This extraordinary gory painting, possibly by Caravaggio, was found in an attic in the French city of Toulouse a couple of years ago, but not presented to the public until yesterday.
It’s fascinating that it should be revealed at just this time of retrogrades, a time of retrieval — perhaps especially because of the subject matter. Mars, the sanguinary planet of blades, turns retrograde in a few days and is currently stationing in Sagittarius. Saturn, also in Sagittarius, turned back at the end of March. So this is a time of looking back — and of publishing things that have been hidden e.g. the Panama Papers.
This is a picture of Judith beheading Holofernes, a story from the Apocrypha. Judith’s village Bethulia was about to be ravaged by the invading Assyrian army. The villagers were terrified and ready to capitulate, but Judith, a beautiful widow, with the help of her servant, inveigled her way into the general Holofernes’ tent — and here, when he is drunk, she cuts off his head. Her maidservant holds open a bag, ready to catch the head. The village will be saved. The Assyrians will disperse and Judith will live happily ever after.
She is the “noble” face of the same archetype as “wicked” Salomé, who is often depicted with a severed head. Judith, however, usually has a servant with her and tends to have more clothes on.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see this as a story of castration — and it’s been a favourite topic of artists for generations. Judith’s sexual power pulses in some depictions. (It’s important that she is a widow — therefore implicitly a sexually experienced woman.)
And then, of course, there is Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous depiction of the scene. She was a contemporary of Caravaggio and uses similarly dramatic lighting and realism. The struggle, the sweat, the snapping sinews, the straining muscles, and the blood burst out of her canvas. It’s a brutal depiction of two strong young women working together to behead a giant of a man. Gentileschi was famous in her own time for having the temerity to take her rapist to court, and get him convicted.
Holofernes is, of course, Mars. Mars is the soldier’s god. He is defeated in the story by his own drunkenness and arrogance and Judith’s stealth and charm.
You couldn’t choose a better story for the current astrology. Martial virtues such as bravery, straight-shooting, order and strength are not going to get us very far while Mars retrogrades.
Mars Rx — April 17-June 30 in Sagittarius and Scorpio
Mars into Scorpio — May 27
Mars direct — June 30
Mars back into Sagittarius — August 2
Mars out of the shadow — August 22
Mars is weak for the next 80 days. But when he comes out of the shadow in August, watch out. He will hurtle forward like a rock from a slingshot. And when he does that he will be conjunct stony Saturn.
An outstanding feature of the new Caravaggio is the gaze of Judith. She looks coolly at you, the viewer, her lips a little pursed with concentration. Her gaze draws us into the vivid scene and makes us complicit in murder. Will you keep your mouth shut? Or will you raise the alarm before she is finished?
Caravaggio depicted the beheading in another painting, using what looks like the same model. Again, Judith frowns with concentration (and possibly disgust) as she saws through Holofernes neck. Of course, Caravaggio and Gentileschi lived in a particularly brutal period. Both would have been familiar with the sight and sound of knife meeting flesh and bone. Nevertheless, their Baroque imagining of the scene is exceptionally visceral.
But if Mars Rx is Holofernes, who are Judith and her maidservant, performing this gruesome but necessary task? Interestingly — and not coincidentally, when this painting was revealed to the public yesterday, Venus, the beautiful woman, was in Aries, the sign of the warrior, and exactly trining Mars. Today, she is walking away from her wounded lover, leaving his body to bleed into the sand.
Boiled down to its bare bones, the story of Judith is a parable about Venus and Mars, love and war, feminine and masculine — and the importance of choosing the precise moment. An entire army can be defeated when a woman picks exactly the right to time to knife the general.
You may be wondering where that dark shadow of the feminine, Salomé/Lilith, is right now. She is opposite the Sun, in Venus’s own sign Libra.
PS If this painting does turn out to be a fake — what could be more retrogrades than that?