Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes


Caravaggio’s circa 1598-9 145 cm × 195 centimeters oil painting on canvas ‘Judith and Holofernes’ is one of the early examples of his dramatic and visceral religious paintings that helped usher in the Baroque period.  The painting is Caravaggio’s interpretation of the Biblical  story about how the widow Judith saved her people, the Israelites, by seducing and getting drunk the Assyrian general Holofernes before decapitating him with a sword.  The painting is a reflection of Caravaggio’s strong personality and revolutionary artistic vision and the Catholic church’s then new aesthetic philosophy.

Caravaggio was a strong-willed, independent person with a  tempestuous and often violent personality. He led a life of both acclaim and trouble.   He was jailed numerous times, killed a man in a brawl, was badly injured in another brawl, had a death sentence put on his head by the Pope and spent his last years on the run, though painting all along the way.  He sued other artists who he felt copied his style and was said to be difficult to get along with.  His strong and dark personality is shown in his art, and, as his life became more desperate, his paintings became more and more sensational.

Caravaggio and Baroque painting went against the Renaissance tradition.  As exemplified by Botticelli’s humanists works, Renaissance paintings idealized its subjects and were based in gracefulness, harmony, symmetry and order.  Caravaggio didn’t idealize his subjects, but instead made them realistic, often showing bruises, scratches and wrinkles.  He was influenced by the realism of Northern European art.  Further, his religious scenes were sensational, immediate and often imbalanced, showing realistic action.   His scenes were snapshots from the most intense moments of the events.  His models were people from the streets, and the model Judith likely was a well-known prostitute.  Unorthodoxically, he did not make preliminary sketches, but painted directly from the models, drawing outlines in the paint with the end of his brush as he needed.  This technique and that his figures were so realistic and unidealized was controversial to many fellow artists.

Caravaggio lived at an opportune time for his artistic vision.   The Catholic church was changing their aesthetic philosophy, wanting religious paintings that emotionally connected with the parishioners.   Further there was much construction going on, with a need for many murals and artists.   

Caravaggio’s paintings were a sensation at the time due to their realism, immediacy and emotional directness.  Caravaggio had great success, but not without controversy.  The church enjoyed his paintings, but sometimes felt he went overboard in the violence and realism.  Still, even the paintings that were rejected were bought up by wealthy collectors.  Often called Caravaggisti or Caravagesques, other artists mimicked his style, and Caravaggio was an influence on such great painters as Rubens and Rembrandt.

Caravaggio was famous for use use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism, which helped with the drama and emotions of his subjects.   Chiaroscuro uses shading to give the figures a three-dimensional effect.  Tenebrism makes large areas  black, which focuses the viewer’s attention of the desired figures and action.  Along with the realistic and often gritty depictions of humans, these two techniques brought the scenes to life and made the audience emotionally connected to the familiar Biblical scenes.  Even today’s audiences are emotionally connected to the scenes.

Judith Beheading Holofernes has for centuries been a regular subject for artists, including in paintings, sculptures and even stained glass.  It was a subject long before Caravaggio and is still today.

Though Judith is considered by Christians to be an important and brave heroine, her portrayal in art had varied and developed over time before Caravaggio’s treatment.   She was originally portrayed as an entirely  wholesome Mary figure, sometimes praying, but was later developed into more of an ambiguous Eve– a heroic but somewhat fallen and sexualized figure.  Still, many of the art works before Caravaggio, and even after, showed her as stoic and aloof,  removed from the dirty deed.  The scenes are often cold, bloodless and sanitized in a highly stylized way.  They come across more as icons than realistic depictions.   

Caravaggio_Judith_Beheading_HolofernesIn Caravaggio’s version, he makes the scene immediate and dramatic using many techniques.   Unlike many before or after after the decapitation versions, he shows the moment of the decapitation, the sword half through the neck and blood spurting onto the white sheets.   Holovernies is screaming out, his body contorted, one hand desperately clutching the sheets.   Judith’s face shows both determination and disgust at what she is doing, perhaps having mixed feeling.  Behind her, her maid is full of anger and vengeful bloodlust, firmly holding the bag for the head.   

Judith is by definition the center of the story and scene.  She is the first name in the title and the protagonist of the Biblical story, something the audience of the time and was well aware of.    In the painting, she is shown as the central figure in that she she is most brightly lit, the only one entirely (laterally) in the scene, raised above the others and she is the one holding the weapon and performing the deed.  However, Caravaggio does include the others as key characters, which was often not the case for this subject.   In many earlier and later paintings of the scene, Judith was nearly the entire focus, with the severed a minor ornament or afterthought.  In some depictions you have to look hard to find the severed head.  Caravaggio has all three as integral actors of the action scene.  It is not a posed shot, but a snapshot of ongoing action.

The large size of the painting gives the scene power and presence, and the horizontal length makes it an action scene.  

