Most women might be physically weaker than men, yet sometimes women’s wits and courage allows them to overpower men. When Judith beheads the Assyrian general Holofernes, she completely defeats him and displays female agency potently. Judith Slaying Holofernes is a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, completed between 1611-12. In the original background story of this painting, Judith is a beautiful widow chosen by God to save her beloved Israelite people. She seduces Holofernes to enter his tent, where she makes him drunk and decapitates him with the help of her maid. Artemisia Gentileschi, the female artist who was the first woman in the Academia, is a real life representative of Judith, the heroine with wits and true grit.
Because the story of Judith beheading Holofernes comes from the Old Testament Book of Judith, a lot of artists have created art featuring this scene. Yet most of them focuses on Judith’s beauty and disgust towards Holofernes; only Gentileschi brought Judith’s bravery and faith alive onto the canvas. Instead of centering the audience’s attention on the feminine side of Judith, Gentileschi used the effect of the light to draw direct attention to Judith’s muscular forearms and her stern face. Judith’s forearms are the symbol of her strength: her arms, though smooth and radiant, are muscular, strong and forceful. Judith’s face emerges from the darkness and is brightly illuminated, hinting that she is the chosen heroine to lead Israelites out of the rule of darkness. Her facial expression shows determination and unalterable faith. The slightly frowning forehead reveals her disgust towards Holofernes’s splashing blood. Besides the courage, shrewdness and firmness of Judith, Gentileschi also portrayed the beauty of the female body through the exposure of Judith’s cleavage and half of the shoulder, hinting at the tenderness beneath.
Juxtaposing with Judith’s firm expression, Holofernes desperately tries to push her and her maid away, displaying his fear and shock. However, although his muscular fists showcase his physical strength, he is entirely inferior to Judith and her maid. Gentileschi used a pyramidal structure in her painting, and placed Holofernes at the bottom, visually suppressing his power and resistance. The composition of this painting only adds to the emphasis on women overpowering men. While Holofernes vainly struggles to defeat them, Judith and her maid are depicted as glorious and heroic figures. Without any romanticizing, Gentileschi expresses her own feminist opinion through the violent yet graceful movement of Judith’s forearms.