Why was the painting in an attic and ‘lost’ for so long? One expert, quoted in the Telegraph, has this to say: “This is not the sort of picture you would hang in your living room.” He has a point. The subject matter is violent, showing a young woman, attended by an older one, cutting off a man’s head with a sword.
Nevertheless, the subject of Judith and Holofernes is a hugely popular one in art. This article in the ever useful Wikipedia gives you an overview of the artists who have depicted it.
First of all, the subject is an innately dramatic one. Sometimes Judith is seen as holding the head of the decapitated Holofernes, and sometimes she is seen in the actual act of decapitating him. As she is accompanied by her maid, this gives the artist the chance to contrast a young beautiful woman with an older wrinkled one, as well as bring out the innate strangeness of depicting a young woman engaged in an act of terrible violence.
But the drama of the scene obscures the fact that this is, ostensibly, a religious subject. Nowadays the Book of Judith is the only book of the Bible that is never read out in Church, although the Canticle of Judith, with which the book concludes, is used in the breviary. Thus few will be familiar with the story.
In essence it is this: Holofernes is a pagan general terrorising Israel. Judith is a widow who goes to Holofernes and gets him drunk after a feast in his tent, and then cuts his head off. Her name means “the Jewish woman”, and it is a clue to her other qualities: she is brave, resourceful, clever, and a saviour of her nation – thus utterly to be admired. In this she has a great deal in common with other ladies of the Old Testament such as Esther, who deals with the wicked Haman, and Jael, who nails Sisera’s head to the ground; and let us not forget Deborah, the female Judge who leads the people of Israel into battle against their foes.
These four Old Testament heroines are sometimes depicted in the pendentives of church domes: the Cathedral of Gozo is one example of this. Esther and Judith have books of their own in the Old Testament. Jael and Deborah can be found in the fourth and fifth chapter of the Book of Judges. Deborah, like Judith, has a canticle, which is generally supposed to be one of the very oldest parts of the Bible.
Deborah was certainly a historical figure, scholars say. But there is good evidence that the story of Judith, like that of Esther, contains at best only a nugget of truth buried under a great deal of non-historical elaboration. But the point of all the stories is clear: the defence of God’s people is to be praised. Though another point immediately follows this: Judith’s actions are not the sort that anyone would condone today. The heroism of Judith emerges from an age very different to our own, a time when Israel was a nation whose very existence was in the balance, threatened by enemies on all sides, and resolved to defend itself by whatever means necessary.
That situation holds today in the Middle East, just as the genocide that Haman plans, and which Esther defeats, also has modern resonances. But for the people of Caravaggio’s time, was the depiction of Judith in any sense a matter of religion, or were the Scriptures simply a source for a piquant story? I confess that I find it very hard to see anything spiritual in either of the Caravaggio paintings, the Barberini gallery one, or the “new” one, and I probably would not want either hanging in my living room. As illustrations of human drama, they are compelling; as religious subjects, they remind us that the world of the Old Testament is very different to our own.