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Judith & Holofernes

February 21, 2011








Judith Killing Holofernes

Caravaggio 1598.

56 3/4 x 76 3/4″

Oil on canvas.

For Ottavio Costa, now in the National Gallery of Rome.

Caravaggio’s violent life style may be revealed through this painting.  It shows Judith killing Holofernes literally mid-action, at the utmost peak.  This is also the first of Caravaggio’s paintings in which a dark ground is used in addition to a red curtain that makes an appearance in The Death of the Virgin, 1605 (Prose 63).

Violent tendencies aside, Caravaggio painted an allegory of triumph over tyranny (Moir 70).  It is characteristic of Caravaggio to depict the height of the drama in his middle to late paintings.  It just so happens that the climax of this episode involves the gruesome beheading of a tyrant.  Francine Prose argues that Caravaggio had been a witness to a particular (if not many) public execution of Beatrice Cenci.  She was cruelly beheaded in front of hundreds of people (61).

However dynamic in action and drama, this piece seems to only have a horizontal movement and slight diagonal.  It begins with a lesser character, the servant, who is in profile, facing the action, guiding the viewer.  Judith’s arms swoop toward the center of the action while she leans in the opposite direction, slowing down the movement to finally stop at the spurting blood of Holofernes’s neck.  He grips onto his bed as if to prevent the figurative and literal momentum, but it is too late.  It could be this horizontal movement that makes the composition appear panoramic.  According to Alfred Moir, Caravaggio had yet to master creating convincing depth with multiple figures, and so he spread them out over the surface.  He also suggests that perhaps the painting was intended to be seen from the right. (See Caravaggio’s Cerasi Chapel laterals).

Moir, Alfred. Caravaggio. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1982.

Prose, Francine. Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. New York: Harper Collins. 2005.


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