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Judith and her Maidservant - Analysis

Judith and her Maidservant, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Judith and her Maidservant, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia was a feminist. When they thought a woman couldn't do serious subjects, she did. And probably that's why, instead of doing pretty women or flowers or scenery, she tackled gruesome themes. I don't know. She learnt the art from her father, a follower of Caravaggio, and she did better than her brothers.

Anyway, this painting of hers treats the story of Judith, a popular subject that had been portrayed by many before her time. If you haven't read the Book of Judith, please do so. That will put the picture in its context.

At first glance, Judith and her Maidservant looks like some domestic scene; women returning home after shopping or something. Then we look into the shopping basket and see the disembodied head. She's treated it matter of factly, as if it was a normal thing to do.

What's strange in this picture are the lines leading away from it. The glances of the women lead us outside the frame, and that's something rarely done in art. That's like links taking your precious visitor outside your site, when its recommended that you occupy them in it as long as possible. Looks like the head in the basket is so powerful an image that your eyes will automatically be drawn towards it. You will look at Judith, glance right at servant, follow the diagonal of her sleeve and come back to basket. Actually, the Caravaggio influence is the clue. Like him, she puts you there, with her, sharing her concern and tension. Like a stage magician, she does not look at the object she wants hidden. What do you feel?


Amazing detail

Click on the details I had abstracted to see them blown up. She has painted jewellery, drapery, the ornamental hilt of the knife, and the basket in photographic detail. A la Caravaggio. She hasn't used his harsh lighting, though, and preferred the soft traditional route. The theme of Judith is already like a modern horror story. A clown killer or a baby demon kind of theme. A soft woman killing someone in cold blood. Though this time, the killer is on the good side.

Artemisia heightens this effect by making her characters very feminine, with jewellery and other fittings. And a flower basket with a plucked head in it! And blood staining her pure white dress.Judith's attitude is: what has to be done has to be done. Coolly.

  • Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio
    Take a look at Caravaggio's treatment of the subject. Artemesia was inspired by Caravaggio, and she would have surely seen this and been influenced by this painting. What do you think?
  • Judith Beheading Holofernes
    This is Artemisia's rendering of the actual act. Caravaggio's influence is rather strong in this one.


Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on September 28, 2009:

Great going, Knell! Hey, she can be covered by many; let me go take a look at yours. :)

knell63 from Umbria, Italy on September 28, 2009:

Good exploration of her work Kenny. Without realising you had covered her I have just published one about her life too. I love her working of the paint and the dramatic compositions in her paintings. My favourite though is her self portrait, artists these days just don't get make the effort to dress up.

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on April 28, 2009:

Ah yes, Henry, she looks it! :)

Thank you.

RKHenry from Neighborhood museum in Somewhere, USA on April 28, 2009:

Judith's profile is what I find striking about this picture. You can tell the woman is on a misson. A wrath!

Scroll to Continue

Thanks for this educating hub. Well done.

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 22, 2008:

Thanks, Christine! :)

ChristineRitter from Ohio on January 22, 2008:

WOW ! So interesting ! Great hub.

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 21, 2008:

Thank you, Chabrenas, and welcome to my hubs. And also for your insights.

I see that you have made a request for me in Requests, and I will surely do the comparision of the two paintings. 

chabrenas from middle of France on January 21, 2008:

Nice one, Kenny. Definitely not in the book of basic composition techniques. The combined out-of-the frame stares , and the positioning of the heads very high in the frame, are powerful influences. Without the strongly-lit arm to lead you back to the basket, you could easily miss the severed head.

A propos Isabella's remarks about the differences between Carvaggio's painting and this one: Carvaggio's represents the murder/assassination itself, but Artemisia's looks as if it might represent the women arriving at the gates, waiting to be let in and acclaimed for the deed.

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 19, 2008:

Aw, thank you, Earth Angel! *busy blushing*

Earth Angel on January 19, 2008:

You are a jewel!! And the new photo proves it further!! Blessings, Earth Angel!!

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 18, 2008:

Oh, I'm humbled by your blessings, Earth Angel! Truly, an angel on earth! Won't all your comments on me apply to you, too? More so, in fact.

May your tribe flourish, Earth Angel! We need more of you! 

Earth Angel on January 18, 2008:

Of course you are still Omar to me Kenny, even sans beard!! Gentle soul!! Loving spirit!! Reflective writing!! All mean much more than a beard!!?? Blessings to you and your delightful family!! Earth Angel!!

