Women, Sex, and Death: Part I

Aubrey Beardsley, Salome

As an art historian and a feminist, I strangely have never devoted much of my education to the role of women in art.  Well, not too far beyond awareness of evolution in the role of male gaze and the virgin/whore dichotomy. Today, I started thinking about that dichotomy and what correlation it has to women being victimized and making victims of others.

Beautiful women are often causing death in art. I suppose I should go in chronological order, so let’s start with the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Women were not looked at too kindly in that age,  believed to be inherently evil (except for the Madonna, hello dichotomy). Women were mistreated, resented, but also feared. This mix has the interesting result of a fixation on women causing violent death. And not just regular women. Sexually charged women.

Lucas Cranach, Judith

The stories of Judith and Salome exploded in popularity in these eras.

Cranach, Salome

Judith, decapitator of Holofernes, is technically a good guy, but she did use her womanly wiles in order to get a clean cut. Salome, the less righteous of the two, entranced King Herod in order to convince him to behead John the Baptist. Both women are femme fatales of sorts, just with different motivations.  Still, the message is clear:  female sexuality is fatal. The painters of these many iterations are 99.9% male of course. Renaissance depictions of Judith tend to be of the holy temptress gazing calmly at the viewer…oh and there’s a severed head lying around.  Both Cranach and Titian painted many versions of the Judith story – all of them very alike in tone.  Salome gets a similar treatment in this era.

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes

The first artist to depict Judith graphically was Caravaggio. He had always been playing with traditional ideas of decency in his art.  It was he, after all, who used a prostitute as a model for the virgin (dichotomy! drink!). His Judith, while being the most violent, is also the most nuanced. The spurting blood is shocking, but gone is the cool composure of the Renaissance artists. Caravaggio’s Judith looks visibly uncomfortable. His work very much reinforced the character as a biblical heroine:  she’s done two morally ambiguous things (seduction and murder), yet perseveres.

Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes

Remember, most Judith paintings are by men. The most interesting one, however, is by a woman. Artemesia Gentileschi was a female “Carravagisti.” Not only is the cool composure gone in her painting, but it’s swung in the other direction. Judith is not squeamish. In fact, she rather seems to be enjoying the deed. The history is shady, but it’s possible that Gentileschi was raped as a young woman. So she’s turned the myth of the danger of the female sex on it’s head and executed a brutal revenge painting. As opposed to men merely falling into the dangers associated with women, Gentileschi asserts that they totally had it coming.

Regnault, Salome

These women get a more progressive treatment in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Salome actually became the more popular character. It’s interesting that, in an effort to focus on female power, the story that is more morally suspect got the spotlight. Gone are the buttoned up Cranachs and Titians.  The modern era gave Salome a chance to flaunt it. You see, ever since Olympia stared down the male gaze, female sexuality, while not fully celebrated, was given a different sort of respect. French Symbolists, academicians, and everything in between were willing to focus on the mysticism of powerful women for its own sake, not merely as a cautionary tale.  Henri Regnault’s Salome is daring and brazen.  She knows she’s getting what she wants (fun fact:  Regnault also did a Judith, but it’s not as head on).

Moreau, Salome

The most important artist in this evolution of Salome was Gustave Moreau. From The Apparition to Dance of Salome, the Symbolist was seemingly obsessed with the story. I believe this is because it jives with not only Symbolist themes, but themes that were popular in (especially French) painting at the time. Salome is a fine example of both a powerful, dangerous woman – the Symbolists also loved sphinxes – and a biblical tale, both topics that Symbolism is rife with. The subject is also an opportunity for exotic or Orientalist style, a trend that was already well established in the 19th century.  Also, I must point out that Moreau’s paintings involving both Salome and the head of John the Baptist are a wonderful comparison to his 1865 Orpheus, which shows a young, virginal girl gazing unsqueamishly at the head of the musician. Quite the evolution in headlessness.

Klimt, Judith I

While Judith was a bit less popular by the 19th/20th centuries, she certainly got one of the most famous makeovers in art history. Gustav Klimt basically stripped the story of its biblical ties with Judith as a righteous heroine and devoted his piece completely to female sexuality (as Klimt is wont to do). The Renaissance Judiths were serene, Caravaggio’s was uncomfortable, Gentileschi’s appears to be cruel, but with Klimt’s you have know doubt about Judith’s smug triumph. It’s the antiquated notion of female sex come full circle. In the Renaissance and Baroque eras, it was considered dangerous but women were thought to merely be evil without trying. Klimt’s Judith knows exactly what her powers are and she’s willing to use them to her advantage.

From Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard

I’m ending with Catherine Breillat’s film Bluebeard. The progressive and feminist director has a history of portraying female sexuality in controversial ways, but her take of the old fairytale was one of her most subtle and haunting moves. In the story, Bluebeard, a nobleman who kills his wives, marries a young girl. She escapes his cruelty when her brothers kill him in the eleventh. In Breillat’s film, it is the girl herself who beheads Bluebeard. The last shot of the film is pictured above. It’s always struck me as being somewhere in between the confident, adult Judiths of art history and the tender girl who gazes at the head of Moreau’s Orpheus. Take that dichotomies!

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8 Responses to Women, Sex, and Death: Part I

  1. Bryn says:

    The Caravaggio is sort of hilarious to me. The blood is spurting out in this very unrealistic comic-book way.

    There’s this book about Caravaggio I keep meaning to read and this reminded me of it. Anyway…great post! REally enjoyed it.

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  3. Nora says:

    In the Story of Judith slaying Holofernes the history is that the king Holof. is trying to start war with her people so she had promised that she would kill him so she did as you say used her female sexuality to save the lives of her people. Which even though men have paintings of women killing it does bring a certain power to the image of a women. which I love =D

  4. artemesiadescending says:

    “The history is shady…” if by ‘shady’ you mean that the court documents detailing her rape still exist in their entirety and graphically describe her ordeal, then I think you need to read a bio on Gentileschi.

    • Hey,

      Thanks for your correction. Since this is an old post, I’m going to write an edit in a new one.

      In the early days of this site, I was way too excitable when I wrote and I threw AG in as an example. My professor at the time used the word “alleged.” Personally I never doubted she was raped. Renaissance isn’t my favorite jam, alas.

      Thanks again,


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