Before I dissect this piece by Lavinia Fontana, I need to take a moment to focus on her career – not because she is a woman but because her earliest known work was titled ” Monkey Child”. It is speculated that Lavinia Fontana met the Monkey Child, Antonietta Gonzalez, in Parma, when Fontana was age 23 (1). Antonietta (as well as her father, two sisters and other family members) had or “werewolf syndrome” – a rare genetic disorder which causes an abnormal amount of hair on the body. Fortunately, Antonietta and her sisters were not shunned by society but welcomed into the courts of Europe as objects of curiosity. The note she holds in the portrait is her personal history.
“Don Pietro, a wild man discovered in the Canary Islands, was conveyed to his most serene highness Henry the king of France, and from there came to his Excellency the Duke of Parma. From whom [came] I, Antonietta, and now I can be found nearby at the court of the Lady Isabella Pallavicina, the honorable Marchesa of Soragna.” (1)
Wow. What a way to start a career. How does an artist follow that up? Give birth to 11 children and continue painting.
This portrayal of Judith is not dated, so it hard to say where Fontana was in her career – or pregnancies – when it was completed.
The scene that Fontana depicts is the moment after the decapitation, just before bagging the head. Not only has Judith recently executed Holofernes (whose body recedes into the background), but she has now thrown aside the sword, is now trying to conceal the evidence and make an escape while simultaneously avoiding the Assyrian guards. She turns toward the light – presumably from the entrance of the tent – and covers the severed head with her body. Her demeanor is seemingly calm, collected and in control but cautious.
Sounds about right for the mother of 11 children.