Judith with the Head of Holofernes
by Fede Galizia, 1578 - 1630
Milan, 1596

by Lin Vertefeuille. 2000

Fede was the daughter of painter, Nunzio Galizia. She was a precocious student of her father and became well known and popular in her own right as a painter of portraits and religious compositions. Her style is from the naturalistic traditions of the Renaissance and many of her portraits are sharply realistic. She received several public commissions for altar pieces in Milanese churches. However the major part of her surviving works are still lifes, a relatively new genre at that time. She is credited with having the first dated still life, 1602, by an Italian artist. Her still lifes were normally frontal, symmetrical featuring a basket, porcelain bowl or fruit stand usually containing one kind of fruit. However in some of her works other fruits were placed on a counter in contrast possibly suggesting vanitas. She preferred simple still life compositions and has been compared to Francisco de Zurbaran. She painted Judith with the Head of Holofernes at age eighteen.

The story of Judith with the Head of Holofernes comes from the Book of Judith in the Apocrypha and was a popular subject with private collectors and painters at that time. Women identified with

Judith as a heroine and men sometimes viewed the story as a warning - not to lose your head over a woman!

Judith was a wealthy Jewish widow whose village was being attacked by the Assyrian Army led by its general, Holofernes. Judith in her finest attire and jewels, with her maid pretends to defect to the enemy camp. Holofernes is quite taken by her, they party and she makes sure he consumes much alcohol. They withdraw to his tent and he falls asleep in a drunken stupor. Judith then severs his head with a sword. Her maid hides his head in a sack and they return to her village. In the morning the Assyrians discover their general murdered and leave in disarray thus sparing Judith's village.

Her skill and background as a portrait painter is evident in Fede's depiction of the scene. Judith's gown and fabric is in exquisite, rich, brocaded detail adorned in jewels. Even her hair is ornately curled. There is a serene look on her face. Her fingers tightly entwine in the hair of the severed head. In her other hand Judith grasps a large sharp dagger, which Fede has shown rather than the usual sword. A basin, rather than a sack is held under the head by her maid. If you were to cover up this gruesome sight of a severed head, it would be a pleasant portrait of an attractive aristocratic lady. The eighteen year old, Fede, certainly identified with Judith's bravery because she signed her name on the blade of the dagger.

Historical Context:
There were other female artist in this period who were quite successful too.

Isabella Parasole created many decorative pieces in flower and leaf designs and did botanical illustrations that were published. Antonia Uccello was another Renaissance female artist although little is known about her work. Marietta Tintoretto worked on the backgrounds of her father's huge canvases and her portraiture was much admired, however her father wouldn't let her go away to other courts to paint and married her off to a venetian jeweler to keep her close to home. Artemisia Gentileschi's career spanned over forty years in Italy and England. She painted two different scenes of Judith and they are very dramatic, violent and realistic actually depicting Judith in the act of holding down Holofernes while she cut off his head! Elisabetta Sirani, from a wealthy and supportive family, also painted Judith ,but in a gentle classical manner. She kept a written record of more than 150 of her works before her death at age twenty-six and was a teacher and role model for aspiring woman artists.