The Story in Paintings: Off with his head!

Paolo Veronese (Caliari) (1528–88), Judith and Holofernes (detail) (c 1580), oil on canvas, 195 x 176 cm, Musei di Strada Nuova, Genova. Wikimedia Commons.

Warning: this article includes images of paintings which show graphic details of human decapitation.

Life before the twentieth century was not the clean and generally compassionate existence that we have become used to in the West since. Offenders were often mutilated before being executed, and their bodies left on display for birds to feed on; gibbets and other places of execution were widespread. In many countries in Europe, it was not difficult to witness decapitation and other gruesome forms of execution.

The story of Judith and Holofernes may thus seem extreme today, but it and others in similar vein were popular narratives, particularly in their most graphic expression in paintings.

The narrative

The Book of Judith, now relegated to the Apocrypha to the Old Testament because of its extensive historical anachronisms, gives the story on which these paintings are based. It tells of how Judith, a beautiful Israelite widow, saved her people when they were threatened by the Assyrians.

She dressed in her finest and perfumed herself lavishly, and went with her maidservant to the Assyrians, promising that she would show them a way to defeat the Israelites. She was taken to Holofernes, Nebuchadnezzar’s general, and stayed with him for three nights, winning his confidence. On the fourth night, he threw a banquet for her, where Holofernes drank so much wine that he fell into a drunken stupor.

With her maid standing guard outside Holofernes’ tent, Judith took his battle sword, and cut his head off:
Approaching to his bed, she took hold of the hair of his head, and said, “Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day!” And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him. (Judith, 13:7-8.)

Judith then gave Holofernes’ head to her maid, who put it in her bag of meat. The pair them left the camp, and returned to the Israelites. Showing the head to them, there was great celebration that she had killed Holofernes, and the Assyrians fled in fear.

The paintings

Several different approaches to painting this narrative have been used, of which the most popular has been the depiction of Judith and her maid flourishing the head of Holofernes after it had been removed. This is similar to the contrasting narrative of Salome and John the Baptist. However a few painters, particularly those in the transition from late Renaissance to early Baroque, chose to show Judith cutting Holofernes’ head from his body. I will focus on those.

Paolo Veronese (Caliari) (1528–88)

Paolo Veronese (Caliari) (1528–88), Judith and Holofernes (c 1580), oil on canvas, 195 x 176 cm, Musei di Strada Nuova, Genova. Wikimedia Commons.

In his Judith and Holofernes (c 1580), Veronese shows the moment just after the decapitation, with Judith holding Holofernes’ head, her maid stood by her ready to place it in her black bag, which she holds out. This is entirely consistent with the text narrative, although Veronese adds details such as making Judith’s maid of African origin, and dresses both the women in contemporary rather than historical clothes.

The face of Judith is almost expressionless, that of her maid almost obscured by the angle of view, and that of Holofernes’ head is covered by Judith’s hand. The painting is thus strangely devoid of cues from facial expression. Veronese’s composition and angle of view are unusual, placing the viewer above the group, looking down at the scene, the three heads in a tight triangle in the middle of the canvas. The overall effect is matter-of-fact, but clearly holds the tension of the climax of the narrative.

(Michelangelo Merisi da) Caravaggio (1571–1610)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610), Judith Beheading Holofernes (c 1598-9), oil on canvas, 145 x 195 cm, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Within twenty years, the contrasting style of Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (c 1598-9) is stark. He chose the moment that Judith has almost completed severing the neck; judging from the gush of bright red blood from Holofernes’ neck, this is the moment that the left carotid artery is opened. According to the text narrative, Judith’s maid was still standing outside the tent at this time, but Caravaggio (in common with the other artists here) chose to bring the maid inside, to strengthen the effect.

Judith has a facial expression which combines anxiety and repulsion in a remarkable way, considered to reveal her ambivalence. The expression of her aged maid is even stronger, a grim determination perhaps. Holofernes’ face is grimaced in shocked agony, just as death is freezing it in place.

His arms show a futile effort to press himself up from his bed. Judith’s right hand grips the sword, perhaps failing to impress us of the force she must be applying to it. Her left hand grips Holofernes by the hair, again in a rather distant and not forceful way. Her maid grasps the bag ready to hold the head.

Caravaggio lines the three figures up across the painting, brightly lit against the near-black background. A deep red drape, reminding us of the colour of blood, hangs above the action.

