A Comparison of Caravaggio and Gentileschi

Emily Riker

Art has long been a symbol of wealth, intelligence, and as well as a cultural artifact reflecting the values and ideas of the society. Women artists have historically been overshadowed by male counterparts and their contributions often lost to time, the historical female artists that are known and celebrated are made more special by their ability to have overcome this hurdle of historical recognition. Artemisia Gentileschi has been the recipient of a lot of attention in the last century or so for her contributions and achievements as an internationally recognized artist. (Uffizi, 2021) A male artist working during the same time as Gentileschi, influencing her, was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, a famous painter of the time and influence to many baroque artists in the seventeenth century. (Mann, 1997) Both artists completed renderings of the scene of Judith and her confrontation with Holofernes, both titled, “Judith Beheading Holofernes”. This gives a unique chance to compare two artists of the same style, same time period, painting the same scene, but from the perspective of two different genders. This is an opportunity to examine what choices were made stylistically and what choices Gentileschi made to change the scene and inject her own perspective to the story outlined by Caravaggio.   

Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593, her artist father was a major influence on her, encouraging her taking up painting and from a young age she showed talent. She went on to become a follower of Caravaggio and his style, caravaggism, and the first women in the Accademia di Arte del Disego in Florence. (Saslow, 2013) Famously, she endured a very public trial after being raped by another artist, this piece of biographical information is used to speculate on the motivations behind some of Gentileschi’s artistic choices and portrayal of emotions. (Mann, 1997) Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in 1571 in Milan but spent many of his active years in Rome. Michelangelo Caravaggio was known for his antisocial behavior and wild tendencies, yet is remembered today as a genius of the time, who used the natural world and its imperfections as his inspiration and used banal everyday backdrops as opposed to beautiful vistas to highlight his subjects. (Mann, 1997) Indicators of the style of caravaggism is the use of darkened interiors and bright intentional light on the subjects and the recreation of tactile surfaces and fabrics. (Mann, 1997) Some of the advantages of comparing these two works are that they come from similar origins in time and place, the influence of Caravaggio’s “Judith” is obvious in Gentileschi’s and the choice to depict the moment of beheading, the strong similarities make the differences in the paintings stand out all the more. It speaks to what she saw as needing dimension or correcting in Caravaggio’s and how it was that she went about addressing those in her rendition.   

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio c. 1598–1599 or 1602
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at Palazzo Barberini, Rome

Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes” depicts the moment when Judith sneaks into Holofernes’ tent when he is passed out drunk to behead him at a method of saving her people and home from peril. As opposed to other artists who chose to depict the moments after the beheading, Caravaggio chose to render the scene just as Judith is committing the act. The three subjects are Judith, her servant, and Holofernes and all are in the front and center of the scene. Holofernes takes up the whole left half of the scene, his decapitation in the middle, with Judith and her servant sharing the right half. The action is happening on this horizontal line across the middle third, causing one’s eyes to move across the painting back and forth taking in the details but focusing on the center the most. There is some depth indicated by the realistic rendering of the people, the angles of their bodies, the bed pushing backward in the scene, as well as the red fabric draped in the background. The use of fabric and the realistic look and texture of the fabric in dark fold behind the subjects brings an intimacy to the scene.  All tie together to create a compelling moment, the emotional state of this painting is the most enthralling element. With Holofernes there is a rawness to the realistic contortion of his body and face. There is a vein pulsing in his head and the expression on his face is visceral and painful, the eyes bulging with the emotion. The contortions of his body speak to the surprise of the moment, we see that he was lying on his stomach when Judith entered the scene, one of his arms is raising himself up in defense of the attack and he seems strong. The tension we can see in his body, especially in his hands, and the veins in his arms, the tone of his muscle speak to the level of detail put into Holofernes who is being used to depict the raw human emotion of the scene. The contrast is the emotional state of Judith, she is a young woman and is the most well light subject in the painting. What is curious is that she is portrayed with this look of confusion on her face. Her furrowed brow, blankness in the cheeks, and the softness around her jaw are exhibiting that she is seemingly surprised to be looking down and seeing what it is that she is doing. She is not contorting her face into a strong emotion, more befuddled than angry, almost detached from the action that she is committing. She doesn’t move with a sense of urgency, possibly drawing out the action and creating time for Holofernes to have this reaction on his face. He even has the time to wake up, push himself up, and is making eye contact with her yet it does not seem to register on her face. There is a more relaxed depiction of her body language, with her hands not seeming to have a tight grip on either the knife or his head. The last subject in the scene is of Judith’s servant, here depicted as a very elderly servant who is there supporting Judith but only leaning into the frame, but a part of the murder but witness. There is more intensity in the face of this servant, she seems to be encouraging Judith with her eyes, imploring her to finish the job as she clutches the fabric to presumably hold his head. Even the tension in her hands and the way they are holding tightly onto that fabric contrasts with Judith’s light grip on Holofernes. The action of this scene is also worth noting there is an unrealistic aspect to the actual beheading that is counter to the realism in the depictions of the subjects. There is something false about the way that the blood is streaming just downward and straight out in almost a clean steady stream. As well the straight clean line of the incision around his neck is also strangely unrealistic and takes the viewer out of the moment. The use of light is one of Caravaggio’s greatest strengths, viewer’s attention is on Judith and as she is centrally lit, the light source is coming down directly onto her as opposed to the action. The way her face is bathed in light and the angle of her face evokes comparisons to the Virgin Mary or other religious figures. The choice to depict Judith as a young woman is also a choice worthy of note, it also evokes themes of virginity, purity, something in need of protecting, almost childlike. It is a masterful and beautiful painting, Caravaggio’s place in history is well deserved.  

