Judith and The Big One

29 Jul

Remember that disclaimer way back in Post #3?   This is the time to recall all the things I am not.  Because i am now faced with the most arduous task of this blog.  Talking about The Big One.   Talking about (insert trumpets here) Caravaggio.

Caravaggio, “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” c.1598, Oil on canvas,145 x 195 cm, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome, Italy

This may be the most famous Judith of all.   It is easily in the top 3 list with Gentileschi and Cranach (who I have yet to discuss; top 4 if I add Donatello).  In addition to the fact that (insert trumpets here) Caravaggio is a demi-god among painters.

It is definitely one of the goriest.  But not necessarily one of my favorites.  It begins the section I tagged “dissection” — because they all depict Judith in the act of decapitation.

The characteristic acclamations of (insert trumpets hereCaravaggio’s style — which had a major influence on Baroque art – include:

  • Realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional
  • Dramatic use of lighting known as tenebrism, in which chiaroscuro becomes a dominant stylistic device
Both of these characteristics are easily seen in this portrayal of Judith.   (insert trumpets hereCaravaggio
selected the most dramatic moment of the story in which Judith applies Holofernes’ sword to his own head, the blood begins to pour from his mortal wound, and he is still alive.   He chose the realistic versus idealized rendering of Judith’s effort, of Holofernes’ struggle, and of the maid’s aged face.  He conveys the twin emotions of Judith’s determination and repulsion, Holofernes’ horror, and the maid’s anticipation.  He uses the light pouring in from an unseen source, against the blackness of the tent interior.

So why isn’t this one of my favorites?

  • Judith is too detached from the struggle, as if she is able to complete the decapitation without getting soiled.   And that is hardly realistic.
  • The maid is so freaking old!   Why did he have to do that??   There is nothing in the story to indicate the maid is old, so why portray her at her very worst?   Hunched, wrinkled, unattractive, balding — just worn-out-old.   How unfair for a devoted companion in crime!
  • Holofernes horror is believable, but his struggle is not.   that’s it?   a scream?   wouldn’t you lunge at your attacker?   grab the sword?   something besides just lay there and gurgle?   good lord, this guy is a general, accustomed to battle – and this is the best he can do?
  • And the bloody spray, that can’t be right.  I don’t even watch CSI, but I cannot imagine blood shooting straight out from his wound.   Maybe if you have that stop action camera like they use in sports. But otherwise, I would expect a gush that flows down onto the sheets — not spurts in a linear trajectory from the wound.
Yes, my perspective is informed by 411 years of art since (insert trumpets hereCaravaggio.   Advances in technique.   Photography.   forensics,  anatomical science.   Movies.  Video.  Digital reproduction.  Special effects.   I would probably appreciate the genius of (insert trumpets hereCaravaggio if I had never been exposed to those things.  Like appreciating the technicolor of The Wizard of Oz after seeing only black-and-white films.  Considering that I have that exposure, it is an effort to imagine the world in which this depiction was considered revolutionary.

But that is the flaw of all history.  Having been exposed to what comes after, we cannot fully appreciate what it is like before.

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Posted by on July 29, 2011 in Gory


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