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Schneider, L. (1976). Donatello and Caravaggio: The Iconography of Decapitation. Am. Imago, 33(1):76-91.

(1976). American Imago, 33(1):76-91

Donatello and Caravaggio: The Iconography of Decapitation

Laurie Schneider, Ph.D.

“To decapitate,” wrote Freud in 1922, “= to castrate.” He was speaking of one of the ways in which unconscious thinking is symbolically transformed into the words and thoughts of the conscious mind. The truth of his statement now receives wider acceptance than originally and is borne out by the many examples in art and literature where amorous or erotic content occurs together with decapitation. The Biblical story of John the Baptist and the apocryphal story of Judith and Holofernes are two such instances. In both, a woman takes revenge on a man by arranging his decapitation. John the Baptist lost his head at the behest of Salome's mother, Herodias, because he objected to her incestuous affair with Herod. Holofernes lost his head through the seductive wiles of Judith in much the same way as Samson was relieved of his hair by Delilah. Artists frequently allude to the erotic overtones inherent in these stories, formally or iconographically or both. All three of these standard sources of Christian iconography involve conflicts between men and women.

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