This chiaroscuro and tenebrism makes the scene jump out at you and focuses on the action.  The surrounding darkness gives it a dark mood, and also give the theme of Judith sneaking in from the dark.  Western viewers tend to read text and pictures from left to right, so we see Judith and her maid sneaking into kill him.  That Holofernes is not entirely in the scene and the maid is cropped as she is entering the scene give the sense of action and movement, like a photographic snapshot.

Unlike the balanced Renaissance paintings, the figures are not balanced.  This makes it seem like a realistic scene, not unlike one of Caravaggio’s real life brawls, with the two women rushing in and ganging up on the single foe.

There is a shallow dark background  and a spotlight on the action.  This focuses attention and give drama, like actors spotlit on a darkened stage.   

In the inky background is a blood red cloth, a billowing banner of victory and glory, but also of bloody murder.  Judith herself is draped in both virginal white and red, symbolizing the Eve-like dichotomy.  In an earlier version, Judith is bare breasted, suggesting she had just left the bed and slept with the General.  She is strong and determined, with her sleeves rolled up, but she also keeps the dirty deed at arm’s length, a sign of her distaste and repulsion for the job.  The mixed emotions and symbols makes her complex and ambiguous, unlike the many other single-minded, one-dimensional  caricatures of her in earlier paintings.

It is noteworthy that many believe that Caravaggio saw the public beheading of Beatrice Cenci, a young woman who helped killed her insenstous father in a controversial and sensational case.  This historical footnote not only accounts for the realism in the beheading of Holofernes but perhaps says that there may have been mixed emotions about beheading.   Many at the time thought the beheading of Cenci was unjust, as she was a victim too, but the Pope said she must be killed.

People today value this painting for many reasons.  As with the original audiences, we enjoy it as an as immediate and visceral telling of a famous Biblical story.    It is fascinating to compare it to other depictions of the event, before and and after.  There are many takes on this story, showing many different views of Judith.   It is valued as a landmark in art, a departure from the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque period.   It is valued as a great influence on later art, including today’s.  The work is imitated, often satirically, today.   You see the tenebrism and the spotlight effect in many of today’s movies and photography.

Wikipedia articles on Caravaggio, Beatrice Beheading Holofernes and Beatrice Cenci

Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera


Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, or Allegory of Spring, is a famous large (over 6 x 8 feet) 15th century artwork commissioned by the Medici family, Botticelli’s common patron and the major patron and  influence of Florence Italy’s Renaissance art.  Botticelli’s work falls into the early Renaissance period and he was a pioneer in the use of Pre-Christian Greek and Roman mythology in the era’s work.

The exact history of the painting is unknown.  The exact date it was made is not known (Wikipedia says “circa 1482”) and its current name was assigned long after Botticelli’s death.  However, according to and other sources, “it was probably created for the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco (a cousin of the powerful Lorenzo the Magnificent Medici).”  Many believe this was made for his bedroom and this would mean it would have been the painting first seen by his wife on their wedding night.

The exact meaning of the painting is also unknown, but most scholars believe it is about spring, love and marriage.  Scholars generally believe the figures are as follows: On the far left is Mercury, the Roman God of May in his identifying winged shoes.  It is ambiguous what he is doing but he may be dissipating the clouds of winter. On the far right is the god of wind Zephyr, who captured the nymph Chloris, to his left, and forced her to be his wife.  Afterward, he felt bad about this and made her into Flora, the goddess of Spring.  Flora is shown to the left of Chloris, in a floral dress and spreading out flowers.  To the right of Mercury are the Three Graces, Chastity, Beauty and Love.  At the top center is Cupid, and his arrow of love and marriage about to strike.  Except for Mercury, the figures are barefooted in a natural setting full of plants and flowers.

At the physical and figurative center is Venus.  Venus was the Roman goddess of love, sex, beauty and fertility.  She also resembles a Mary figure, both in pose and with Mary commonly depicted in red.  She is shown as the figurative central figure as she is placed in the center, raised above others, is framed by the foliage, and has Cupid, her son, directly above her head.  Further, while the others looking in various directions doing various often playful things, Venus is looking forward with a motherly expression.  She appears as a motherly figure overlooking, tempering and approving the goings on and the themes of the painting.

As an artwork for the bedroom of newlyweds (if that is the case), the painting is an enjoyment for the eyes, a furnishing for the room and a symbol of love, youth, spring and marriage.  The painting is a secular ‘private’ painting rather than a church  one, and, though overseen by a semi-Mary figure, it is filled with ‘pagan’ gods and goddess.

To modern minds, Zephyr forcing Chloris to marry him is interesting theme.  Back then, women didn’t get to chose their husbands.  However, the story says that being forced to marry a Medici had its perks of glory and riches. Chloris is made into a beautiful and celebrated goddess.  This could also be seen as an apology or justification to the wife.  Today’s feminists will have a lot to say about this.

