17th Century Art History Essay

Art History & Theory essay from 2009.

How would you interpret Judith and Holofernes, David and Goliath, or other scenes of violent murder, both male and female, from the late sixteenth and / or seventeenth centuries. You should include works by at least three different artists.

The Catholic church is an edifice built upon the survivor guilt of every person who receives forgiveness for their sins. Through the manipulation of this guilt, the power structures of the church are maintained. An over-estimation of this power would not only destroy the Catholic church’s monopoly on theology in Europe, but lead to some of western history’s most beautiful, and bloodthirsty art.

The rise of Protestantism and Luther’s concept of an “invisible church” in which everyone could have a direct connection to God was embodied in its whitewashed interiors, vernacular bible translations, and the stripping of the magical elements of ritual, such as the transubstantiation. The Catholics, for whom the intercessory nature of the saints was an important element of structural power took the opposite approach.

The Council of Trent contained a decree 1 that art was to be for the purpose of strengthening belief, and educating the parishioner. In this, it should be unambiguous in its messages. Moreover, the brutality and horror of martyrdom, especially Christ’s, should be shown in all its reality.

David & Goliath, and Judith & Holofernes present an interesting contrast. As basic stories, one is about a direct confrontation in which a man kills another face to face, the other is about a man tricked, duped, made insensate, and then killed while vulnerable. There are obvious cultural questions raised about these stories. Women, the nurturers of life and the vulnerable, conversely only kill the vulnerable. Their “heroic” deeds are only achieved, as Garrard points out 2,  through means that would seem obvious to a male perspective.

To look at the Judith and Holofernes example specifically, one can compare Caravaggio and Gentileschi’s interpretations of the subject. Superficially, they show the same event, and do so using similar painting styles of intense chiaroscuro, and the era’s typically almost fetishistic attention to detail in rendering surface and texture. Colour schemes are also similar, with prominent use of rich reds, and vivid golds. However beyond that, these are radically different paintings.

The most obvious difference is the sheer violence in Gentileschi’s work. In Caravaggio’s rendition, Judith seems to be calmly slicing off Holofernes’ head, with little to no effort. Her forearms are barely tensed, and while her right arm is pulled back somewhat, she hasn’t drawn the length of the blade across his throat to cause the slice to happen. The blade has cut through half of Holofernes’ neck, and yet is clean and shiny. Holofernes is tensed and in motion, while Judith and her largely uninvolved maidservant are unnervingly still. If anything, this is a calm, and gentle depiction of a violent act. Gentileschi’s depiction is at the other extreme, a violent depiction of a violent act. The maidservant is fully involved, standing over Holofernes, and leaning in to trap and hold his arms. Judith has pushed the sword down along Holofernes’ neck, and appears to be at the moment of reversing direction to pull the blade back up. Honour & Fleming suggest 3 that Judith’s pose is to avoid the copious blood spurting from Holofernes’ neck, but I disagree. From the set of her body visible in the earlier 1612-13 version, I think her pose is to emphasise that her full bodyweight is pushing Holofernes head over the edge of the bed with her left arm, allowing her body to pivot and twist for the blade to be drawn up. Unlike the stillness of the Caravaggio, Gentileschi’s versions have a dynamic sense of action, the characters appear about to roll forward and out of the right edge of the picture.

Morphology too, offers a significant difference in the works. Caravaggio’s Judith is a slim young woman, wearing translucent fabric, through which the forms of her nipples are clearly visible. Her expression is almost impassive, with what appears to be perhaps a slight confusion or distaste in the set of her eyebrows. The youthful Judith is combined with the maidservant, a woman of such withered age that her gender has become indistinct. In them, we have the two extremes of the maid, mother, crone triumvirate. The musculature of Holofernes is displayed to full effect, and his expression is filled with all the drama of a Hellenistic sculpture.

Contrast this with Gentileschi’s image, the women are solid and stockier. They have the physique necessary to perform the physical act required. Both appear to be of a similar age, between that of Caravaggio’s extremes. Judith is fully clothed in heavy garments, and her breast is compressed by her arm, rather than her arms being posed to most conveniently show off a pair of pert breasts. Holofernes is covered by bedclothes, so that only his shoulders are visible. Judith’s eyebrows betray a grim and determined mood and the contrast is completed by Holofernes’ blank, already dead expression.

Cumulatively, we have on one hand the Caravaggio, a work hinting at eroticism in both male and female scantily clad forms, with the expressive power centred on the male. It is painted by a man legendary for his own personal violence, yet perhaps unable to picture violence by women, or only able to picture it as being possible with divine assistance, hence the sword cutting Holofernes neck like wire through wet clay. On the other, we have Gentileschi’s work which shows a realistic depiction of violence, by an artist whom history suggests, was herself the victim of sexualised violence. While it may or may not be a revenge fantasy, it shows a clear understanding of the strength differential between men and women. The expressive centre is on the female, and there is no attempt to use this work as an excuse to see some naked flesh.

Caravaggio is painting Holofernes being killed by Judith, Gentileschi is painting Judith killing Holofernes. The works are from the perspective of their own gender, yet show the same event.

For sexualised violence, one can find a wealth of material in the work of Guido Reni, who’s paintings are often one leather cap and bushy moustache short of Tom of Finland. His David with the Head of Goliath drops all pretence of the violent action in Caravaggio’s versions, concentrating on a scantily clad man in fur and a dandy feathered hat. Likewise, his Saint Sebastian works, notably the Palazzo Rosso and Prado versions focus on the saint’s body. The arrows are almost incidental, and shed no blood. While his gaze is upturned to heaven, it is simply impossible to ignore the obviously aroused body language. It is the same obvious sexual arousal amidst stabbing violence in Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa.

While the Council of Trent may have wanted a realistic depiction of suffering, Reni’s work is by no means the mutilated Christ of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. He, Caravaggio and even Gentileschi, had to sell their work, and it would fall to the tastes of the patron, private or church representative, as to how violence would be depicted.


A World History Of Art : Hugh Honour & John Fleming
Artemesia Gentileschi:The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art : Mary Garrad
Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 : Rudolf Wittkower
The Art Bulletin September 1990 Volume LXXII Number 3 : Review of Mary Garrad’s Artemesia Gentileschi:The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art  : Griselda Pollock

  1. Rudolf Wittkower: Art & Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 Chapter 1
  2. “The male viewer, perceiving the Judith and Holofernes theme from the viewpoint of Holofernes’s (sic) world, sees only the subversive power of Judith” Mary D. Garrard: Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art P336
  3. Hugh Honour & John Fleming: A World History of Art 7thEdition P578