Giuditta e Oloferne (c.1599)

Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Giuditta e Oloferne (Judith Beheading Holofernes)
c.1599
Oil on canvas, 145 x 195 cm
Palazzo Barberini, Roma

Three characters and a red cloth in the background: few elements, capable of orchestrating a true theater of opposites. Darkness and light, old age and youth, life and death, strength and fragility. Judith is a heroine of the Old Testament, a young Jewish widow who saves her people from the siege of the Assyrian army. She pretends to want to ally herself with the enemy and kills the general Holofernes with her own hands, after being welcomed into the camp with a sumptuous banquet. Since the 1400s she has been a frequent iconography, but she had never been represented with such bloody spectacularity. Here the scimitar is in full thrust, there is energy in Holofernes’ contracted hands and limbs, but not for long. The general’s mouth is wide open in a cry that is about to die out, the flow of blood has not yet exhausted his flow, as if Caravaggio had wanted to freeze the lightning moments of an action, difficult to stop with the gaze. The light source is placed at the top left and fully invests the slender figure of Judith, with her brow furrowed, in the effort to summon all her strength, physical and spiritual, for a gesture that she makes despite herself. The handmaid Abra, who in the original story is a young woman, becomes an old woman with a wrinkled face and wild eyes, a sign of the horror that the observer feels when faced with such violence. The canvas, dated to around 1599, is important from a stylistic and thematic point of view: it is Caravaggio‘s first true history painting and inaugurates the phase of strong contrasts between light and shadow. It was commissioned by the banker Ottavio Costa, who was so fond of it that he claimed its inalienability in his will. However, traces of the painting were lost for centuries, and it was only found in 1951 by the restorer Pico Cellini, almost by chance, with the family that owned it, and reported to the critic Roberto Longhi. A full-blown coup de théâtre, in keeping with the theatricality of the painting. Twenty years later it was purchased by the State and exhibited at Palazzo Barberini. (Galleria Barberini)

See also:

• Melandroni, Fillide (1581-1618)