Bad Hair Day for Holofernes

The great thing about the Bible, for artists of the past, was that it gave them a whole host of excuses to depict war, murder, pillage, rape, and a great deal of naked flesh, without risk of censure. Or mostly without censure. Michelangelo had a field day, but a few fig leaves were added later.

Biblical stories featuring women were, of course, extremely popular – not just images of the Virgin Mary, but any woman with a story to tell, and most Biblical stories about women seemed to involve a lot of very unladylike violence. It’s interesting to see how many different ways artists could portray the same woman in the same story. For example, how do you go about depicting a woman who is beheading/has beheaded Holofernes?

Botticelli’s version. I find it hard to believe she could do any real damage with that scimitar. She’d probably be too worried about breaking a finger nail. But then Botticelli liked women to be dainty and ethereal. Nothing really scary about any of them.

Cranach sees her as a fashion model (nice hat), who seems to regard the sword and head as the latest designer accessories. But then that’s women for you. She’s certainly not bothered by any of it.

Giorgione. Seriously? Not a hair out of place. If she’d cut off the head she seems to be accidentally stepping on, she must have done it whilst under the influence of something wonderfully dreamy.

Okay, so Cristofano Allori saw her as a bit more purposeful, even though she’s more concerned with assessing her image in the camera lens. But at least her clenched fist suggests she’s aware she’s carrying a severed head.

Caravaggio gets her properly in on the action, although that look of worried concentration suggests it’s not really her own idea. Should she be doing this? She’s asked Alexa for directions on decapitation and is waiting for the next instruction.

Now we’re getting the real thing. This executioner is no mimsy delicate lady, wondering what to do next or where this weird head came from. She’s going at it professionally and with unhesitating intent. Is it significant that this strong, determined, independent woman was painted by a woman, Artemisia Gentileschi? Things to know about Artemisia Gentileschi: she was a brilliant painter in an age that only recognised men, and she painted women as women, not as male fantasies. As a teenager, she was raped by her father’s friend, Agostino Tassi, and when she gave evidence during his trial, she was tortured to test her veracity. They really knew how to treat rape victims in those days. It is thought that in this picture, she has actually painted herself as executioner and Tassi as Holofernes. Beware strong and vengeful women.

And now why don’t you read my latest book, Bethulia. Just saying.

2 thoughts on “Bad Hair Day for Holofernes

  1. Now that you mention it, I can see exactly what you mean! Horrific to know about Artemisia’s experience, but it adds an extra layer of horror/satisfaction to the scene.

    Liked by 1 person

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