This brutal looking work of Caravaggio, which evokes feeling of terror and fear at first glance, can be discovered to include much more upon a deeper analysis. Indeed the painting is not only a display of a decapitation scene but a conscientiously designed masterpiece which enables the viewer to unfold the psychological states of the characters by analysing their looks.

The painting takes its subject from the event mentioned in the Biblical Apocrypha*. The event takes place during the time when Israelites (the Jews) were under the Assyrian invasion. The bold and beautiful widow Judith is determined to save her village from the Assyrians. Showing herself as a traitor of the Jews, she penetrates the Assyrian camp with her loyal maid Abra on her side. Judith approaches the Assyrian general Holofernes promising him more information on the Israelites. Gaining his trust, Judith will also be successful in seducing him using her beauty and charm. She enters the tent of Holofernes one night after a feast and taking advantage of his drunken stupor, she decapitates him. Judith, coming out of the Assyrian camp with Holofernes’ head in her bag, will spread terror among the Assyrians and they will disperse, so, Israel will be saved.

The purpose of the historical story is to provide a religious lesson by symbolising the triumph of “Virtue” represented by Judith over “Sin” represented by Holofernes.

Caravaggio depicts the most thrilling moment of the story exactly when Holofernes is decapitated. Holofernes is the most striking figure of the painting, having realized he is dying after awakened from his drunken state. His eyes are wide open with horror, so is his screaming mouth. Caravaggio displays the turning point of human life when one passes from being alive to dead. Holofernes’ rolling eyes refer to being dead while his flexed muscular body, his tightened fist squeezing the sheets and his screaming refer to being alive. Caravaggio did not hesitate in depicting the blood spurting from Holofernes’ throat in order to portray the exact moment of this terrifying effect and to impress the viewer with its reality.

In contrast to Holofernes’ muscular and strong body, Judith is depicted in a pretty slender physique. Despite that, Judith overcomes Holofernes’ power with the sword in her hand. She has a scowling look, however, she has a hint of hesitation on her face too. In spite of her virtuous goal, the horrfying effect of beheading renders Judith with a look of disgust and dread. The viewer understands how this hesitant look turns into a successful action when the figure of Abra is observed. Abra does not have even the slightest sign of hesitation on her face, on the contrary, she has the encouraging look pushing Judith into performing the expected action. Her fixated look on the head being severed shows that she is the real source of power behind Judith. Her hands greedily squeezing the piece of cloth which will be carrying the head soon also indicates her ambitious and revengeful mood.

The painting looks like a theater scene with a pitch black background (and a decoratively placed red curtain) and only the three figures are brightly lit. With the use of this stark contrast, the painting becomes more impressive to the viewer. The striking emotional effect of the painting is achieved by the revolutionary technique Caravaggio used: chiaroscuro (lightness-darkness)**. The contrast of brightly lit figures appearing from within shadows in front of a dark background provides attractiveness to Caravaggio’s style and creates an animating image. Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro style has opened up new dimensions in art history and influenced so many painters after him.

* Apocrypha: Works, usually written, of unknown authorship or of doubtful origin which is not considered a part of religious texts and books by the authorities. The Biblical Apocrypha, which is annexed to the Old and New Testaments, is comprised of ancient stories written on historical, legendary or satirical subjects.
** Chiaroscuro: Composed of the Italian words for lightness (chiaro) and darkness (scuro).

Location: Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica – Palazzo Barberini, Rome
Date: 1598-1599
Period: Baroque
Sub-Group: Italian Baroque

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