The National Gallery in London is currently running an art exhibit titled “Beyond Caravaggio,” featuring the works of painters the Italian baroque master deeply influenced. Perhaps one of the most eye-catching paintings in the exhibit is an early 17th-century piece by Artemisia Gentileschi called “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (aka “Judith Slaying Holofernes”). Gentileschi, an admirer of Caravaggio, is considered to be the top woman artist of the baroque period. She was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence at a time when the art world was far from welcoming to women. Given the title, the action depicted in the painting — of which Gentileschi painted two nearly identical versions — is from an Old Testament story in which the Assyrian general Holofernes, an enemy of the Israelites, passed out drunk and while snoozing in his intoxicated stupor is assassinated by Judith, the author of the namesake Old Testament book. The imagery is gruesome and jarring. Two women hold the general down while Judith uses a gleaming sword to behead him. Blood, streaming from the lifeless victim’s neck, stains the sheets.
Interestingly, the imagery doubles as a personal narrative for Gentileschi, leading some to view the work as a self-portrait. Gentileschi was raped by Agostino Tassi, another Italian artist from the same period who was hired by Gentileschi’s father to tutor her. The painting depicts not only the Biblical characters, but Gentileschi exacting revenge on Tassi — as she imagined it. In reality, Tassi went on trial, but it was not him who suffered cruel and unusual treatment during the court proceedings. No, that experience was reserved for Gentileschi — then just 18 years old — who was subjected to what sounds like the very definition of medieval torture while Tassi sat comfortably by and observed. Amazingly, 400 years later, a transcript of the entire trial is still intact and with it the story — including all of the lurid testimony and the verdict — lives on.
Read the full story at The Guardian.