One of the reasons Artemisia was so successful is because this is, in fact, what she did, Lev explained: “She’s not going to be successful in Italy if she’s producing art about how much she hates the Catholic Church.”
“And I think it’s very foolish, arrogant, and generally, not very critical, to assume that Artemisia Gentileschi is succeeding in producing all these works that are anti-Church and selling them to Church patrons.”
Despite her success, Artemisia was only “in the second generation of women breaking into art,” Lev noted, “so it's a struggle no matter how you look at it.”
This is why Caravaggio’s “innovative view, his light/dark contrast, his sense of struggle, his intense graphic passion, would appeal to her, and be kind of attractive as an art form.”
Artemisia’s paintings are also compared to Caravaggio’s in their treatment of the human form, chiefly the female: Artemisia’s women are portrayed less idealistically than many of Caravaggio’s. (Though Caravaggio himself was innovative in this respect.)
“But when you put one of her works next to Caravaggio’s works, you’ll see, that particularly in draftsmanship of hands and of anatomy, she’s superior,” Lev said, noting Artemisia’s considerable skill.
Because Artemisia was a follower of Caravaggio, it is interesting to note both their similarities and their differences. For example, it is common to compare the artists’ depictions of the Old Testament story of Judith beheading Holofernes.
In Caravaggio’s, Judith is “beautiful, she’s drop-dead gorgeous,” Lev said. The Judith by Artemisia, on the other hand, “is far puffier,” which is a more realistic representation of how women looked in the 16th century, since their diets were mainly composed of starch and sugar.
Additionally, the posture of the two Judiths differs. In Artemisia’s, the nurse is helping to hold down Holofernes, and Judith has her knee up on the bed, one arm visibly restraining him, the other struggling to cut his neck with the sword. Artemisia’s is also far messier, with blood spraying everywhere.
This isn’t to say that Artemisia’s ‘Beheadings’ (she made more than 20) are objectively better than Caravaggio’s. He had his own things to say in his paintings, Lev said.
(Story continues below)
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But Artemisia’s “is really hands-on messy; blood is splattering on her robes, on her face. It's messy, messy, messy – all of her ‘Beheadings’ are messy.”
A Catholic perspective
In the context of religious art, the image of Judith and Holofernes has always been about virtue conquering vice, Lev said.
“That's the whole point of the story, the whole point of the painting,” and why so many were made during the Counter-Reformation.
What Lev sees as the point of these paintings is that “to conquer vice, to conquer sin … is a messy, dirty job.”
“There is nothing easy about conquering our desire towards lust, dishonesty, power, whatever it is that we have to fight now,” Lev said. Just like Judith in the painting, “it involves rolling up your sleeves, getting splattered in the mud and fighting it down.”