Botticelli-primaveraWhen I first looked at the painting I found it formal, somber and serious, as the people seemed so serious with unsmiling expressions and the overall painting was literally dark.  However, after reading more, I realized it was the opposite.  The seeming seriousness is a relative thing to my modern sensibilities.   Back then, they likely didn’t show bouncing people and overly smiling faces as they do in modern magazine ads ads televisions situation comedies.  Upon my closer and second look, the faces are very human, fresh, young, beautiful and the whole scene and is natural and relaxed.  Upon close inspection of Flora’s face, she has partially open mouth that expresses a sexuality and having fun.  Except for Venus, the figures seem playful or at least action filled.  They are facing various directions, the Three Graces are dancing in flowing dresses, Zephyr is shown in amorous pursuit of Chloris, Flora is spreading flowers.  Except for Mercury and Venus, the figures are barefoot in the grass.  Further, the way the figures are spread is informal compared to the many formally structured Christian paintings, including those of Botticelli.  In Primavera, the people are doing their own things and the whole thing resembles a dance or celebration.

The painting was meant as a feast for the eyes, a glorification of youth and spring and love.  The Roman mythology is opposed to the stern, formal Christian aesthetic.  Today’s audiences appreciate how sensuous Botticelli’s faces are, how beautiful and modern they look. It strikes them how they look like real, modern people.

I learned that the physical darkness I commented on  is because the painting has darkened over time, a common occurrence with varnished old paintings.  Revarnishing old paintings to reveal the original tones and colors is done by conservators, though they sometimes choose not to do it for certain priceless paintings.  I was told by a recent American visitor to the Louvre that they have chosen not to revarnish the Mona Lisa.

The painting is a famous example of  humanism, which is  closely associated with the Italian Renaissance, Humanism is a departure from early Christian spiritual-centric view.  Humanism placed emphasis on humans as individuals, capable of reason and rationality, and was a forerunner of modern rational thought and science.  It produced such thinkers as Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, Copernicus and Galileo. It is shown in art by realistic secular depictions of humans and the use of Pre-Christian Roman and Greek myth (‘pagan gods.’)  Before humanist influence, Primavera would not have been approved of by the church.  The secular humanism is also symbolized in that it was made for a Medici, (it is believed) as a furnishing for his bedroom.

Venus is also commonly used a symbol of humanism, and this painting shows that humanism, human individuality and reason, are central to all the things going.

The orange grove was a symbol of the Medicis and most of the models for the gods and goddesses in this painting were Medici or other higher ups in Florence society.  The painting was designed for and shows the Medici world and society.  Venus oversees a Medici world.  

This whole painting is an expression and glorification of the Medici humanist philosophy and aesthetic. While Christian, the Medici family were secular leaders and bankers with early persuits.  The painting has a semi-Madonna, but is about their beliefs in individuality, rationality and the enjoyment of life  This is what they felt, but the painting may also also an apology or justification of their secular ways.  The use of an overseeing Madonna may be seen as justification of their earthly ways.  Even the Virgin Mary approves and watches over in a motherly manner human individuality and reason.

The painting is a tempera on wood panel, called a panel painting.  Tempera was a standard form of paint and painting before oil painting.  Wood was the common backing before canvas.  Some have commented on the subtilty of the colors and details of Primavera.  This is the nature of tempera painting.  The paint is  translucent and quick drying, and the artist paints by building up the details and colors painted line by painted line.  This leads to gradual gradations in color changes, so the details of a face lack the great contrast of an oil painting or acrylic and leads to the delicacy that Botticelli’s paintings were known for.  The paint itself on a tempera painting is physically flat, as opposed to the common raised  relief surface of oil paintings.  Tempera paint goes hand in hand with Botticelli’s delicate people.

What is interesting about this humanist painting is that Botticelli later became deeply religious under the influence of the strict Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola and renounced his humanist paintings.  It has been said that he may have burned many in the Bonfire of the Vanities. He gave up the pre-Christian and secular themes and turned to devout Christian themes.  His later Christian paintings were more formal and orderly, lacking the relaxed ‘fun’ look of his pagan paintings.   

The painting is valued for many reasons.  It is enjoyed as an artwork showing Botticelli’s talents, as a lush display celebrating ever popular themes  love, spring, youth and beauty. The painting is valued as an example of humanism and Medici thought and influence. In context of Botticelli’s works and life, it shows the battles between religious and secular power and thought, both in Florence history Italy and within one person’s mind.  It is valued as a physical and historical artifact, showing the types and paint and backing.  Dendrology is used in the study of panel paintings.   It is valued as a personal artifact of a famous family.  People are fascinated by things owned by famous people, even if it’s a robe or a chair.  It is also valued as a puzzle.  Humans are drawn to ambiguous stories and unsolved mysteries.  This is why this, and other paintings, still fascinate audiences and are studied endlessly.



Wikipedia articles on Botticelli’s Primavera, Botticelli and Girolamo Savonarola

“La Primavera by Botticelli”  at

“La Primavera by Botticeli” at

Sandro Bitticelli at history101link

Articles on Botticelli, the Medicis and Girolamo Savonarola in the New World Encyclopedia