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The 17th Century Painter and Rape Victim Who Specialized in Revenge Fantasy

Artemisia Gentileschi was raped when she was 19. In her career as one of Italy's greatest painters, she resurrected and exorcized that trauma again and again.

Sarah Waldron

Sarah Waldron

'Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura)' by Artemisia Gentileschi. Image via Wikimedia

It's the ultimate revenge fantasy.

Once, there was a man called Holofernes. He was a general, several thousand years ago, in what is now modern-day Syria. Holofernes was doing what generals often did back then—laying siege. His target was the city of Bethulia, which was almost at the point of starvation and surrender when one occupant, a woman named Judith, formulated a plan. She seduced Holofernes through charm and the promise of information. While he slept in his bed, dead drunk, she decapitated him with two slices of a blade and brought his head back to the city in a bag.

The tale of Judith and Holofernes is an ancient and sacred one, but you won't read it in a modern Bible. It's not historical. It's inaccurate. And it may have been written by a woman.

The story struck a chord with Artemisia Gentileschi, one of Italy's greatest artists during the 17th century. As a teenager, she had been raped. The trial was public and protracted, and Gentileschi was tortured during her testimony. Like Judith, she was portrayed as a slut instead of a hero. And also like Judith, Gentileschi wrote for herself a heroic narrative that would only ever be truly appreciated long after she had died.

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Until Artemisia Gentileschi picked up a paintbrush to show her violence and power (and she would paint five versions in her lifetime, according to art expert Mary Garrard), Judith could never be a champion. It took a woman to paint a woman—and it took a female art historian to resurrect Artemisia Gentileschi.

'Judith Beheading Holofernes' by Artemisia Gentileschi (1612). Image via Wikimedia

Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593. She was the eldest of four, and an only daughter. Her father, Orazio, was also an artist. Gentileschi grew up in a household surrounded by painters and sculptors during one of the most exciting periods in art history — the end of the late Renaissance. At sixteen, she was apprenticed as a painter to her father. Three years later, he proclaimed her peerless in her work. Her mastery of the medium, her creativity and artistry was unparalleled, regardless of her gender.

In 1612, Gentileschi was raped by a colleague of her father, Agostino Tassi, and Orazio sued for injury and damage. It is rare that an artist's monograph will include trial documents along with the notes and analysis, but Mary Garrard's 664 page tome, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art does just that. Gentileschi's own words are graphic and brutal, a voice stretched through centuries. "I felt a strong burning and it hurt very much, but because he held my mouth I couldn't cry out... I scratched his face and pulled his hair and before he penetrated me again I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh."

She was subjected to a gynecological examination and gave testimony in court while undergoing torture by sibille, metal rings that tightened around her fingers when pulled with string. This was done to ensure that she was telling the truth. The burden of proof was heavily upon her.

'Judith and her Maidservant' by Artemisia Gentileschi. Image via Wikimedia

Gentileschi had painted Judith a few years before this all happened, most likely a copy of one of Orazio's paintings. It was a relatively sedate scene compared to the brutality of her later work: Judith and her handmaid Abra sit, looking into space, averting their gaze away from the head they're bundling into a bag. This was quite typical of the time—Judith was almost never portrayed in the act of violence, only afterwards and almost always with a look of constipated piety on her face. Sometimes, she was painted topless or with a sliver of thigh on display.

Caravaggio—a contemporary of Orazio—was the first popular painter to show Judith as a progenitor of violence, and Gentileschi was almost certainly influenced by his gory depiction, in which a nauseated, recoiling Judith limply slices through a screaming Holofernes' neck. In 1612, after the trial, she painted a horrific rendering of the scene in high shadows and light. Instead of Abra standing idly by, she helps to pin down Holofernes. Blood soaks through the rumpled sheets. Judith, a grim, serious look on her face, is caught mid-slice. Around 1620, she painted an updated version for her patron, Cosimo II de Medici, which was even more heightened.

De Medici was so disturbed by it that the painting was hung in a dark, rarely-accessed corner of his palace.

Now, the sheets are soaked with blood but also spurt in rivulets, splashing Judith's arms and rich, gold dress. Holofernes' chest and knees are revealed, rendering him vulnerable and exposed. And Judith herself is less idealised, her nose more aquiline, her face and chin much rounder. Judith looks just like Gentileschi. De Medici was so disturbed by it that the painting was hung in a dark, rarely-accessed corner of his palace.

Her rapist Tassi was a serial offender and was out of prison within eight months. Gentileschi became one of the most well-regarded painters of her time, but her talent didn't exempt her from the usual gender belittling. We only know she died in 1653 because two obituary poems were published about her audacity in making money from her art and what a shit wife that must have made her.

Her talents weren't quite forgotten about—like her paintings, they were filed away in a corner of the public memory, waiting to be remembered. In 1979, Judy Chicago's work of feminist art, The Dinner Party, paid tribute to Gentileschi. The feminist movement grasped firmly at her figure, seeing in her an unprecedented, heroic resilience. In 1991, Garrard's monograph opened up a floodgate of Gentileschi scholarship. In an interview withThe Florentine, she recalls Gentileschi's appeal. "She did something no male could do: Paint and symbolically represent painting. I saw this gesture as extraordinary self-exertion of identity. Not only did she not accept limitations, she took advantage of them. Today, many people praise Artemisia by saying she was a 'survivor'. She was more than that—she was a victor!"

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Knowing what we do about Gentileschi's trauma and the unprecedented violence of these works, it's hard not to see Judith Beheading Holofernes as an expression of cold rage and catharsis, the only mode of wish-fulfilment that was available to the artist at the time. In art history as in getting over trauma, the most important thing is to preserve what survives. Once something is taken away, it is gone. We will never know exactly why Gentileschi painted or how she felt while doing it.

We have to ask—is this brutal wish-fulfilment hers, or ours? Rape isn't just an individual traumatic event; due to it being overwhelmingly committed by men against women, it has become a sort of collective loaded burden. Through the prism of feminist art history, Gentileschi has become every rape victim, and every rape victim has become Judith—chopping the fucker's head off to save the world.