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Off with Their Heads!

Things are getting grim and grisly here at the Art Institute of Chicago. Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, has been the star of the show, but it is not the only work in the collection that features spurting blood and severed heads. This Halloween, check out some of the gory and gruesome images of decapitation at the Art Institute.

Artists often depict different interpretations of the same biblical stories, infusing in them their own sense of style and drama. In addition to the tale of Judith, the story of St. John the Baptist and Salome has long been a popular subject for painters. In this story, Salome dances for her stepfather Herod who rewards her with the fulfillment of any request. Per the wish of her mother, she asks for the head of John the Baptist. In the painting below by Guido Reni, we see a rather demure Salome being presented with the decapitated head.


A more graphic interpretation of the same story by artist Giovanni di Paolo comes from a series of paintings illustrating John the Baptist’s life. In this much bloodier version, we see the moment immediately following the beheading, as the executioner sheaths his sword and blood gushes from his body.

John the Baptist

In Arms and Armor you can see all kind of deadly weapons. You can also imagine how they might have been used to make heads roll, such as in this medieval Netherlandish painting, Emperor Heraclius Slays the King of Persia.


Although these jars don’t appear sinister, don’t be fooled. The museum has a collection of pottery and stoneware from Nazca in Peru with painted “trophy heads.” Many of the pots feature warriors and demons clutching the heads of their enemies.

Effigy jar

Vessel Depicting Warrior

19th century French painters found severed heads a delightful subject for still life. Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault’s Head of a Guillotined Man shows just how dark the French Revolution could be, and Gustave Caillebotte’s Calf's Head and Ox Tongue is a chilling departure from his usual subjects of street scenes.

Head of Guillotined Man


These are just some of the gory and grisly works that can be found at the Art Institute. What are some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments. And don’t lose your head this Halloween!

—Nina Litoff, Public Affairs

Image Credits:

Guido Reni, Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, c. 1639/42. Louise B. and Frank H. Woods Purchase Fund.

Giovanni di Paolo, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1455/60. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

Nazca, South coast, Peru. Effigy Drum in the Form of a Masked Warrior Holding Trophy Heads and Darts, 180 B.C./A.D. 500. Kate S. Buckingham Endowment.

Nazca, South coast, Peru. Vessel Depicting a Masked Warrior Holding Trophy Heads, 180 B.C./A.D. 500. Kate S. Buckingham Endowment.

Emperor Heraclius Slays the King of Persia, 1460/80. George F. Harding Collection.

Gustave Caillebotte, Calf's Head and Ox Tongue, c. 1882. Major Acquisitions Centennial Endowment.

Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault, Head of a Guillotined Man, 1818/19. Through prior gift of William Wood Prince; L. L. and A. S. Coburn Endowment; Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection.