by Francesco del Cairo
Italian, 1607-1664; SN 798, oil on canvas

By Allan Miller. February 29, 2000


  • Composition – A young woman, staring at us.  She is wearing a turban and holding a sword. On the table in front of her is the severed head of a man. Emerging from the shadows in the background is an older woman who is holding a sack. The figures are crowded into a small space forcing them close to one another and to us.
  • Light and color – All the light in the painting comes from a single source. Combined with the dark background and dark costumes this light creates a strong contrast which focuses the viewer’s attention to certain parts of the painting. The light falls strongly on the woman’s face and chest, on her hands and her turban, and more weakly on her sword, the severed head and the older woman.

Personalities – The young woman’s costume, her turban, her rich robes with a revealing neckline, gives her the exotic appearance of a temptress. The objects around her, the severed head and the sword, indicate a gruesome, violent event. What is she doing? Is she shy and retiring? Is she hysterical, having lost her composure? No, she is confrontational! What about her expression? Is it cold and impassive? Shocked? Is it unapologetic and unrepentant? Or is she regretful? A little of each maybe? Does she show a comfort with her act, but a regret for its necessity? How many people have experienced a sense of drained anticlimax after a dreadful experience? Clearly, the older woman is concerned, inquiring, even curious.  Has she glimpsed something in the young woman which is unexpected, something of a revelation? What words or thoughts would you put into the mouths or minds of the subjects?


  • Title: Judith with the Head of Holofernes.
  • Judith was a young Jewish widow who saved her village from the Assyrians. She dressed in her finest robes and approached the enemy camp as a defector. Having retired to the tent of the Assyrian general, she proceeded to get him drunk and to cut off his head with his own sword.
  • The moment captured by the artist shows Judith confronting the viewer with the proof of her extraordinary act, as her maid is about to place the head in a sack so she and Judith can slip back to their village with their tale of conquest.


  • Francesco del Cairo was born in 1607 in Milan where he painted his earliest works. Many of the artists active in Milan at that time created eerie, macabre works with subjects involving sex and violence.
  • In 1633 he was called to Turin to become court painter to the powerful Duke of Savoy.  This is the beginning of a life long association with the House of Savoy, which brought del Cairo an extensive reputation as well as great social and financial rewards. Some authorities believe del Cairo may have left Milan for Turin to escape a charge of murder, although this is not a universally accepted opinion.

         His best works were all done during the early part of career, before the age of 35, after which he lost much of his originality, adopting the styles of other painters or movements

  • An inventory of del Cairo’s property upon his death, lists paintings by many of the greatest painters of his time (including Rubens, van Dyke, Salvator Rosa and Guido Reni), raising the possibility that during his later life del Cairo was a dealer as well as an artist.
  • Painted around the time of the artist’s arrival in Turin, this painting is undoubtedly one of his greatest works. Its theme and size are typical of the works he was doing for private collectors of the time.  Its dramatic use of color, lighting and composition, and its subtle expression of emotion are masterful.