Dreams of Desire 53 (Judith)

Gustav Klimt-Judith 1-1901
Along with Salome (Dreams of Desire 22 (The Apparition) and Lilith (My Evil Is Stronger and Dreams of Desire 44 (Lilith) Judith was one of the triumvirate of Biblical femme fatales that held sway over the Decadent imagination.

In the apocryphal Book of Judith, the beautiful, daring young widow Judith (feminine form of Judah), distressed by her fellow Jews lack of faith in God to deliver them from the Assyrian conquerors, ingratiates herself with the General Holofernes. Having gained his trust she is admitted  into his tent where he is lying in a drunken stupor. With the help of her loyal maid she proceeds to decapitate Holofernes and shows the severed head to an awe-struck crowd of her fellow-countrymen. The Assyrians demoralised by the loss of their leader retreat and Israel is liberated from the foreign threat.

The story of Judith was a popular source of art from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. The Symbolists interpenetration brought the perverse and sadistic elements to the forefront. The great Austrian Symbolist painter and Viennese Secessionist Gustav Klimt’s (The SuccubusJudith of 1901 was the cause of considerable scandal when first exhibited. The focus of the painting is Judith, only a part of the  decapitated head of Holofernes is shown and even that is regulated to the bottom right-hand corner, beneath Judith’s exposed breast. With an expression of rapt depravity Judith caresses the head, all set against a ornately gilded, Art Nouveau decorative background.

An interesting comparison with Klimt’s Judith is with two masterpieces from the Baroque period on the same subject, Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes circa 1599 and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes 1614-1620. Here the paintings are concerned with the act of murder itself. Caravaggio who led a tumultuous life and would die on the run after killing Ranuccio Tomassoni, manages to convey with his trademark chiaroscuro all the tension and ambivalence Judith must have felt as she saws through the neck of Holofernes, while Gentileschi’s Judith surpasses Caravaggio (she was the most famous of the Caravaggisti, followers of Caravaggio) in showing the bloodiness and sheer physicality of the scene. It has been interpenetrated as a vivid rape revenge fantasy.

Caravaggio-Judith Beheading Holofernes 1599
Artemisia Gentileschi-Judith Slaying Holofernes 1614-1620

58 thoughts on “Dreams of Desire 53 (Judith)

  1. It’s hard to express delight at such a gruesome story… however… it is one of my favorites despite its blood thirstiness. The Caravaggio! And of the trio you mentioned only Salome is recorded in the accepted canon, strong females being a bit of a threat (temptation, corrupter…) The Klimt painting is amazing!

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    1. I saw a church in Rome with three Caravaggio’s which he was commissioned to do and it still there. Quite possibly the best art I saw in Rome which isn’t exactly bereft of masterpieces. Brilliant painter. The Klimt is amazing I also love the Gentileschi. Judith seems like a strong woman, trust Klimt to make her sexy.

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  2. So something about this sounded familiar and I went searching… Gentileschi painted Jael slaying Sisera with the tent peg, another win for Hebrew women. The Sisera of the painting is said to bear a resemblance to Caravaggio.

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    1. Thank you for this, she certainly didn’t shy away from scenes of violence. It does look like Caravaggio, he often inserted self portraits in his paintings, most famously as Goliath in his David with the head of Goliath, link to follow.

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      1. That’s fantastic. Thank you for the link. The painting is stunning and it’s always great to get the story behind it. I think Caravaggio inserted himself into The Taking of the Christ too – the painting in Dublin. He’s either one of the apostles or one of the Roman soldiers, I can’t remember which.

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      1. He is one of my favorite painters. It’s partly the light and dark, but also the tricks with perspective … Velasquez is the painter closest to him for excellence and innovation, I feel.

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      2. Seeing Caravaggio surrounded by other painters in a museum is a revelation, you are drawn to his work, he kills masterpieces, they seem watery and insipid compared to Caravaggio. See I know a little beyond Surrealism and Symbolism, though just a little.

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      3. After wandering around the Prado and the 19th C art museum in Madrid, I hit the Reina Sofia with Picasso and Dali and Miro (etc). I will never forget the way those paintings lifted themselves off the wall and demanded that you looked at them. I know just what you mean.

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      4. I suppose it what makes the difference between good art and great art…technique is one thing but some artists demand your attention. I am glad you liked because I did half include the Baroque for you Roger.

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      5. Interesting … some of ours were marvelous … Giles and Chalky … Jimmy Edwards and Mr. Dimwitty had nothing on what we drew up. One teacher with a bad temper … Dunlop … because he always ‘blew up’! Oh dear … cease and desist …

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  3. Love the Klimt, and likely would have taken longer to notice the head in the corner had you not described the history and the piece. Learn something new every day. 🙂

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  4. Wow, there is certainly a big difference in the first painting vs the second two! I feel like I’ve seen the first of the beheading ones before…

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    1. The baroque always tried to capture the most dramatic moment… whereas the Symbolist were much more interested in abnormal psychological states. The Caravaggio is quite famous and absolutely brilliant. Thanks for commenting Vic

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