Consider first the roughly contemporary paintings by Caravaggio and Gentileschi. They are prime examples of the Baroque style--vibrant palette, dramatic lighting, an impassioned subject heightened to excess by our coming face to terrified face with a man at the precise moment of his bloody execution. Who is this man? And what has led to this woman's unspeakable wrath? The paintings reference an Old Testament story of the heroine, Judith, who rescues her people by decapitating the head of the tyrannical Assyrian general, Holofernes. She steals into his tent under the cover of night, and pretends to respond to his seductive overtures. When he is besotted, with her and with drink, she uses his sword to cut off his head. What are our impressions of Judith, and the task that befalls her, in Caravaggio's work? What are our impressions of Judith, rendered by the hand of Gentileschi? Do you divine any gender differences? Caravaggio is a male artist; Gentileschi, a female. How much of the artist is brought to these paintings? Caravaggio killed a man during an argument over a tennis match. Gentileschi testified in court, and under torture herself, that she was raped by an artist to whom she was apprenticed. Who were these men? And what led to the unspeakable wrath in these paintings?
It is interesting to note that there has been a high degree of discomfort with the subject of Judith and Holofernes, all the way around. From what we can see, contemporary Baroque commentators and current critics and historians alike don't view Caravaggio's painting or Donatello's sculpture in any context other than that of the artist's oeuvre. But one would be hard pressed to find an analysis of Gentileschi's work- its raw power and explosive action- that doesn't also make mention of the circumstances surrounding the artist's rape. Is this context essential to understanding Gentileschi's work? Why do we obsess about it? It is not, after all, an entirely uncommon subject.
The Early Renaissance sculptor, Donatello, did a version as well. In his work, Judith seems a triumphant crusader, entranced by courage and determination. Holofernes is in his own trance- a drunken stupor, that is. His is a far more traditional, less emotionally charged, version of the subject. Yet this sculpture proved to be problematic in its own way. The work began as a commission by the Medici family, intended to be a privately housed work. But soon after its completion in 1457, the work was moved to the very public, political center of the city of Florence- the Piazza della Signoria. There, as suggested by an inscription on its base, it assumed the symbolism of the invincibility of the Florentine republic. It even became the property of the government. What ensued, however, was what Yael Even has called "a relentless attempt all but to dispose of [the work]." Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, in an introduction to Even's essay, describe the Piazza della Signoria in Florence "as a primary site of the expression of gender ideology, pointing to the frequent relocation in the square of Donatello's Judith and Holofernes and its displacement by...statues [by other artists] in which violence is done to a woman by a man rather than to a man by a woman. [Even] suggests that a psychological as well as political need to express that radical subordination of women to men underlay the gradual suppression of Donatello's statue and the decisions to commission images glorifying Perseus' decapitation of Medusa and the rape of the Sabine women."
Let us close our discussion with another look at that "particularly apt statement" at the beginning of this feature....