posted 03/02/00

    "Judith with the Head of Holofernes," permanent exhibition, Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. $9, $8 seniors, free under age 12. Galleries free Sat. 359-5700.

 While picturing the state of Texas executing Betty Lou Beets last week for shooting her husband in the head, I saw in another compartment of my head Ringling Museum's "Judith with the Head of Holofernes" by Francis del Cairo.

 Judith was the Old Testament heroine who cut off the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes to keep his army from overrunning her town.

 I rush to say I don't equate Betty Lou with Judith. But the way Del Cairo painted Judith, she's Beets' equal when it comes to a capacity for cruelty. The painting shows her expressionless as her handmaiden lowers the lopped-off head off a plate into a sack. Judith seems so unfeeling that you half expect to see her pat a curl while the gory scene takes place.

 Onlookers in the painting stare fixedly at the severed head, as if marveling at Judith's feat. The intensity of the moment is made greater by a detail-less background and light on her face.

 The portrayal is clearly a distortion of a difficult and heroic act. Judith was a wealthy widow who saved her people by enticing her enemy to drink and then hacking off his head when he slipped into a drunken stupor. The murder couldn't have been easy. Certainly it was messy. It's hard to imagine Judith doing it without at least a look of repugnance at the sight of blood that had to have spurted everywhere, including on her.

 Yet there she is in Del Cairo's painting, looking as if she were watching her maid doing the dishes. Not even a shudder of a sign of nervous unease. It was her first murder and she doesn't even wrinkle her nose.

 Del Cairo isn't the only painter who portrayed Judith as cold and unfeeling, and Judith wasn't the only female shown this way. You can see women made bestial throughout art history. Emil Nolde painted a female lying with a lion -- her face fiendish with big teeth -- as if ready to eat her prey, in "Head of a Woman." Pablo Picasso painted a female with fangs in "Woman with Stiletto." Henry Rousseau painted a female riding a black horse over a field of male corpses in "War." Fictional characters in literature also star vicious women: Circe, Medea, Medussa, Salome, Delilah, Lady Macbeth.

 Maybe Del Cairo, et al, saw women as heartless killers because of Hesiod, the Greek poet who wrote that the world's first mythological woman, the goddess Gaea, made her son castrate his father with a sickle and throw the genitals into the ocean, out of which Venus was born. Which means that, according to Hesiod, the Goddess of Love, herself, came out of the evil-doing of a woman.

 Even the Bible casts similar aspersions on women. In Ecclesiastes, it says, "Give not thyself to a woman, so as to let her trample down thy manhood." The same kind of sentiment had to have prompted Gov. George W. Bush's mockery of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker when she asked him for clemency. To hear Time magazine tell it: "Please," Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "don't kill me." Who would think a painting made in the 17th century would have anything to do with today? You should see this exhibition.