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Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, 1620-21, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 199 cm (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)
Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano) Zucker: We're in the Uffizi in Florence looking at a large Baroque painting by the artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Harris: This is the painting that's most often reproduced by Artemisia, the subject is Judith and Holofernes. This is a biblical subject- Zucker: Old testament. Harris: It's the story of a heroic woman and of course, that is always a handy thing when you're an art historian and you're talking about a woman artist. In fact, it's difficult often with women artists not to read their biography into the paintings. Let's just take a close look at the painting to start with. Zucker: It is Baroque in almost every way. We have this deep tenebrism, this painting in a dark manner. This very shadowed background that creates this very shallow space and then the brilliantly highlighted figures in the foreground. Harris: We are in the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes. So the story is that Judith is a Jewish widow from the town of Bethulia, which is under siege by the Assyrian army. Holofernes is the general of that army. Zucker: And the Jewish town is about to give up. Harris: Judith hatches a plan to save Bethulia. Zucker: She dresses herself up to catch the eye of the Assyrian general and is able to move across enemy lines because she's seen as betraying her own town. This story is usually interpreted that she seduces the general, but he gets drunk and falls asleep. Then she takes his sword and beheads him. That's the moment that we're seeing here. Harris: She's accompanied by her maidservant. Artemisia also painted the next moment of the story, which is after the beheading, they take the head, put it in a bag and bring it back to Bethulia to show everyone in the town that they're now safe. Zucker: The maid is pressing down on Holofernes with all of her might and he seems to be fighting back as best he can in his drunken, half-asleep state. But Judith is at that moment severing his head and blood spurts everywhere, this is tremendously violent. Harris: She grasps the beard and the hair on his head and holds his head down and with her right arm, draws that sword through his neck. You can feel the force that it took. This is very different from Caravaggio's version of the subject where Judith looks very dainty and as though she doesn't really have the strength to behead Holofernes. Zucker: Look at the contrast of scale. Look at the size of Holofernes' fist against the maidservant's face and just how powerful he is versus the scale of the woman. Harris: Well it takes two of them to conquer one of him. Zucker: Notice the way that both of the women's arms are fully extended, whereas Holofernes' arm breaks at the elbow. His leg breaks at the knee so we have the sense of dismemberment that is not only at the head, but also at his other limbs. The womens' arms diagonals pushing towards the center. The general's legs functioning very much to pair with the parallel forearms of Judith. But all of those limbs bringing our attention down to the severing, down to the violent act itself. Harris: His body is radically foreshortened. Something that is common in Baroque art. With his head [verif clostas] and this blood spurting up and down those white sheets. The bloodiest, goriest part of this painting is what's closest to us. Zucker: And as you said, Judith holds his head down. But what that does is dislocates it so that it seems no longer connected to his body. Harris: We have this dramatic contrast of light and dark that we also see very oft in Baroque art. Where we have areas of very bright illumination right up against very dark areas of shadow. Zucker: What that creates is a kind of vivid physicality. Harris: And it looks to me like she's rolled up her sleeves in order to do this. The naturalism is so palpable here and of course, that is the heart of Baroque art. (jazzy piano)