A young woman in a baby blue dress uses a sword to behead an intoxicated man. Behind her is an older woman assisting her by holding a bag.
Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes (detail), c. 1599, oil on canvas. On loan from the Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica. Palazzo Barberini, Rome

Last chance to see Caravaggio at Mia, though the story will remain

By Tim Gihring //

Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio was so in-demand in his lifetime—despite “his tendency to solve problems with a sword,” as Mia curator Rachel McGarry puts it—that he literally killed a man and the Church still commissioned his work. But when he died at 38, possibly also by the sword, his appeal went with him. His work was vulgar, one critic declared at the time, filled with the “horror and ugliness and filthiness of sin.” Competitors piled on: “I won’t look at it,” Nicholas Poussin said of Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, “it’s disgusting.”

It wasn’t until the 1950s that Caravaggio’s reputation fully recovered. It was then that his Judith and Holofernes, painted around 1599, was discovered in the collection of an Italian family and declared one of his finest works. Soon after, the painting was acquired for the Palazzo Barberini, part of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (National Gallery of Ancient Art) in Rome, where it has largely remained. Thanks to a rare exchange with the Barberini museum, the painting has been on display at Mia since April, alongside other depictions of the Biblical heroine Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes. August 20 is the final day to see it.

The last time this painting visited the United States was nearly 40 years ago, for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, in 1985. “His works are incredibly powerful to see in person,” says McGarry, Mia’s Elizabeth MacMillan Chair of European Art and Curator of European Paintings and Works on Paper, who organized this summer’s Caravaggio exhibition. “Reproductions do not do the artist justice.”

Caravaggio’s techniques—his theatrical use of light and shadow, his larger-than-life characters—still startle. Of the dozen ancillary works in the show, none approach the blood-spurting violence of Caravaggio’s piece, which captures the moment Judith’s sword slices into the struggling general’s neck. It embodies the version of the story then in vogue: Judith as both seductress and assassin, beautiful and dangerous.

“Beautiful in thy countenance and witty in thy words”

As Bible stories go, the account of Judith and Holofernes is not among the best known today. Like David and Goliath, it’s a story of overcoming great odds: Judith is a Hebrew widow who takes out an enemy general to save her people from certain destruction. It’s also considered apocryphal, metaphorical by design, and didn’t make it into the Torah. It’s not in the Protestant Bible either. It is, however, in the Catholic Old Testament, and became an enduring theme in Catholic art. Indeed, there are at least a dozen examples in Mia’s collection. And as the times changed, so did the story.

In the Middle Ages, Judith is a pious paragon of virtue, right up there with the Virgin Mary. With each passing century, however, Judith becomes more cunning and less clothed. In Caravaggio’s day, as the Church is seeking to counter the Reformation by stirring up passion among the faithful, Judith is a bombshell—a femme fatale. Men may well identify less with her than with Holofernes.

It’s easy to imagine the story becoming twisted over time. But the original text may be even more hyperbolic than Caravaggio’s creation. For eight chapters, the Book of Judith describes the ferociousness of the army assembled under Holofernes and what will become of its enemies, including the Hebrews: “…we will tread them under foot, and their mountains shall be drunken with their blood, and their fields shall be filled with their dead bodies…” and on and on.

By the time Judith is introduced, as the wife of a man who dies of heatstroke in the barley harvest, the fate of the Jews seems certain. But Judith is a hero in the making: “Hear me, and I will do a thing,” she says, “which shall go throughout all generations to the children of our nation.” When she approaches Holofernes’ tent, he’s utterly taken: “Thou art both beautiful in thy countenance and witty in they words.” Intoxicated by her, as it were, he drinks more than “at any time in one day since he was born.”

When the time comes, Judith cries out to God for strength and does what needs to be done. “And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might,” the text says, “and she took away his head from him.” She hands the head to her maid, who slips it into a bag of meat. And that’s that—as long as Judith lives and for a long time after, the story goes, no one messes with the Hebrews.

In Caravaggio’s depiction, Judith dispatches the general with somewhat less alacrity; she appears as tortured as she is tough. In fact, Caravaggio may have been inspired by another sympathetic assassin: Beatrice Cenci, whose father had repeatedly raped her and abused her mother—until Cenci and other family members killed him with a hammer. The conspirators were publicly executed, by order of the pope, the same year that Caravaggio made his painting. Heroism is an awful burden, Caravaggio seems to say. No one emerges clean from dirty work.