Art and Science: Galilean Influences in Artemisia’s ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’
On the 15th of February 1564, the Italian astronomer, philosopher, mathematician and physicist Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, Italy. Often considered the father of science, Galileo established a new perception of the physical world. Fascinated by the invention of telescope, he constructed one himself and conducted observation of such celestial bodies as the Moon, Jupiter and its four moons, Venus, Saturn, Neptune, Milky Way, and various stars. This allowed him to discover certain law of interdependences between planets and stars, which led him on to support the Copernican heliocentric system. These claims turned him into the subject of major criticism from the Church. Tried by the Holy Office and found guilty of heresy, he was forced to spend the last years of his life under house arrest.
In 1638, Galileo published Two New Sciences, the work compiling his lifetime research on kinematics and strength of materials. “Unlike the “natural philosophers” of his day, who searched for “causes” of phenomena, Galileo maintained that a mathematical description of the world was the primary aim of science. The book of nature, as he said metaphorically, was written in mathematical characters. Thus, for example, instead of asking why a heavy object falls to earth, he began with the fact that it does so and rather asked how it falls; this led to his discovery of the law of acceleration – specifically that an object falls independently of its weight, and the distance fallen is proportional to the square of its time of descent. The other key discovery that followed from these laws… is that the path of a projectile is a parabola.” (David Topper and Cynthia Gillis, Trajectories of Blood: Artemisia Gentileschi and Galileo’s Parabolic Path, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1996). It seems that the latter discovery attracted the attention of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi, the first female member of the Florentine Accademia del Disegno, who at some point befriended the great scientist.
According to David Topper and Cynthia Gillis, Artemisia’s first experience of the application of Galileo’s theories in visual arts happened in 1611 in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, where she saw Lodovico Cigoli’s depiction of the Assumption of the Virgin on the dome of the Pauline Chapel. The crescent moon, under the feet of the Virgin, with its rough surface and uneven shadows, was reminiscent of Galileo’s ground-breaking telescopic discoveries on the appearance of the Moon. A year after this experience, around 1612, Artemisia and Galileo met in person, and continued their friendship over the years.
Galileo’s influence on Artemisia’s work is quite visible in her Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620-1), in which the arc of Holofernes’ spurting blood illustrates the unpublished discovery of the parabolic law of projectiles by Galileo. Even though Galileo’s Two New Sciences was not going to be published until 1638, it has been proven that the ideas described in it were formed by Galileo at least forty years prior to their eventual publication, and could have been known by Artemisia as well. “In retrospect, Galileo’s law seems simple enough: a projectile follows a symmetrical arc specifically shaped according to the basic curve from Euclidean geometry. But, in fact, it took almost 2000 years for the parabola to rise out of the ashes of Aristotle’s theory of projectile motion. In Galileo’s time it still was generally thought that the flight of a cannonball began as a relatively straight line at the angle at which it was shot; then, after losing its “impetus” (its quality of motion, rather like momentum today), it made a short arc, after which it fell straight down to earth.’ It was the symmetrical form of Artemisia’s rendering of the streams of blood that initially suggested a possible link with Galileo. Following up this observation, we made tracings of the geometrical paths of the blood…; these were then transferred to graph paper, where the forms revealed a close approximation of true parabolas.'” Since the streams of blood were probably painted freehand (perhaps copied from some more geometrically accurate drawings), their extreme proximity to actual parabolas cannot be accidental. Artemisia, it seems, indeed did paint parabolic trajectories of blood in the… Judith Beheading Holofernes.” (Topper, Gillis).
Consequently, the Galilean theories found their application in Artemisia’s work, confirming even further the principle of the law of interdependences, be it – between celestial bodies, physical objects, or in a more abstract way, between science and art.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653): Giuditta decapita Oloferne (Judith and Holofernes, 1620 – 1621, oil on canvas. 199 cm (78.3 in) x 162.5 cm (64 in), Uffizi Gallery, Florence