He is believed to have used a Roman courtesan, Fillide Melandroni, as the model, and to have recalled what he saw at the public execution of Beatrice Cenci earlier.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653)

She painted two similar but slightly different versions of this narrative.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653), Judith Beheading Holofernes (1611-12), oil on canvas, 158.8 × 125.5 cm, National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples. Wikimedia Commons.

In the earlier Judith Beheading Holofernes (1611-12), now in Naples, she out-darkens even Caravaggio.

Judith, at the right, is at a similar stage in the decapitation, with the sword just about to exit the left neck. Her face shows intense concentration and effort, both arms thrust out straight in front of her. The left grips Holofernes by the hair, the right pushes the blade onwards. Her much younger maid is seen holding Holofernes down, pushing hard with both her arms out straight too. Holofernes’s right hand seems to be pushing the maid back, but his left arm is folded over his body. His face is contorted in death, an expression similar to that used by Caravaggio.

This was painted at about the same time as Artemisia’s rape and Tassi’s subsequent trial, and it is generally believed that Tassi was the model for Holofernes, she cast herself as Judith, and the female companion who failed to come to her aid during the rape (and failed to give evidence in her support at the trial) was the maid. It would therefore be natural to interpret this painting as part of her very understandable response to her own traumatic events.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620-1), oil on canvas, 200 x 162.5 cm, Galleria della Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620-1), oil on canvas, 200 x 162.5 cm, Galleria della Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

The second version, painted in 1620-21 and now in the Uffizi in Florence, is similar in most respects, although the view is not so tightly cropped on the three figures, so that it shows Holofernes’ legs and a deep red wrap around his lower body. The lower section of the blade is also executed rather better, so that it does not merge with the surface of the bed.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1618-9), oil on canvas, 117 x 93 cm, Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1618-9), oil on canvas, 117 x 93 cm, Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Artemisia also painted this colder, and more detached, canvas showing Judith and her maid making off with Holofernes’ head. Judith here is carrying the sword over her right shoulder, and is looking, uncertain, to her left.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653), Jael and Sisera (c 1620), oil on canvas, 86 × 125 cm, Museum of Fine Arts (Budapest). Wikimedia Commons.

She was still not finished with narratives of men being murdered by women. At about the same time that she was painting her second version of Judith Slaying Holofernes, she painted her chilling Jael and Sisera (c 1620), based on the account in chapters 4 and 5 of the Book of Judges. In that, Jael, an Israelite woman, wields a mallet to drive a tent peg through the temples of Sisera, the general of the army of Jabin and the enemy of the Israelites.

Artemisia also painted the narratives of Esther and Ahasuerus, and Delilah and Samson, in which women got the better of powerful men.

Trophime Bigot (1579–1650)

My final version of this narrative comes from the brush of the almost unknown French painter, Trophime Bigot, who is now attributed paintings which had been thought to be the work of two different artists.

Trophime Bigot (1579–1650), Judith Cutting Off the Head of Holofernes (c 1640), oil on panel, 125.7 x 196.8 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

Bigot’s Judith Cutting Off the Head of Holofernes (c 1640) shows an even darker scene, lit only by a bundle of candles held by the maid. Composed in a triangle, Judith (left) is seen using both hands to force the sword through Holofernes’ neck, which is probably the most realistic of the versions seen here, although it would not have been possible with a conventional double-edged sword. Most of the blood and gore is obscured in the blackness, apart from a runnel of blood just under the blade.

Judith’s face is surprisingly neutral, almost inquisitive, and her older maid also looks to be studying Holofernes’ neck with interest. Holofernes’ face is similarly contorted as shown by Gentileschi and Caravaggio before.

The other obvious problem in this painting is the arms. The maid’s are well clear of the action, her right hand clutching the candles, her left Holofernes’ right wrist. That leaves three arms unaccounted for: Judith’s are both holding the sword, her left arm crossing Holofernes’ right shoulder, making it appear dislocated. His left hand, clenched into a fist, appears from nowhere at Judith’s left shoulder, and seems disembodied.

Although Bigot’s subtlety in dealing with the blood and gore is very effective, and his light even more dramatic, the facial expressions of the women, and the problem with arms and hands, lessen its impact.


Favourite Paintings 14 – Artemisia Gentileschi.

Contini R & Solinas F (2011) Artemisia Gentileschi, The Story of a Passion, 24 ORE Cultura, Milan. ISBN 978 88 7179 668 0.
Locker JM (2015) Artemisia Gentileschi. The Language of Painting, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 18511 9.
Salomon XF (2014) Veronese, National Gallery Co and Yale UP. ISBN 978 1 85709 553 1.
Straussman-Pflanzer E (2013) Violence & Virtue. Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 18679 6.