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.
NOTE November 1, 2017: Oh a surprise! On the day I finally decided to drive measly 38 miles to the Dayton Art Institute, I found out the original of this painting is actually in Vienna … and I already saw it 2 years ago in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. According to Wikipedia, “Another autograph copy is known in the Dayton Art Institute.” A little internet sleuthing revealed there are, in fact, at least two renditions by Saraceni – the version pictured above and the original located in Vienna (and two more that are attributed to Saraceni). Therefore, in order to be thorough, here is the original with the appropriate caption.
There are slight differences in the two images. The Vienna Judith has sharper features and is wearing a blue and gold gown that laces across the bodice: the Dayton Judith has rounder facial features and is wearing a green gown with a red ribbon and a gold medallion on the breast. And overall, the Vienna Judith is depicted in more precise detail – the folds of her sleeve, the stitching of her bodice, the headdress of the maid, the expression of Holofernes’ detached head – which is why it is located in one of the pre-eminent art museums of Western Europe.
But tomorrow, I will see for myself.
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And to be REALLY thorough, here are the other Judith’s attributed to Saraceni –
(1) Eileen Carr, The Dayton Art Institute: Art in Context, Judith With the Head of Holofernes.