Unrequited love got you down? The girl in the corner cubicle still not notice you? Nothing in the in-box? Finding romance requires nerves of steel and you’ll need to keep your head about you. In correlation to my concurrent exhibitions “Color of Love” and “Head” I explore love gone awry – awfully awry – in the intersection where heart meets head. Artists Caravaggio and Artemesia Gentileschi, our masters of spin, record the ultimate anti-climax. “Swipe right” becomes a double entendre.
“Swipe right” becomes a double entendre.
Extended foreplay? Smoke and mirrors? Bad-ass babes? It’s in there. We turn our attention to no other source than – the Bible. Stay with me, here.
“…One of the most popular bits of scientific misinformation… is the notion that the female praying mantis always cannibalizes the head of her mate post-coitus… Female praying mantids often decapitate and ingest the heads of their mates after copulation, a phenomenon biologists refer to as “sexual cannibalism.”
– Critter Country
Occurrences in human nature ofttimes mimic behavior in the natural realm with fatal consequences. Not every encounter proves lucrative for males determined to continue their progeny. It’s a tale of bait and switch for the pillaged unsuspecting male left undone, unnerved and simply outclassed by the sexually dominant female hellbent for spoils of war. Is there an Assyrian general to dismantle? There’s nothing that a little cleavage and a dab of perfume can’t fix. Is there a pestering prophet airing dirty laundry? There’s nothing that a little leg and the batting eyelash can’t overcome. It’s par for the course for steely operatives whose weapon of choice is the sword. As the saying goes: “it’s slice and dice”. Men of rank are lulled into compromising positions and the what-could-have-been slides desperately into tales from the cutting block.
It’s par for the course for steely operatives whose weapon of choice is the sword.
Caravaggio, a miscreant in real life, captures such a scene in Judith Beheading Holofernes ca.1602 (above). The beautiful widow (Judith 13) saves the Jewish nation from capitulating to the Assyrian army general Holofernes, a man hellbent on world domination. Planning a ruse, Judith dresses “to entice the eyes of all who might see her”. Spinning tales about the Jewish nation, she worms her way into his presence and reveals just enough information to be believed. Judith makes herself alluringly available. She deploys her beauty and perfumed body knowing that the success of her ruse depends on her ability to arouse. In the intimate seduction banquet scene set in Holofernes’ tent, Judith simply reclines on lambskins, nibbles her food brought from Bethulia, and flatters the general by telling him “today is the greatest day of my whole life…”. She possesses such a gullible façade that Holofernes, beset with lust, drinks himself into a stupor. Finding her opportunity, Judith confiscates his sword and beheads him in two quick strokes.
Caravaggio uses chiaroscuro to reveal a spectrum of variegated emotions.
Caravaggio uses chiaroscuro to reveal a spectrum of variegated emotions. Light envelopes our characters in a death lock while Holofernes looks up, his mouth agape, eyes locked on his annihilator. Judith hangs back repulsed while her maidservant glowers. The general is emasculated. Blood spews forth. A manifold tangle of crimson drapery unfurls above like a hemorrhage. The fact that Holofernes is butchered with his own sword, in his own tent, surrounded by his own army makes the case more audacious. Judith reverses roles and brandishes a phallic sword.
Caravaggio places his actors in a manner to heighten the drama. Darkness cuts a deep swath across the canvas. Compositionally, the lines of drapery, bed linens, blood splatter and body language form an X across the work. A triangle of faces keeps the eye in play while the round swoop of Judith’s garment keeps the eye encircling her.
Left: “Artemisia Gentileschi “Judith and Her Maidservant” ca. 1618-19 Oil On Canvas 44 7/8 x 36 in. Piazza Pitti, Florence, Italy
Artemisia Gentileschi, in “Judith and Her Maidservant” 1613- 1614 illustrates both women distracted by an outside source. Whereas a male painter would have painted the women sporting their trophy in triumph, Artemisia paints with a sensitivity to the female plight. This is a hush-hush moment and body language conveys an interruption. Bright lights cascade on Judith while the forlorn head of Holofernes lies ashen in a basket. The movement of drapery from her maidservant’s turban creates visual drama. Her garment burns bright yellow, the color of rebirth, in the eyes of 17th century viewers. Gentilieschi’s is clearly a student of Caravaggio.
Caravaggio ”The Beheading of St. John the Baptist” ca. 1608 Oil on Canvas 370 cm × 520 cm St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Italy
Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, is another man compromised by a woman’s charms in Mark 6:21–29 and Matthew 4:6-11. He had imprisoned John the Baptist for reproving his marriage to his brothers’ wife, Herodias. John’s reprimands of the couple made for bad public relations. Herodias, wishing to silence the prophet, finds an opportunity on the night of Herod’s birthday; she schemes to have her daughter Salome dance before the king and his dinner guests. The young teenager – a flowering bud of youth – dances evocatively. She flirts with her eyes, prances about dropping scarves, and gyrates in half dress. She is utter spectacle bedecked in feathers and bangles. Salome dances herself into a frenzy and drips with sweat. Herod, inflamed with lust, impulsively swears an oath:
“Ask me for whatever you want, and I will give it to you…up to half my kingdom!”
When Salome asks her mother what her request should be, Herodias replies: “The head of John the Baptist”. Caravaggio takes it from there:
In “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist” ca. 1608, the scene in a courtyard is enveloped in darkness. A shaft of light reveals a circle of figures. A swordsman holds down the head of the Baptist while the one lone figure holds her head in horror. She echoes the grief of the viewer. John is mercilessly butchered on a cold surface among strangers. A young woman offers a basket while another points to the charger. A lone figure to the right watches, far removed. It’s an ignominious end for the brilliant prophet once so outspoken and eloquent. John is the consequence of a ruse and an impulsive oath made by a man undone by the gyrations of an erotic dancer.
Our heroines were the progenitors of “bad-ass” and “swipe-right” long before the phrases entered our cultural jargon. No whimpering male sidelined the alpha female in her quest for dominance. Men became collateral damage. Judith and Salome hustled calculated moves deploying weapons of choice to claim the upper hand – or head. Whereas Holofernes and Herod may have incorrectly calibrated the air as foreplay, these women knew enough about the male libido to catapult themselves into their own happy ending.