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