Judith with the Head of Holofernes
(Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri)


This small painting depicting the Old Testament story of the great Jewish heronine, Judith, is one of only twenty-one works attributed to Guerrieri. Very few of these are signed and even fewer are securely dated, so its historic importance is therefore significant. The painting which is dated 1626 comes from the artist’s maturity, shortly after the execution of the altarpiece of The Trinity with Saint Michael Archangel for the church of San Filippo in Fossombrone (now in the Museo Civico), which is also fully signed and dated 1624. The artist probably knew a painting of the same subject; either the one by Caravaggio (now in Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini), or those by Orazio Gentileschi as well as, possibly, the two Judiths by Artemisia Gentileschi dated to 1611-12, (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples – see fig.1, and Florence, Palazzo Pitti) or quite possibly a print of Elsheimers’s small copper of the same subject. The composition of Guerrieri’s picture is a little less dramatic, but still decidedly Caravaggesque. The realism of the scene is not spared and although one might be tempted to identify the head of Holofernes as a portrait or self-portrait, as was fashionable at that time, the age of the decapitated Holofernes does not match that of the artist and the physiognomy is similar to a type he used for the representation Saint Felice da Cantalice in the church of San Cristoforo dei Valli, in Fossombrone.

Judith was a Jewish patriotic heroine, who was often represented as a symbol of the Hebrew’s struggle against their ancient oppressors. When the Assyrian army laid siege to the Jewish city of Bethulia, whose inhabitants were on the point of capitulating, Judith, a rich and beautiful widow devised a scheme to save them. Adorning herself so as to catch the eye of any man who might seek her, she set off with her maid to the Assyrian lines. By pretending to have deserted her own people, she gained the confidence of Holofernes, the enemy commander and proposed to him a fictitious scheme for betraying the Jews. Holofernes, beguiled by such an obviously beautiful woman, planned a banquet to which she was invited and when they were alone together, meaning to seduce her, he was overcome by the quantity of liquor she plied him with in order to allure him and perfect her scheme of entrapment. Seizing her opportunity, Judith grasped the general’s sword and with two swift blows severed his head, placing it in a sack and returned to the Jewish camp. The news threw the Assyrian army into disarray and they fled pursued by the Israelites.

The Judith was obviously an important commission for Guerrieri because the canvas was inscribed on the reverse to the effect that the painting belonged to Cardinal Gessi. The composition is also somewhat remarkable for its contained scale. Indeed, from a photograph one might be tempted to assume that it was a life-size painting of some 180 centimetres, rather than a cabinet picture. Cardinal Gessi must have been an important patron. He was involved in the sentence that the Church passed on Galileo in conjunction with the cardinal of Ascoli, Cardinal Bentivoglio, Cardinal Verospi, the cardinal of Cremona, Cardinal Ginetti and the cardinal of San Onofrio. The sentence was the result of Galileo’s publication in Florence in 1632 of his masterpiece The Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems, in which three men discuss the relative merits of the Ptolemaen and Copernican systems over a period of four days. This publication led to what has been termed ‘The Inquisition’ in Rome and the sentence against Galileo was handed down on 22 June 1633, in the convent of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

16 x 18 5/8 ins. (40.5 x 47.5 cm.)
Oil on canvas

Andrea Emiliani and Marina Celini, Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri da Fossombrone, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Fano, 1997, page 193, no. A8 illustrated.

Where is It?
Acquired through the Matthiesen Gallery by Norton Museum, Palm Beach
Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Religious: Old Testament
Italian - Other Regions
2001-2001: An Art Odyssey (1500-1720)
Hardbound millennium catalogue with special binding with 58 colour plates and 184 black and white illustrations, 360 pages. £35 or $50 plus p.& p.

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