Judith: Rescuer of Her People

I am ready for Odyssey to open our Florence campus.*

Today we hopped a train to Florence and made our way to the Uffizi Gallery to hang out with one of my favorite artists, Artemisia Gentileschi.

I wrote about Artemisia in an earlier post after reading a historical novel about her life, but woof, do I love her works.
We saw two pieces of hers today, the most famous being Judith Beheading Holofernes. If you’ve seen the painting/ once you see it below, this will sound odd, but it was a spiritual experience.

The story of Judith is that as a young Israelite woman sneaks into the Assyrian camp to kill the general, Holofernes, who  threatens her people. She, with her maid, beheads them and succeeds.

Artemisia first painted Judith’s story during or after her sexual assault trial in Rome during which she was tortured and forced into a gynecology exam in the middle of the court to prove her testimony valid. (The rapist, an older painter meant to be her tutor, Tassi, was given no such treatment. Even when he was convicted, no punishment or discipline was enforced.)

Many scholars believe that this work was Artemisia creating a world of righteousness  for herself, an imaginative place where justice indeed gets served, where good conquers evil. But life is more complicated than that, and while I originally hopped on board with this reading of the painting, I hesitated today in my thinking of it- maybe there is a larger message–

Before we went to the gallery, I downloaded the Rick Steve’s audio guide to listen to on my phone. It was funny and informative, true to any Rick Steve guide, offering insights to the works of Botticelli, da Vinci, Giotto, Michelangelo, Titian, and Caravaggio. But no women. I don’t fault Rick for this, we’re hardpressed to find  female artists during the Medieval, Renaissance, or Baroque periods, and Gentileschi may be the only stand out who is more widely known. Women just weren’t afforded a place at the table. 

Artemisia was born to Orazio Gentileschi- an accomplished artist in his own right- and while he had other children, it was his daughter that he poured time and energy into her craft. He hired a tutor for her when she was denied entry into the academy in Rome, and he advocated for the authenticity of her work. Their relationship could be complicated- the details of why he took Tassi to court were true to the honor culture of the day and are hard to read now- but by the end of his life they had found projects to work on together. He made a way for her early in life when ways weren’t possible to most women. 

As we walked through the Uffizi today and I listened to our guide speak to Botticelli and Michelangelo, I thought of all of the examples set before Artemisia, all of the places were women were painted generically or as an ideal or as temptresses or as allegory, always with little autonomy and individualism. Did she wonder if a woman could actually make it in this craft? Did she see a place at the table for a female artist creating pieces highlighting the lives and complications of a woman?

Most of her body of work gives space for us to think about the capabilities and autonomy of women, what it means for a woman to take her life into her own hands within the spheres designed for her. I wonder if this is the greater message of Judith Beheading Holofernes: not a world where righteous justice is served, but a world where women are capable of making tough decisions, where women can be the saviors and rescuers of their people, too.

In no other work today did we see this theme, and I’m guessing Artemisia didn’t either. She painted this particular Judith scene at least three times- ours today was the second. But I’m grateful that she entered this narrative into the tapestry, or rather, she gave voice to it, pulling the threads up from where they had been hidden.

We learned today that originally, for many years, this painting was contributed to Caravaggio given that Artemisia imitated his style and he painted this same Judith scene earlier too- though his Judith is meek and timid to her task. (I showed my art students this year these two Judiths, side by side, and ask which was painted by a women, and for the most part, they usually got it right!!) Fortunately, Artemisia’s name is next to her legacy today, a rescuer of the stories of women.


Tomorrow we head to Siena to see St. Catherine’s head and thumb. I could not be more excited! 

*From what I know, there are no hard plans for Odyssey to open a Florence campus, yet. This is a joke… for now? Ha! (But please feel free to email the website and make a massive push for this to happen, it would be greatly appreciated, and I will let you all visit me when I live here.)