Jonathan Jones in The Guardian:
Two women are holding a man down on a bed. One presses her fist against his head, so he can’t raise it from the mattress, while her companion pins his torso in place. They are well-built with powerful arms but even so it takes their combined strength to keep their victim immobilised as one of them cuts through his throat with a gleaming sword. Blood spurts from deep red geysers as she saws. She won’t stop until his head is fully severed. Her victim’s eyes are wide open. He knows exactly what is happening to him.
The dying man is Holofernes, an enemy of the Israelites in the Old Testament, and the young woman beheading him is Judith, his divinely appointed assassin. Yet at the same time he is also an Italian painter called Agostino Tassi, while the woman with the sword is Artemisia Gentileschi, who painted this. It is, effectively, a self-portrait.
Two big, blood-drenched paintings of Judith and Holofernes by Gentileschi survive, one in the Capodimonte in Naples, the other in the Uffizi in Florence. They are almost identical except for small details – in Naples Judith’s dress is blue, in Florence yellow – as if this image was a nightmare she kept having, the final act to a tragedy endlessly replaying in her head.
“This is the ring you gave me and these are your promises!” yelled Gentileschi as she was tortured in a Rome courtroom in 1612. Ropes were wrapped around her fingers and pulled tight. The judge had advised moderate use of the sibille, as this torture was called, for she was after all 18. Across the court sat the man who had raped her. No one thought of torturing him. Defiantly, Gentileschi told him her thumbscrews were the wedding ring he’d promised. Again and again, she repeated that her testimony about the rape was reliable: “It is true, it is true, it is true, it is true.”
Gentileschi was the greatest female artist of the baroque age and one of the most brilliant followers of the incendiary artist Caravaggio, whose terrifying painting of Judith and Holofernes influenced hers.