Brawlin' Broads: Judith Beheading Holofernes

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Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599-1602
Brawlin' Broads
By BLAIR HUXMAN


Countless artists have depicted the beheading of Holofernes since the original recounting of the story. Caravaggio's rendition has attained acclaim for centuries and inspired countless artists. He chooses to take the unique perspective of depicting the event at its dramatic climax, while other artists of the day chose a more passive, somber approach. A popular topic of the time, Judith Beheading Holofernes is a classic story of the bible. Judith saves her people by seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes. Holofernes rests vulnerably in bed, power damped by nudity and intoxication. Judith severs his head to put in her sack and force his people to retreat. Judith became known as a symbol of triumph over tyranny for her dramatic role in the bible. Her purity and calamity contrasts with the savagery and pain of Holofernes as Caravaggio divides the work in half. Caravaggio allows the viewer to watch this violent act unfold, unable to intervene and haunted by Holoferne's inhuman screams and contorted face frozen in time.

Caravaggio's masterfully depicts human emotion through his beautiful use of color, depth, and shadow. He shows Judith's ambivalence towards the gruesome act. The viewer feels her repulsion, but also her desperation and willingness to sacrifice for her people. Caravaggio perfectly paints these contrasting emotions within Judith's face. Her body language and facial expressions show her unwavering determination but also reservations about the beheading. Her servant stoically holds her bag open in anticipation to aid her master. The firm, emotionless figures of the right sharply differ from the man in excruciating pain on the left. His eyes show not only surprise, but shock of the unexpected betrayal of Judith. He has no time to think or react consciously; his face contorts to express his despair and hopelessness until his death.

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