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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:07

Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the detroit institute of art looking at judith and her maidservant with the head of californias by artemisia gentileschi this story comes from the book of judith which is included in the catholic version of the old testament but not considered part of the canonical books of the jewish bible but it's a great story the town of bethulia has been under siege by the assyrian army for weeks bethulia is strategically important because it lies on the path to jerusalem lack of water and provisions have caused the town to ready itself to capitulate but before it does judith steps forward and she uses her beauty and her eloquence to open the gates of the town allowing her to move out with her maidservant she's almost immediately captured by the assyrians and she's able to make her way to the camp of the assyrian general holofernes judith is a widow and so she's cast off her widow's clothing for a beautiful dress and jewelry so she can make herself very attractive to the leader of the assyrian army to hala furnace judith convinces hala vernes that she can help him to capture the town of bethulia they drink they feast they celebrate holofernes gets drunk judith takes his sword and cuts off his head brings it back to bethulia to show the town that she has saved her people this is the moment immediately after the beheading judith holds the sword still dripping with blood the maidservant is stuffing the head into a bag and judith shields her eyes from the candlelight so that she can look out she's heard a sound this could potentially be a moment of danger and so they both look up concerned about what's about to happen and whether they'll be caught this is a baroque painting and it displays so many characteristics that we associate with that style we have a single source of light the candle deep shadows surrounding the figures creating this theatrical drama and the figures are so close to us there's no real architecture in the background we just have this red curtain that's been drawn up that's typical of baroque art so all of this drama unfolding in our space thanks to gentileski's use of foreshortening the maid's elbow presses out into our space both of judith's arms are somewhat foreshortened as they cross in front of her body even the corner of that table that holds the armor the scabbard and the candle protrudes into our space breaking down the separation that typically exists between a work of art and the world of the viewer their attention is outside of the canvas at a place that we can't see as if they're looking beyond the door of the tent but look at the arcs that cascade down from the upper left to the lower right of the canvas first the arc of the shadow that seems to almost mask judith's face echoed by the arc of her arm the arc of the sword and then the arc of the maidservant's arm that series of arcing shapes creates a diagonal that moves from the upper left to the lower right and that use of diagonals is something that's very typical in baroque art diagonals create a sense of energy and movement so we have a sense of a caught moment in time but here the diagonal is slowed down we don't see a diagonal with the velocity that we might see for example in a rubens instead those are slow our eye down as we move through the canvas and accentuate the idea that both of these figures even in this moment of action have stopped there's this moment of stillness as they look to see if the coast is clear if they're in danger it's a compelling sense of stillness combined with the effects of violence because we have that sword right in the middle of the composition which is dripping with blood our eye moves down to the head of hollow furnace and we see blood on the cloth we see blood on the hands of the maidservant this caught moment of this incredibly violent act but a violent act which saves the israelites and which is performed with the help of god one of the words that's used to describe paintings like this is tenobroso which in english translation means in the dark manner and really what we're talking about is a kind of extreme rendering of curascuro where the lights are very light and the shadows are very dark and so there's a sense almost of theatrical spotlighting on these figures who are embedded in the darkness the three primary colors are evident we have the red of the curtain above and subtly of the blood dripping from the sword the blues and purples of the maidservant and then the brilliant gold the brilliant yellow of judith who's shown here as this heroine that saves her people and that red of the curtain is picked up on a little tie around the bottom of the white headdress worn by the maidservant so these glowing colors here in this beautiful painting by gentileski