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 18, 2008:

Yes, Isabella, her Judith was probably how she wanted a woman to be: strong and cool. More empathy, maybe. Thank you for that perceptive remark!

Thanks, Compu-smart, happy to have contributed. Hope you read the original story too.:) 


Tony Sky from London UK on January 18, 2008:

Another bite sized informative page Kenny... These pictures of these woman have always fascinated me, yet i never knew anything about the subject.


Isabella Snow on January 18, 2008:

Interesting, comparing the two paintings of the act. His painting has Judith looking nervous and the maid looking old and witchy. Hers has them both looking pretty young and not the slightest bit worried!

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 17, 2008:

That's because of your blessings, Earth Angel! You have given us dollops of those! Hehe, without my beard, I'm still Omar? Thanks and hugs!

Earth Angel on January 17, 2008:

Wonderful Hub Omar Kenny Shariff!! Beautifully done!! And you shouldn't have been surprised when all the Hubbers came running to your side; you are beloved by all!! Blessings, Earth Angel!!

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 17, 2008:

Sorry for showing this to you when you're off to sleep, G-Ma! Mind you don't go cutting heads in your dreams! Hugs. :)

Merle Ann Johnson from NW in the land of the Free on January 17, 2008:

Wow  all new to me first I did not see the head in the and is true how you look out of the picture..used that in photograghy  but never PAINTINGS...BUT THEN I HADN'T CUT ANYONE'S HEAD OFF EITHER...WHAT A STORY What a painting and the ones that follow.  Phew Hope i don't have nightmares tonight.  Love G-Ma :O) hugs

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 17, 2008:

Thank you for enjoying the hub, Frank and appreciating my effort. Will do another one soon.

MrMarmalade from Sydney on January 17, 2008:

I have read The book of Judith lots of times. at least one a year for almost 55 years

That is a great Story a magic painting and a critique of considerable value.

What can one say about your ability to bring everything to my level.

Thank you kindly

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 17, 2008:

Welcome Ralph, and thank you!

Ralph Deeds from Birmingham, Michigan on January 17, 2008:


Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 17, 2008:

Thank you, Wehzo for dropping in!

Nathaniel Stalling Jr from Detroit, MI on January 17, 2008:

Beautiful hub Kenny, I like it a lot. I, like In The Doghouse, have read the Book of Judith, but the pictures add a little more to it. The pics are fascinating. Thank you Kenny for sharing them.

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 17, 2008:

My pleasure, Iðunn :)

Iðunn on January 17, 2008:

thx for the linkie :)

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 17, 2008:

Of course, you would! For more:

Iðunn on January 17, 2008:

I like her more with the background, now. Of course, I would. :o

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 17, 2008:

Yes, they look like women who were shoplifting or something, LOL

C.M. Vanderlinden from Metro Detroit on January 17, 2008:

Oh, and I wanted to mention---good point about how they're looking off of the canvas. It definitely gives you the feeling they're expecting to be chased down at any moment!

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 17, 2008:

Hi Doghouse! Yes, it is disturbing. Probably the real Judith was that cool.

Welcome, Colleen. Finally managed to honour your request. Yes, I don't blame her for feeling that way.

C.M. Vanderlinden from Metro Detroit on January 17, 2008:

Thank you, thank you, thank you Kenny!! Great hub. Yeah, Artemisia definitely wasn't a softie. I've been enamored with her ever since seeing one of the other paintings in this series "Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes" at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I think I was ten. When you know about Gentileschi's personal history (rape, torture, public humiliation) it becomes clear why she painted these somewhat gruesome scenes. I can hardly blame her ;)

Thanks for taking me up on my request. It was a real treat!

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 17, 2008:

She was raped by a painter, who was her father's partner, and that could be the source of her attitude. I don't blame her for wanting to paint severed off male heads.

In The Doghouse from California on January 17, 2008:


I always look forward to your HUBS, thanks. I was familiar with the Apocryphal story of Judith, but seeing it pictured is a different thing. The details in the painting are amazing, but the peaceful expression on the face in the basket is somewhat eerie

Iðunn on January 17, 2008:

I doubt anyone shall accuse her of that. :D

Ashok Rajagopalan (author) from Chennai on January 17, 2008:

She didn't want to be a softie! LOL!

Thanks, Iðunn.

Iðunn on January 17, 2008:

I was unfamiliar with this painting too, but it was fascinating if somewhat morbid. :O

Thx, Kenny. Your critiques are always illuminating.

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