Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes (c.1599)

Michael Fried has written of Caravaggio's painting that "there exists a meaningful affinity between the actions of the figure of the youthful Jewish widow wielding her sword (with her right hand) and grasping the tyrant Holofernes' head by the hair (with her left) and those of the painter himself, brush in right hand and palette in left, as he stood working on his painting."1

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Captions for image(s) above:

Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes (c.1599) Palazzo Barberini, Rome

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All I need to add to Fried's insight is that Judith as Caravaggio has the traditional frown of an artist to indicate deep thought. The frown has been used by artists from Giorgione to Picasso to indicate an artist's mental activity in contrast to the physical craft of painting, here symbolized by sword and palette.

Fried's interpretation of the principal figure with a sword is similar to ours of works by Cranach, Hans Baldung Grien, Artemisia Gentileschi, Goya, Luca Giordano, Daumier, Courbet, ManetPicasso and others. The use of a sword as symbol for a brush is one of the most important unseen aspects of art.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes

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That is not all, though. By extension Holofernes' head becomes Caravaggio's masterpiece or, in Italian, his capolavoro, literally "head-work." It is a "painting" within the painting and its form (though not the face) even resembles a masterpiece of Caravaggio's from two years earlier: his self-portrait as the screaming head of Medusa. 

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Holofernes' head from Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes

Right: Detail of Caravaggio's Head of Medusa (1597)

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Think along these lines and understanding art - or one of its hidden but most important levels - is easier than you may have imagined.  

Notes:

1. Fried, The Moment of Caravaggio (Princeton University Press) 2010, p. 154

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