The art of vengeance: the biblical art of Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders, 1610, Artemisia Gentileschi. Public domain.

Artemisia Gentileschi was an artist of the Italian Baroque and she was quite unique for her times as she was a woman who learned the craft of painting. Born in July 1593, she was the eldest child of Orazio Gentileschi and Prudentia Montone. Artemisia’s mother died when she was twelve. Her father kept his children with him in his workshop while he painted and Artemisia showed great talent at fifteen, certainly more than her brothers who were also learning the craft. However, Artemisia was acutely aware of her limitations as a woman.

One of her first paintings at seventeen was Susanna and the Elders, a biblical story of a woman who is sexually harassed by two elders of her community.* There are echoes of the ‘Me Too’ movement in the painting as the advances from the old men are definitely not wanted. It would seem that such societal problems were nothing new as they were manifest in 1610. Such was Artemisia’s fate that she was raped as a teenager and the perpetrator, Agostino Tassi, promised to marry her. However, as is to be expected, he reneged on the deal and so Artemisia’s father decided to lay charges against the man. Rape was considered a blight against the family honour in that society and Artemisia was tortured with thumb screws before being believed. The sentence was banishment, however, there is no evidence that it was ever carried out. Artemisia is thought to have said of her torture that the thumb screws were the rings that her rapist gave her. This incident and its subsequent trauma was to shape her artistic work for the rest of her life.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612–1613, Artemisia Gentileschi. Public domain.

Artemisia painted in the style of Caravaggio. Artemisia’s father was a student of the artist. One of her best known paintings was Judith Slaying Holofernes. Once again, it is the story of a beautiful woman slaying the Jewish enemy by cutting off his head, similar to the themes of the book of Esther.** Holofernes was the Assyrian general who was commissioned to subdue the Jewish people and Judith saves her people by assassinating him when they were having dinner. It was painted in 1612-13 and it has been interpreted by feminists as a strong woman taking control and dominating a man. This theme is often seen in her works and she seems to be drawn to biblical stories with this theme of female strength. It would seem that Artemisia subconsciously wished that she had such strength to use against her attacker. As the artist is a woman, her gaze is not that of a man and so there is no male gaze here to interpret the female form. Instead of seeming weak and helpless against male passion, her women are heroic.

The painting is a play of light and shadow, with the shadow casting a sinister feel, especially as there is also copious amounts of blood contrasted against the white sheets as Judith is painted as plunging the sword into Holofernes’ neck. Holofernes certainly looks intoxicated as he lies on his bed and the two women, Judith and her maid, look at him with intensity as they go about their gruesome task. He almost looks surprised as they attack. This is the last thing he expected. It is interesting to note that the costumes of the two women seem to comply with the artist’s fashions of the day in Italy rather than ancient Persian societal fashions. As a student of Caravaggio, who was reputedly a homosexual, the male figure is muscular and well defined. The artist also uses chiaroscuro well (the use of strong contrasts between light and dark) in the painting, the play of light and dark creating the haunting atmosphere.

Artemisia Gentileschi had many wealthy and famous clients but she faded into obscurity until the 20th century when she was rediscovered. Artemisia was ahead of her times but receives many accolades today.

Editorial notes:

* Susanna and the Elders is a biblical story which appears in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles as an addition to the Book of Daniel, and in other Bibles as part of the Apocrypha.

** The Book of Judith is in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, and in other Bibles as part of the Apocrypha.

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