This painting reminds me of something from a film noir of the 1940’s or 1950’s. A stylish and melodramatic Hollywood
crime drama, that emphasizes cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Yup, that sounds like Judith.
Dramatic contrast in lighting is used by Saraceni to create tension in this night time scene. In the center is Judith, pictured in half-length. Looking directly at the viewer, her expression is sober – maybe even cautious. Her left hand clutches the head by the hair, raising and turning it toward the viewer. On the left is the maid in profile – old and wrinkled this time. She looks up at Judith expectantly, holding a sack with both hands and her mouth. Saraceni did not do her any favors: in fact, she resembes a canine companion with the bag in her teeth. Of course, Holofernes does not fare well at all. Only his forehead, nose and right eye are visible in the gloom but his expression is unmistakable: definitely contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives as befits the cynical film noir.
Obviously, Saraceni was influenced by Caravaggio – to the extent that he was considered among the first of the “tenebrists” or “Caravaggisti.” In fact, when Caravaggio’s infamous Death of the Virgin (1606) was rejected by the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, Saraceni was recruited to produce a more conventional substitute (1). Must have worked out because Saraceni’s Death of the Virgin is still in the chapel.
But then, Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin ended up in the Louvre, so it did not turn out so bad for the painting.
(1) Eileen Carr, The Dayton Art Institute: Art in Context, Judith With the Head of Holofernes.