Ever since Roberto Longhi and Sir Dennis Mahon began scouring museum cellars for the works of Michelangelo Merisi, a.k.a. Caravaggio, who by then had fallen into obscurity, the rediscovery of a Caravaggio canvas has been the secret dream of anyone who finds a dark, dusty work in an attic. These two art historians renewed Caravaggio’s fame in the 1950s while the 1993 rediscovery of the Taking of Christin an Irish refectory made the renegade 17th-century painter a 21st-century superstar.
Since then Caravaggio paintings seem to lurk around every corner. In 2014, an art historian foundMary Magdalen in Ecstasyin a private collection, and then a “secret stash” of his drawings appeared in 2012. The Martyrdom of St Lawrence briefly made news in 2010 and in 2005, another would-be copy, this time of the Incredulity of St Thomas, was found in Trieste.
Now, there are undoubtedly plenty of Caravaggios gone missing and some perhaps left to be found, but in the case of last week’s announcement of the rediscovery of a second version by Caravaggio — of his celebrated 1598 Judith and Holofernes — found in a French attic, and potentially worth $136 million, one might want to wait a minute before breaking out the bubbly.
The Judith and Holofernes presented by art dealer Eric Turquin to the press last week was found while making ceiling repairs to a French farmhouse in 2014. For two years, said Turquin, the painting has undergone several tests to identify its creator. While several experts lean toward a Flemish painter named Louis Finson, who made many copies of Caravaggio’s work, including a Madonna of the Rosary and a documented but lost Judith and Holofernes, Dr. Nicola Spinosa, the former director of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, has backed Caravaggio as the author. On the other hand, celebrated art historian Mina Gregori, who also found a “lost Caravaggio,” claims it is not.
While I enjoy a good art history cage fight as much as the next man, a ground rule or two might be in order. For example, Mr. Turquin could be a little less cagey about the tests done on the work. In the original Judith and Holofernes, Caravaggio made incisions to mark the placement of his models. This was necessary as he drew very little. In some later works when he was working from memory he did not, but the woman in the French work has never appeared in his oeuvre so she would be a new model. Incisions in the canvas would be evidence in favor.
The type of canvas could also be very telling, as Caravaggio used different canvases after he escaped from Rome in 1606, producing a grainier look. Turquin suggested that the dates given for his painting span 1600-1610 (i.e., from the year after he made the first Judith to his death). Identifying the canvas would assist in understanding if this was the painting of Judithdocumented as produced by Caravaggio for the Grand Knight of Malta after his fall from grace with him in 1608.
In addition, Turquin’s statement that the work is “without mistakes” must give Caravaggio experts pause. The alla prima technique used by Caravaggio of applying paint directly on the canvas without preliminary drawings resulted in a sense of energy and spontaneity in his pictures but also quite a few pentimenti or mistakes. Inerrancy was never a mark of the master.
And then there is the issue of the Judith of the French painting, who appears to be a portrait of a woman dressed in contemporary widow’s wear, looking out at the viewer. In all of Caravaggio’s extant work, there is only one occasion of a woman looking out at the viewer, the portrait of the courtesan Fillide destroyed in 1945. All other women, including Salome bearing the head of John the Baptist or a female bystander in the Supper of Emmaus, keep their eyes demurely downcast. Plenty of men look out at the viewer: tipsy Bacchus, dreamy musicians and youthful John the Baptist, but no women. While Caravaggio had no qualms about breeching protocol, this just wasn’t his style.
But the real caveat with this work is the storytelling. Turquin triumphantly described the work as “the utmost of a Counter-Reformation picture, and it cannot be made by anybody else other than Caravaggio.”
Judith and Holofernes became one of the most popular subjects of Counter Reformation art. The Old Testament story of a beautiful Jewish widow, who, accompanied by her maidservant outwitted the Assyrian general Holofernes intent on the massacre of her people, extolled the power of virtue and faithfulness against arrogance and vice. The triumphant heroine who kept her head through displays of violence, panic, intemperance and lust, and saved the day by killing her drunken foe, was so beloved that she was considered a precursor to the heroic fiat of the Blessed Virgin and was often depicted to foreshadow her Immaculate Conception.
During the Counter Reformation, the story told in the book of Judith, rejected by the Protestant editions of the Bible, was above all a tale of humanity’s active battle with evil, emphasizing the need for cooperation with grace as upheld by the Catholic Church in the Council of Trent. The graphic, brutal battle between good and evil was well suited to Caravaggio’s temper and tastes, and it is no wonder that this work, painted for Ottavo Costa, cemented Caravaggio’s name among elite collectors.
Caravaggio’s Judith is staged before a red curtain, the first time he would use this theatrical device — it would appear again in the Madonna of the Rosary (briefly in Finson’s possession) and in the Death of the Virgin. In all three cases, it serves as a partial backdrop, allowing for his signature shadowy spaces or, in the case of his Judith, framing only Holofernes and leaving Judith in splendid luminous isolation. The French work simply drapes the red cloth all along the back, which fails to contribute to the dramatic effect.
While both works capture Holofernes in similar positions, Caravaggio’s realistically upturned eyes and gaping mouth almost seems to illustrate the line of St Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, “Woe to those who die in mortal sin.” Caravaggio’s general seems shocked at his own helplessness, while the other work shows gritted teeth and eyes narrowed in rage. Although both contorted bodies suggest a preview of the torments that await him, Caravaggio’s also offers a lesson.
Caravaggio’s Judith is a magnificent heroine, a glorious expression of reluctance and determination, worthy of Achilles, Odysseus or even our Lord in the Agony of the Garden. The precursor of the bewildered tax collector of his next great work, the Calling of St. Matthew, Judith pulls away, arching her body backwards, and yet is drawn forward by the bright, supernatural light that guides her.
The mastery of both the natural and the artificial here makes for epic storytelling. The gaping space between Judith and her victim would be impossible in a real assassination as would the wielding of a sword with arms extended straight out. But the rigid arms imply certainty while the dress swept away from the blood and the furrowed brow suggest the distaste she has for this sordid duty. Holiness is hard and messy work, it seems.
The contrast between the maid — two-dimensional and ghoulishly fixated on the grisly scene — and the delicate Judith, in her pristine linens and soft auburn curls, comes straight from the Leonardo da Vinci playbook — strong contrasts create greater drama. None of these techniques are present in the French work. The other old woman, with a hideously distracting goiter interrupts the battle by standing between the two. Judith, albeit equally unrealistic in her swordsmanship, seems to be posing as she looks coyly at the viewer, perhaps suggesting that he could be next.
The 17th-century viewer would have recalled how many of these images were personal portraits. Michelangelo seems to have put his own portrait in the severed head on a platter in his Sistine Judith and Christopher Allori’s version painted Judith as his mistress, himself as the general and her mother as the angry maid. The universal message is even more lost in the French version and the great heroic tale turns to a sordid curiosity.
Caravaggio would catapult from his Judith to the Stories of Matthew, The Martyrdom of St. Peter and the Conversion of Saul — he would leave behind his provocative Bacchuses and engage almost exclusively in sacred subjects for the rest of his short life. It is hard to believe that the man who told epic tales of good and evil would slip into the trite so easily.
So, all in all, the case has yet to be made that the newly discovered work came from the celebrated mind and hand of Caravaggio. While the artist displays great talent in foreshortening and a certain dexterity with the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, there is no reason to lose our heads just yet.
Art historian Elizabeth Lev teaches Baroque and Renaissance Art History at Duquesne University’s Italian campus.