possibilities.
Can the women silently move the tent canvas aside,
leave Holofernes’s headless body behind, and disappear with the basket
into the night, towards their home town?
The serving woman’s blue sleeve, painted with precious lapis lazuli
Judith’s blood-red dress, the commander’s ashen face.
The contrast between light and shadow, the dimness of Orazio’s painting, a technique known as chiaroscuro: the women in warm light, everything else in the darkness.
Where will it end?
Capturing a moment in a larger story, right before the crescendo, was a deliberate narrative technique for artists in this period.
We get an insight into what has just happened, and we can imagine what is about to happen:
Holofernes’s head will be put on a stake outside the city.
Judith will be celebrated for her courage and strength, as a liberator and heroine.