Art

How Judith Beheading Holofernes Became Art History’s Favorite Icon of Female Rage

Judith and Holofernes
Artemisia Gentileschi
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Not only a tale of the Israelites’ heroism against their oppressors, the biblical Book of Judith also contains one of the most beloved subjects in art history: the titular heroine choreographically decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes.
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As the ancient story relates, Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar sent his general Holofernes to besiege the Jewish city of Bethulia. Judith, described as a beautiful young widow, resolves to save her people by slaying Holofernes herself. After reciting a long prayer to God, she dons her finest clothes in order to seduce him. After Holofernes has drank enough wine to become intoxicated, Judith decapitates him with his own sword, winning a decisive victory for the Israelites.
Judith is not the only biblical heroine to commit such bloody acts for the sake of her tribe. In the Book of Judges, Jael similarly kills the Canaanite general Sisera by first inviting him to her tent, serving him milk, and then driving a tent peg through his temple. In a reversal of roles, the New Testamenttells of Salome asking for the head of John the Baptist to be delivered to her on a silver platter.
Botticelli,  Judith with the Head of Holofernes,  ca. 1470. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Botticelli, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1470. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Female saviors like Judith and Jael indicate a biblical trope that sees the underdog—in this case the Israelites—able to vanquish the oppressor. However, unlike the other heroines who obtain what they want in a clear-cut or “domesticated” manner, Judith’s character combines piety, so-called “womanly” virtues, and strength. Those three distinctive components have made the episode of Judith beheading Holofernes a fundamental narrative for artists exploring power dynamics and gender identity.
In particular, the story provides the ideal template for the exploration of the power of female virtue, beauty, and power. Consequently, there is a rich array of artworks depicting Judith, which mainly fall into two categories: the femme forte (the strong and/or virtuous woman) and the femme fatale (the sexually dangerous woman).
Judith was an especially popular figure in the Middle Ages. Her virtuous disposition—especially evidenced in a passage that describes Judith’s celibacy following the death of her husband—aligned her with the Virgin Mary. During this time, Judith frequently featured in medieval manuscripts, often with the attributes of a saint or goddess. In the Speculum Virginum, a manuscript from 1140 intended for women entering the convent to become “A Virgin of Christ,” Judith is shown standing victorious over the vanquished Holofernes. Judith is described as possessing a “fear of the Lord,” a quality closely associated with humility. Here, Judith and Holofernes flank the personification of Humility lording overPride, with Judith looking statuesque, a virtuous warrior fighting on God’s behalf.
Donatello, Judith, 1457–64. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Donatello, Judith, 1457–64. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Giorgione,  Judith with the Head of Holophernes,  1504. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Giorgione, Judith with the Head of Holophernes, 1504. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

With the onset of the , interpretations of Judith became more politicized. She came to symbolize a small but strong population able to overpower a tyrant. ’s bronze statue of Judith and Holofernes (late 1450s–early 1460s) was originally placed in the garden of the Medici palace, where it was juxtaposed with the artist’s famed statue of David: The two parallel biblical figures alluded to the power of the small principality of Florence, which was constantly fighting off larger city-states. The Medici family, the de facto rulers of Florence, certainly had reason to align themselves with such figures.
To underscore the political allegory, Donatello portrayed Judith in a warrior’s stance, her sword raised, poised to strike at Holofernes’s exposed neck. Her head is modestly covered, like depictions of the Virgin Mary, but her face has features, also aligning her with virginal Greek goddesses such as Artemis or Athena (the ornament on her neckline is reminiscent of Athena Parthenos’s breastplate). When the influential preacher and mystic Girolamo Savonarola ousted the powerful banking family in 1494, the statue of Judith was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall, as an admonishment against tyranny.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1530. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1530. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Given her allegorical connotations as a symbol of Florence’s resilience and the victory of virtue over vice, it’s almost predictable that early Renaissance depictions of Judith by Florentine artists nearly always appear virginally beautiful. ’s depiction of Judith returning to Bethulia with the head of Holofernes (ca. 1469–70) similarly presents her like a goddess; in the painting, she dons a chaste, yet richly draped, dress.
By the late Renaissance, depictions of Judith had become more seductive and aggressive. Starting in the early 1500s, artists transformed her from a relatively simply dressed goddess figure into an elaborately adorned noblewoman.
One can see the first signs of this shift in ’s 1504 portrayal, in which a triumphant Judith steps on Holofernes’s severed head. She is fully clothed in a simple dress, but Judith’s bare leg—the very same leg with which she steps on Holofernes’s head—emerges from a long slit in the garment, and jewels adorn her neckline and her head. In 1554, dressed his quite-muscular Judith, shown in the act of lowering her sword onto Holofernes’s neck, in a pale pink cuirass paired with a multi-tiered, green skirt clasped with a gilded girdle. These unusual garments suggest both martial strength and feminine seduction.
Jans Sanders van Hemessen, Judith with the Head of Holophernes, ca. 1540. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Jans Sanders van Hemessen, Judith with the Head of Holophernes, ca. 1540. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Giorgio Vasari, Judith and Holofernes, ca. 1554. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Giorgio Vasari, Judith and Holofernes, ca. 1554. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

