Judith with the head of Holofernes
by Robert Anderson. 2000
His paintings show a fascination with the bizarre. Subjects center on martyrs, swooning saints and tragic heroines who are treated with a histrionic intensity. This penchant for morbid themes and extreme emotions reflects a violent temperament peculiar to the Baroque. His earlier works represent mystical visions with intense emotion, dramatic lighting and richly worked surfaces. Paintings of a series of tragic heroines reveals a morbid fascination with violence and death.The executioner plunges his knife into the pallid breast of an ecstatic St. Agnes; in a disturbingly erotic work, a richly jewelled Herodias, veiled in dark shadows, half swoons in rapture or anguish over the lurid head of the dead Baptist - the senses are often pushed beyond the limits of reason.
Cairo was involved in a homicide, much like Caravaggio, and was forced to flee Lombardy for Turin where he was, however, knighted in 1632 and made a court painter a year later.After 1937 he spent time in Rome where he was influenced by the grand decorative style and warm Venetian color of Pietro di Cortona and the glowing surfaces and tender sentiment of Castiglione and van Dyk. He worked for a wide market and enjoyed handsome financial and social rewards but his best works date from before 1645, when a slackening of inspiration becomes evident.
When the head was displayed to the Assyrian army from the city walls of Bethulia, the invaders fled and were cut down by the Israeli soldiers.
Judith was then blessed by the high priest and the senate in Jerusalem. She was called the exaltation of Jerusalem, the great glory of Israel and the great boast of the nation. Never again in Judith's time did the Israelites fear foreign aggression.
Cairo has shrouded the scene in mystery by adopting the dark style of Il Cereno, the most inluential Milanese painter of the early seventeenth century. The effect is heightened by a softening of the contours in a Leonardesque haze. The picture achieves a curious sensuousness in the contrast of the whiteness of Judith's flesh against the sea of black. The coloristic accent provided by the exotic turban completes the air of intrigue and seduction.
The God of Israel was seen as a God that would not forgive an action which would lead to the capture of the nation. Judith strengthened the resolve of the citizens of Bethulia by reminding them that if Bethulia were taken, all Judea would be taken, and the sanctuary would be plundered. If this happened God would hold them responsible for the profanation of it, and they would become an offense and reproach in the sight of the Lord. Even in slavery they would no longer be favored by God.