Judith with the head of Holofernes
by Francesco del Cairo, Italian 1607-1665
SN 798 Oil on Canvas 1630-35

by Robert Anderson. 2000

Francesco Cairo led a successful career as court painter at Turin and painted many large altarpieces for religious orders. The range of his stylistic development during nearly forty years is enormous, yet his early cabinet pictures of macabre and morbid subjects , remain his most fascinating achievement. They mark the end of the brilliant originality and passionate feeling that had distinguished early 17th century Milanese painting.

His paintings show a fascination with the bizarre. Subjects center on martyrs, swooning saints and tragic heroines who are treated with a histrionic intensity. This penchant for morbid themes and extreme emotions reflects a violent temperament peculiar to the Baroque. His earlier works represent mystical visions with intense emotion, dramatic lighting and richly worked surfaces. Paintings of a series of tragic heroines reveals a morbid fascination with violence and death.The executioner plunges his knife into the pallid breast of an ecstatic St. Agnes; in a disturbingly erotic work, a richly jewelled Herodias, veiled in dark shadows, half swoons in rapture or anguish over the lurid head of the dead Baptist - the senses are often pushed beyond the limits of reason.

Cairo was involved in a homicide, much like Caravaggio, and was forced to flee Lombardy for Turin where he was, however, knighted in 1632 and made a court painter a year later.After 1937 he spent time in Rome where he was influenced by the grand decorative style and warm Venetian color of Pietro di Cortona and the glowing surfaces and tender sentiment of Castiglione and van Dyk. He worked for a wide market and enjoyed handsome financial and social rewards but his best works date from before 1645, when a slackening of inspiration becomes evident.

This is the story from the Apocraphal book of Judith which tells how Judith, a beautiful and devout widow, saves the Israelite town of Bethulia from Nebuchadnezzar's army under the command of Holofernes. After donning her finest clothes she pretends to defect to the invading Assyrians and is taken to Holofernes, whom she flatters and who is captivated by her beauty and her promise to help him overcome Israeli resistance. One evening after some late night entertainment at a banquet Holofernes lies in a drunken stupor. Judith takes his own sword and cuts off his head. She calls her maid - they stuff the head into a food bag and escape back to the town of Bethulia.

When the head was displayed to the Assyrian army from the city walls of Bethulia, the invaders fled and were cut down by the Israeli soldiers.

Judith was then blessed by the high priest and the senate in Jerusalem. She was called the exaltation of Jerusalem, the great glory of Israel and the great boast of the nation. Never again in Judith's time did the Israelites fear foreign aggression.

The painting depicts Judith in a low cut seductive black dress and an elaborate headdress at the moment she has called her maid - just before they stuff the head into a bag to be carried back to their people. The maid is seen at Judith's right in a brown robe, looking askance - perhaps in awe of the act which Judith has committed. An impassive Judith looks directly out at the viewer with her hand still on the hilt of the sword . It appears that her look indicates a certain defiance and some satisfaction with her action.

Cairo has shrouded the scene in mystery by adopting the dark style of Il Cereno, the most inluential Milanese painter of the early seventeenth century. The effect is heightened by a softening of the contours in a Leonardesque haze. The picture achieves a curious sensuousness in the contrast of the whiteness of Judith's flesh against the sea of black. The coloristic accent provided by the exotic turban completes the air of intrigue and seduction.

Historical Context:
The aggression of Nebuchadnezzar's army held a particular terror for Israel at this time. They had just recently been returned to their homeland after years in captivity and were in the process of establishing their nation after a long absence. They feared particularly for the temple of the Lord their God and the sacred dishes, altar and temple which had been consecrated after their profanation.

The God of Israel was seen as a God that would not forgive an action which would lead to the capture of the nation. Judith strengthened the resolve of the citizens of Bethulia by reminding them that if Bethulia were taken, all Judea would be taken, and the sanctuary would be plundered. If this happened God would hold them responsible for the profanation of it, and they would become an offense and reproach in the sight of the Lord. Even in slavery they would no longer be favored by God.