Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Legend of Judith

If Sayeda Hagar and Zenobia offered women artists a chance to comment on their own condition, and on the situation of women in general, the same might perhaps be said - and has recently sometimes been said with great emphasis - about the biblical legend of Judith and Holofernes. Further investigation of the cultural context for this story indicates a need to be careful. The Apocryphal Book of Judith ( it is included in the Roman canon, but not in the Hebrew or Protestant one) is a piece of patriotic fiction, which tells the story of how a virtuous jewish woman saved her people from the army of the Assyrians. She does so by getting the enemy general, Holofernes, drunk, then cutting off his head. The many anachronisms included in the story make certain that it cannot be regarded as true history, but Judith attained wide popularity as the type of the independent heroine who acts on her own initiative. For the Florentines of the fifteenth century, for example, she was the symbol of the resistance of the Florentine Republic to papal and other attempts to dominate the city, and this is the significance often attached to the celebrated statue of Judith made by Donatello, and placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio. Ironically, however, the statue was made for a non-Florentine patron and only later acquired by the Medici, who were largely responsible for removing the political liberties of the city. 
The most celebrated representation of Judith, next to Donatello's version, is now the painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/53). Artemisia has attracted attention not only for her career as a successful woman painter, at a time when woman painters were extremely rare, but also because she was raped by another painter, Agosino Tassi, whose pupil she was. The documents concerning this trial have been extensively published and have raised Artemisia to the position of feminist heroine. Her Judith has been seen as her own commentary on her ordeal- a perception reinforced by the fact that her father Orazio Gentileschi (1562-1639), also a painter, used his daughter  as the model for his own version of Judith.
This 'personal' interpretation of Artemisia's painting has proven extremly popular in recent years for understandable reasons, but one inconvenient fact stands in its way. The painting by Caravaggio (1573-1610) of the same incident, in which Judith violently severs Holofernes'Head, is quite clearly the inspiration for Artemisia's composition. Throughout her career Artemisia was influenced by Caravaggio's highly individual style. To some extent, we have to make a choice between a personal interpretation and a more purely art historical one. If Artemisia made this painting a vehicle for her own feelings, these were poured into a stylistic vessel which was not completely her own. 
One indication of the difficulties surrounding the interpretation of Artemisia's life and work is provided by the film Artemisia(1998). Though obviously inspired by feminist interest in the artist- and made by a woman director, Agn'es Merlet - the film changes the story to turn Tassi into a sort of hero and Artemisia into a young woman who is in love with him. The fictional Artemisia therefore becomes a total betrayal of the historically established one, and the film undermines itself. 
It is undoubtedly the popularity of the Judith story as a feminist text which encouraged the contemporary artist Cindy Sherman(b.1954) to portray herself as Judith in one of her autobiographical paraphrases of the Old Masters. Amusing as this portrayal is, it is marked by the curious under-current of self-dislike which marks so much of Sherman's work. Far from being an active, positive figure, Sherman's Judith stands rather limply, making a moue of distaste, Holofernes' severed head dangling almost forgotten from her hand.  

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