In these two images illustrating a vivid and memorable Biblical tale, the artists have used lighting, costume, stance and pose, setting, color, size of image, and choice of model to convey two rather different views of the story. The D’Arpino is very nearly pornographic when viewed with a full knowledge of the narrative on which it is based (d’Arpino). The figure in Sherman’s Untitled is modestly attired, but her presentation of self is subtly suggestive (Sherman).
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While both figures have accomplished the deed, the artist’s choices focus our attention on two different points in the story, and thus present the subject disparately. D’Arpino’s Judith is clearly a victim, albeit victorious. Sherman’s unnamed female, while in a pose that clearly evokes Judith, is serene and moving on to the next step in her quest for the liberation of Israel, but her power is contradicted by the pose of her head and the extremity of her makeup.
D’Arpino has elected to portray Judith just after she hacks off Holofernes’ head. He is portrayed as a bodiless old man, graying and balding. This implies ancient leering lechery and perhaps even sexual ineffectualness. However, whether he is a candidate for Viagra or not, he has managed to rumple her a good deal in their encounter before he passed out. Her garments are nearly pulled off her on one side. Her hair’s elaborate and decorative ‘do’ has been disarranged and tendrils hang down. All her finery and clothes are still pulled askew from Holofernes’ unwelcome attentions.
She looks away from his head, not, clearly, out of disgust or squeamishness, because she is still sturdily holding the bloodied sword that ended his life. She does not hold the sword as a man and soldier would, but she clearly was able to make it work. She grasps Holofernes’ hair firmly, as well, the way one would hold a chicken after wringing its neck.
The viewer is naturally led to wonder what she is, indeed, scrutinizing off to stage left. Perhaps she is looking for the door of the tent, or perhaps she is turning around to hand it to her maid, a likely role for the turbaned woman casting her eyes up behind her in shock, thanksgiving, horror, admiration, or possibly all of these. The biblical story says that she tore the canopy of his bed down and tumbled his body onto the ground (The Holy Bible Judith 13:9). Perhaps her pose means that she is looking over at his dead body, and planning to steal the bed canopy to show to the Israelites (The Holy Bible Judith 13:15).
Whatever her motivation, this pose gives D’Arpino a chance to show her rounded youthful neck, shoulders, and décolletage to full advantage. He highlights her hair, twisted with a ribbon and pearls, and her ear with its earring. The pose allows him to show how violently Holofernes pulled and ripped at her sleeve, which is down nearly to her elbow. This all makes her seem more of a victim, and gives the viewer a voyeuristic thrill of sympathy or possibly, if the viewer is male, of desire.
The dishabille of Judith also throws into question the veracity of her story later when she claims that she was able to do this without being defiled by Holofernes. She claims this in verse 16 of Chapter 13, apparently feeling the need to mention this in the same sentence with her assertion that she had killed him. It seems as though D’Arpino wants the viewer to doubt whether she could have gotten to this point without having been forced into some activity that would shame her.
The lighting is heavily dramatic, with highlights appearing out of nowhere to strike her maid’s turban. The contrast of dark and light places her colorful costume in sharp relief. This, too, emphasizes and draws attention to the fact that this is all happening at night in the dark when no one is chaperoning her. This is the time of day associated with all things hidden, naughty, and illicit.
All this is why this painting has a faint air of pornography about it. At one and the same time, it celebrates and undercuts her heroism. It calls into question the miracle of her deliverance without being subjected to successful rape.
Sherman’s female figure, on the other hand, is fully put back together after her murder of Holofernes. A viewer unfamiliar with the Biblical story could be excused for inferring that she never was in any danger of having her virtue attacked.
Her calm and collected stance suggests that she never was molested further than taking off her sandals. Alternatively, perhaps we are to infer that she wanted to make sure that no whisper of scandal touched her, and that she took the time to rearrange herself before exiting the makeshift tent to carry the head and the canopy off. After all, when she displays the severed head to an audience of stunned and cowed Israelites, she wants to be seen as a heroine, not as someone to be stoned for fornication. In either case, her fully clothed state suggests a greater dignity, but not necessarily a greater courage.
Sherman dresses hers model (herself, of course) in multiple layers of satin, wrapped and pinned together and unapologetically missing any without hems, much like in a low-rent Christmas pageant. She gives the impression of pregnancy so often seen in early Renaissance paintings, by wrapping the fabric around her loins.
She achieves a measure of grandeur for Holofernes by giving his tent the Martha Stewart treatment with rich fabrics draped to excess. This splashy decor somewhat offsets the fact that Holofernes is represented by a Halloween fright mask.
Sherman herself has adopted the eyebrow-less, rosebud mouthed, wide-eyed look of Boticelli models. Her elaborate maquillage reflects the Biblical story of Judith putting on her finery and bedecking herself. The Biblical account says that she, “put off the garments of her widowhood, and washed her body all over with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment, and braided the hair of her head, and put on a tire upon it” (The Holy Bible Judith 10:3). Both the extreme and very artificial makeup and/or depilitation that the artist has perpetrated on herself are subtly suggestive. They imply a child-woman with no eyebrows and a tiny child’s mouth and a perpetual expression of surprise or sexual pleasure.
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The Sherman figure of Judith (or approximation thereof) stares out at the camera and the viewer without fuss, her carefully turbaned head tilted off to the side. The viewer might ask whether she is asking for approval, or even being a bit flirtatious. She holds the weapon loosely, displaying its bloody state as well as the head.
The lighting of the photo is unsparing and nearly garish. The size is greater than life-size, which would increase its impact and give it a rather heroic status.
Both these images portray a woman who has just done something horrific and heroic, who now is moving on to the next inspired action on the way to her destiny. However, it seems possible that D’Arpino is exploiting the story to titillate his viewers in a sort of 17th century version of a pinup poster. Sherman, on the other hand is taking a more solidly feminist approach, while at the same time, making fun of the exploitative images of females the past and the present. Why, after all, must the liberator of Israel (or Venus) have a Cupid’s bow mouth and china doll eyebrows? Sherman is playing with these images to make a point.
It seems that D’Arpino was playing with images as well, but with a perhaps more commercial purpose. His Judith is both heroine and object of wonder and desire for all men who view her, just as the Bible describes her effect on Holofernes’ soldiers (The Holy Bible Judith 10:14). D’Arpino, however, may be doing Judith a disservice by suggestively over-emphasizing her victimhood rather than her heroism. In this regard, Sherman takes the feminist high ground.
d’Arpino, Cavaliere. Judith with the Head of Holofernes. Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley. 2011.
Sherman, Cindy. “Untitled #228.” 1990. Web.
The Holy Bible. “The Book of Judith.” 2011. etext.virginia.edu. Web.