By contrast, during the —far from the seat of Christianity in Rome—Judith became the ideal subject for nudes. showed a naked Judith looking more like a nymph than a biblical heroine, her gaze slightly coy as Holofernes’s head dangles from her left hand. In a late 16th-century version attributed to , Judith, both of her breasts exposed, gives a sideways glance to the severed head she is holding by the hair.
In 1540, Jan Sanders van Hemessen painted a nude Judith in a twisted pose that is both a tribute to classical sculpture and a nod to her seductive wiles. On a similar note, the Judith portrayed by in 1530 wears a lavish, court-appropriate outfit that shows her, as the Metropolitan Museum of Arthas written, “dressed to kill.” Although she is clothed in this iteration, her facial expression conveys a self-assured sense of power and seduction that departs from previous Judiths, whose faces are usually unperturbed or simply coy.
Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, ca. 1599. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, ca. 1599. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

During the era, Judith beheading Holofernes became an opportunity for painters to indulge in gore; in works from this period, Judith appears as more of a violent assassin than a virtuous woman or seductress. In 1599, , for instance, painted an explicit depiction of the very moment Judith cuts Holofernes’s throat, his face looking up in disbelief as his body still struggles. Caravaggio’s Judith, who is young and blonde, looks almost awkward as she decapitates the Assyrian general.
—the first woman to enter Florence’s Accademia delle Arti del Disegno—favored Judith, as well, and her treatment of the character (there are two known versions of the beheading of Holofernes, both with similar compositions, from 1612 and 1620) has been interpreted by historians to convey the artist’s female rage, both as a rape victim and as a woman in a male-dominated field. In both paintings, Judith, richly dressed, is aided by her maid in pinning Holofernes down as she decapitates him. The paintings convey the physical exertion experienced by the three characters, and, in contrast to Caravaggio’s, shows Judith unafraid of the task at hand.
It wasn’t until the Belle Époque that Judith fully morphed into a desirable—but markedly depraved—femme fatale. While this archetype has always existed in art and literature (popular femmes fatales include Medusa, Cleopatra, Salome, and Delilah), it became a particularly popular subject for artists during the period and flourished in the late 19th century, when female figures were shown with an equal combination of beauty and turpitude.
Author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, for example, referenced the narrative of Judith as an appealing example of sadomasochism in his 1870 novel Venus in Furs. What’s more, several artists conflated Judith with Salome—a New Testament figure who was also gaining traction at the time—in order to reexamine both figures’ motivations and sexuality in a rapidly modernizing world. ’s 1901 version of Judith (which was mischaracterized as Salome for years, even though the frame distinctly bears the title Judith und Holofernes) ignores the once-prevailing heroic narrative to picture her mostly exposed, cradling Holofernes’s head in an expression of post-coital bliss. Here, Holofernes, whose head is cut out of the frame, is not the victim of a female warrior, but of a sheer seductress.
Franz Stuck, Judith, 1928. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Franz Stuck, Judith, 1928. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Similar in style is ’s 1928 version of Judith. A purveyor of mythology and female nudes, the German artist painted her full-frontal, wielding the sword with two hands, an expression of spite and triumph on her face. German author Eva Schumann-Bacia described this take on Judith as “the epitome of depraved seduction.”
While Judith’s popularity waned throughout the 20th century, toward the end of the millennium, she became—much like the early Renaissance depictions—imbued again with political connotations of the oppressed overpowering the oppressor, this time in regards to totalitarian regimes and racial inequality. From 1981 to 1983, painted Judith on the Red Square,with Stalin’s severed head in the role of Holofernes, and a little girl whose face is concealed by a shadow as Judith. In 2012, American artist realized a more contemporary interpretation of the tale, depicting Judith as a black woman in a Givenchy gown. Holofernes’s severed head is here a white woman, a symbol of the need to vanquish white supremacy.
Based on these examples, once can see that Judith acquired relevance during periods of cultural upheaval. A straightforwardly virtuous characterization in the Middle Ages, Judith became a warrior-goddess in the service of political allegory in the Renaissance; the embodiment of female rage in the Baroque era; and the textbook definition of a femme fatale in the late 19th century. It’s not surprising, then, that even in the 21st century, Judith still has something to say to modern audiences. Hers is the story of a woman who overpowers a much stronger enemy: Whether read through a feminist or political lens, the parable of the victorious underdog holds an undying appeal.
Angelica Frey