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Formal Analysis of Judith Beheading Holofernes

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In Judith Beheading Holofernes, created in 1599, Michelangelo Mensi da Caravaggio uses high contrast and vivid lines to capture the dramatic essence of the beheading of Holofernes. In this rectangular oil painting done on canvas measuring 57 inches by 77 inches, the realistic view of the physical and emotional human state is depicted in a vulgar manner. Caravaggio’s painting illustrates a book in the catholic Bible dedicated to Judith in which she depicts an example of courageous love. In order to save her people and represent the Israelites, Judith seduces Holofernes, makes him drunk, and then beheads him. Because she embodies the power of the people of Israel, she is shown higher than the man, contrasting towards the era where females were never seen dominating over males.

The painting is of a close up scene occurring between two females and a male. Behind the people there is a red curtain which is the only visible portion of the background. The rest is in dark shadows, with only the subjects being illuminated. The man is lying on a bed, while the women are standing to the right of him. The woman to the right of the man, Holofernes, is Judith and she is leaning away from him with her right hand holding onto the sword handle as her left hand secures his head in a fixed position. Judith is shown wearing a tan and white dress with sleeves that are rolled up; her strawberry blonde hair pulled back with some loose curls falling down around her face. On the other hand, the woman to her side looks much older because of her wrinkles and appears to be a servant based on her clothing. Furthermore, Holofernes is lying on a bed of white sheets while covered in a dark green and brown blanket from the torso down.

Caravaggio’s baroque style of painting can be characterized by intense light and dark shadows, strong colors, and great drama. For example, he dramatized this scene by using chiaroscuro light effects and naturalism as opposed to stylization. Since the forms appear to be realistic and lifelike, it is apparent that representational content is also included in this artwork because for the most part, the painting has the appearance of observable reality. In addition to this, the implied theatricality of this piece is accomplished by the red draping in the background as if they were on a stage, and the intense expressions on the subjects’ faces portrayed in this scene, as well as the ridiculous lines of bright red blood coming from Holofernes’s head. Contrasting to what was previously mentioned regarding naturalism, the only obvious stylization of this painting is this stringy blood. Not only did Caravaggio use these technical elements of art to compose this theatrical representation but he also heightened the drama by contrasting Judith’s face composed of determination and disgust with Holofernes expression of shock and horror. Even more so, Holofernes defeat was symbolized further with him laying down in a vulnerable position.

Moving on to the composition manipulated in this visual artwork, Caravaggio uses elements such as line, form, and color to create this aesthetic experience. Particularly, the painting is composed to have two distinct parts with the strong diagonal line of Judith’s arms acting as a connecting link between the cause and effect. The forms of the women being the cause, and the man being the effect. The artist uses curved lines and form to keep the direction of the eye into the painting, known as closed composition. Considering this, the figures in the painting have been cut off, mainly showing the upper part of their bodies and once again, directing the focus of the piece. Granted that line is the basic building block of a visual design, Caravaggio executes dynamics in this horizontal painting that elicit a sense of stability and placidity. Such as, the diagonal lines in the structure of Judith, almost centering the painting and creating a harmonious design correlating to the horizontal shape of the art piece. Moreover, the lines are created by color edges that are shaded naturally.

Caravaggio does not use the entire content of the color palette but instead stays on the warmer end of the spectrum with flesh tones, red, and the contrasting use of white. Color is an important aspect of this painting that adds to the overall visual composition. For one thing, colors can have a significance of symbolization. By way of example, the upper portion of Judith’s garment is white and white typically represents innocence which correlates with the expression painted on Judith’s face. She looks very unsure of herself, as if she does not want to decapitate the man but nevertheless is determinated to do so. Another aspect of color in this painting is the vivid use of lighting and effects. The contrast of the light values of the three forms with the dark values of the background puts emphasis on the main figures. Because the background is so dark, it sets the tone for the painting and illuminates the subjects.

Now to explore the principles of the composition, there are two primary focal points in this painting. Judith’s shirt is the first thing your eye is drawn towards in the painting mainly because it is the brightest contrasting color according to its surroundings. The brightness of her flesh and clothing helps give her the main focus, as your eye is then lead to the beheading of the man according to the lines of her arms. Furthermore, the second focal area is Holofernes’s head and neck because of Caravaggio’s use of diagonal lines.

Another element of art that to be analyzed is perspective. Artists use perspective to show the spatial relationships of objects in an artwork. As previously stated, the forms in the foreground of this painting are deeply contrasted with the darkness of the background. Speaking of this, there are various types of perspective that artists use to create a sense of deep space. For this particular painting, one could argue that Caravaggio implements atmospheric perspective because the darkness behind the people can represent that “deep space”. Considering there is nothing visible behind the people other than the dramatic drapery, the background could be perceived as an endless abyss of darkness. In addition to this with regards to perspective, the painting has an asymmetrical balance because there is not an equal amount of items on either side of the central axis. The forms of the two women are placed on one side of the painting while the man is on the other, therefore creating an unbalanced piece of art. Nevertheless, Caravaggio does an excellent job of using artistic elements to bring a timeless and aesthetic piece of art to viewers.

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