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1620
Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi

In Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes”, as is observed in the painting by Caravaggio, we see the moment of decapitation and again the action is taking place very much in the foreground of the painting. The background is lost to the dark surroundings further back into the painting, and the subjects are thrown into intense focused light. The scene around them, with the soft fabrics and deep shadows also brings an intimacy to the scene playing out before the viewer. There is a sense of depth showcased by the bed and by the position of Holofernes as well as the layering of the characters in the scene. What is satisfying about this central action is the use of light that masterfully draws the eye all around the painting, culminating with the bright illumination of Judith and her action. The viewer’s eye is first caught by the beheading, but then the light and the lines of the scene draw the eye almost clockwise around the painting, finally landing on the main subject of Judith. She is the central character despite occupying the right most part of the scene, and Gentileschi chose to paint her older than Caravaggio’s Judith, an adult rather than a child. The emotion on her face is more resolute and determined while also being at peace or acceptance. While she too is looking down at Holofernes, she pushes his face away with a tight grip on his head with hair coming out between her fingers. There is a contortion of action to her body that exhibits the strength she is using to hold him down and draw the blade across his neck. The servant here is a young woman who has gotten partially or fully onto the bed to hold Holofernes down, becoming a more active participant in the beheading. She is looking down at him with a pained look on her face but there is also the same sense of acceptance, or maybe in her case obligation, and a distaste for the gore necessary to stop this man from doing more harm. The depiction of the beheading itself is more realistic seeming that of the one by Caravaggio, with the blood spurting all over and draining across the bed and Judith obviously using more force and intention in her slaying. The figure of Holofernes here is shown lying on his back and fighting from a more vulnerable position. Although we see his limbs raised in defense, the look on his face indicates that he is at the very moment of death, there is a blankness to the eyes and face which makes the view feel like they are seeing the air leave his body. Gentileschi’s use of caravaggism, the dark backgrounds with sharp focused light and realistic fabrics to create intimacy, depth, and realism.

What is captivating with the rendition by Gentileschi is the intentionality in Judith’s face, her age and manner of dress, as well as the role of the servant in her painting. To bring back the case of Gentileschi’s rape, it is said that she depicted her rapist in this painting possibly injecting some of her own emotion about the ordeal she suffered during the attack and the subsequent trial. The understanding of wanting a rapist beheaded, made to answer for their action, and be punished for their wrongdoing is present in the rendition of “Judith Beheading Holofernes” by Gentileschi and is lacking in the painting by Caravaggio. The anger in pushing his face away and the steadiness with which she conducts herself is relatable to many who have been subject to harassment or attacks from men. Her age as well is compelling for women, it is better understood that this was a strong woman who had experience in life. Although she was well dressed and wearing jewelry, she was still resolute enough to carry out her task, a woman to look up to. What is also being telegraphed in this rendition is the relationship between Judith and her servant, the active role that the servant takes on speaks to a level of comradery usually formed bonding over committing such deeds. It is an understanding of female relationships that many male artists fail to recognize or depict accurately. What is also strikingly different between the two is the attention paid to Holofernes by the artist. Caravaggio making him very detailed, he is toned and very much in action and the biggest show of outward emotion in the painting. Gentileschi’s focus on Holofernes is more about his beheading than the detail of his body, he is not painted as having a lot of muscle tone and even appears weak and instead of focusing on him Judith is the central figure. These comparisons highlight that Gentileschi’s female perspective brought more dimension to the female characters, creating backstory and casting Judith as the main figure in her story.  

Works Cited

Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da. “Judith Beheading Holofernes“. 1598-1602. Galleria           Nazionale d’Arte Antica.             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Beheading_Holofernes_(Caravaggio)

Gentileschi, Artemisia. “Judith Beheading Holofernes”. 1620. Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi.    https://www.uffizi.it/opere/giuditta-decapita-oloferne

Mann, Judith W. “Caravaggio and Artemisia: Testing the Limits of Caravaggism”.  Studies in      Iconography 18 (1997): 161-85.

Saslow, James M. Babette Bohn. “A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art”. John Wiley   & Sons Inc, 2013.

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