Gentileschi, Artemisia: Judith and Her Maidservant (1612-3)

By Tom Lubbock
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:13

It's a scene from many films. A character is in danger " in danger of being detected or captured or killed. Some other character is out to get them. The potential victim may not know that they're under this threat, but we know it, and we expect that the menace will strike at any moment. And so when we see the vulnerable character performing some innocent business, washing up, locking up, whatever, something about the camera angle may suggest this shot isn't just a bit of narrative. (Maybe the character is viewed through a lighted window, from the darkness outside their house.) No, we suspect that in this shot we're seeing them through their predator's eyes. The danger is already at hand!

Now these suspicions often turn out to be unfounded. The device was only a tease to raise the tension. The menace hadn't in fact arrived, not yet, and when we thought we were looking through the predator's eyes we were mistaken. The shot in question didn't show the point of view of another character. It was merely offering us a hypothesis: if there had been a killer outside at that point, this is what they would have seen... and from this viewpoint, how vulnerable the victim looks.

Films can play these tricks because everything in a film is seen from a particular point of view. Generally this camera viewpoint isn't occupied. It shows the action, and different angles will have different artistic effects, but it isn't a subjective shot representing the viewpoint of a particular character. Sometimes it is occupied, of course, and there have been films made entirely in subjective shot, where the constant central character never actually appears (except in mirrors). And then there are all those occasions, as above, when a shot may be subjective, but you can't be sure.

Pictures have the same possibility. A picture has a point of view from which its scene is shown. And it can suggest that this point of view is occupied, that it's the viewpoint of a particular person or group of people. For example, in Ecce Homo pictures, where Jesus is presented to the crowd for judgement, the figure of Jesus may be faced straight to the picture's front. The picture is a subjective shot. It's seen from the viewpoint of the hostile crowd, who are about to cry 'Crucify him!' " which puts the pious Christian viewer of the picture in a difficult double bind.

Or there's a scene like Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes. The Bible story is about a Jewish princess, who has inveigled herself into the enemy camp, into the tent of the general, and got him drunk, and decapitated him while he's sleeping it off. Then she and her servant make their escape with the severed head under cover of darkness. Gentileschi's picture catches heroine and helper at some point along this return journey. They move stealthily along, head in the basket, sword raised. They hear a noise behind them, turn, freeze.

Visibility is the heart of the drama. Are the women seen or not? Can they see their danger? Pitch darkness surrounds the two figures, we have no idea where they are. It stands for the surrounding night, concealing possible hidden witnesses. They are tightly framed also, and this compounds their trouble. The frame marks not only the limit of their visibility to us, but the limit of their vision. It brings the night in close around them, as they peer out of the picture, in mortal fear of being seen.

And they are seen, because they're in our sights. The picture's view, the picture's viewer, are unavoidably implicated in the action. Because it's a story about the terror of being seen, the pictorial visibility of these characters can't remain a neutral fact. It impinges on the figures, increasing their vulnerability. We viewers can't help identifying our viewpoint with that of the enemy spies, the watchers who these figures are looking out for. Our own eyes become vectors of the story's visual menace.

Other things tighten this screw. The action of the women goes side-to- side. Their journey goes leftwards, crossing through the picture; they stop and look back behind them, listening, stock still. Their sudden halt, their holding still, is what puts them square in the picture's sights. And we are up close to them. It's another aspect of the tight framing. If they turned front, they'd be seen face-to-face. But while so clearly in our view, they show no signs of noticing us. Their attention is all aimed off-picture, to the right. It's as if they'd made a fatal error about where their danger lay. The viewer's gaze is focused on Judith's straining profile " alert and noble. And as with an Ecce Homo, the viewer here is divided. We support Judith, Bible heroine, in her enterprise against the heathen. But we're put in the role and position of her enemies.

The women absolutely cannot turn our way, though. The story forbids it. If they did, and caught our eyes, it would mean they were spotted " and in the story the two assassins are never spotted. They make their escape safely home, and hang the severed head above the city gates. The spies they fear, and think they hear, are only in their fears. If you know the story, you know that your sights cannot be identified with the enemy's. This is not a subjective shot, only a potential subjective shot. All the drama of visual peril is hypothetical. But Judith and her Maidservant extracts maximum jeopardy from the idea that the picture's view is itself a menace to its figures.


Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) learnt from her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi. She became one of the most vigorous followers of Caravaggio, deploying high-contrast lighting and sometimes extreme violence. She painted a series of pictures of strong and suffering women from myth and the Bible " victims, suicides, warriors " and made a speciality of the Judith story. Her best-known image (Judith Beheading Holofernes) shows the decapitation of Holofernes, a scene of horrific struggle and blood-letting.

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