Judith Beheading Holofernes
Michelangelo Merisi, detto Caravaggio
Oil on canvas
Three figures with a red drape in the background: just a few elements, yet capable of orchestrating an utterly realistic theater of contrasts: darkness and light, age and youth, life and death, strength and frailty. Judith is one of the heroines of the Old Testament, a young Jewish widow who saved her people from the besieging Assyrian army. She pretended to ally herself with the enemy and slew their general Holofernes with her own hands, after being welcomed to his camp with a festive banquet. The iconography had been common since the 1400s, yet it had never been depicted with such harsh and spectacular realism. Here we see scimitar plunged deep into Holofernes’ throat. Life is still coursing through Holofernes’ contracted hands and limbs, though not for much longer. The general’s mouth gapes in a strangled cry, and we see the spurting blood, as if Caravaggio wished to freeze the flashing instants of an act that cannot be halted with the gaze. The light falls from the top left, striking Judith’s slender figure in full: her forehead is furrowed, as if seeking to summon all her strength, both physical and spiritual, to overcome her revulsion at the act she feels compelled to perform. Her maidservant Abra, a young woman in the original story, is here a wrinkled old woman with hallucinated eyes, bearing witness to the horror that the viewer feels before such violence. The painting, dated to around 1599, is important stylistically and thematically: it is Caravaggio’s first historical work, and marks the beginning of the phase of strongly contrasting light and darkness. The work was commissioned by Ottavio Costa, a banker, who was so enamored of it that he stipulated its inalienability in his will. However, all trace of the painting was lost for several centuries and it was only found in 1951 by the restorer Pico Cellini, almost by chance, in the possession of a family and reported to the art critic Roberto Longhi – a dramatic turn of events highly appropriate to the theatrical nature of the painting. Twenty years later it was acquired by the Italian state and exhibited in Palazzo Barberini.