19 June 2014

Judith beheading Holofernes

The account of the beheading of Holofernes by Judith is given in the deuterocanonical Book of Judith, and is the subject of more than 114 paintings and sculptures. In the story, Judith, a beautiful widow, is able to enter the tent of Holofernes because of his desire for her. Holofernes was an Assyrian general who was about to destroy Judith's home, the city of Bethulia, though the story is emphatic that no "defilement" takes place. Overcome with drink, he passes out and is decapitated by Judith; his head is taken away in a basket (often depicted as carried by an elderly female servant).

Early Renaissance images of Judith tend to depict her as fully dressed and desexualized; besides Donatello's sculpture, this is the Judith seen in Sandro Botticelli's The Return of Judith to Bethulia (1470-1472), Andrea Mantegna's Judith and Holofernes (1495, with a detached head), and in the corner of Michelangelo's Sistine chapel (1508-1512). Later Renaissance artists, notably Lucas Cranach the Elder, who with his workshop painted at least eight Judiths, showed a more sexualized Judith, a "seducer-assassin"...

Judith remained popular in the Baroque period, but around 1600 images of Judith began to take on a more violent character, "and Judith became a threatening character to artist and viewer [the top embed is a Caravaggio]...

Modern paintings of the scene often cast Judith nude, as was signalled already by Klimt. Franz Stuck's 1928 Judith [right] has "the deliverer of her people" standing naked and holding a sword besides the couch on which Holofernes, half-covered by blue sheets—where the text portrays her as god-fearing and chaste, "Franz von Stuck's Judith becomes, in dazzling nudity, the epitome of depraved seduction".
Text and images from Wikipedia.


  1. Michael E. StammJune 19, 2014 at 1:29 PM

    On a flying visit to the Louvre almost 20 years ago, I must have seen more than a dozen paintings by different artists on this subject--one of which I was totally ignorant. Fascinating story, though it seems to have largely fallen out of current classical references.

  2. I love how innocent and "mustn't get blood on my white shirt" the first picture is, like she's reluctantly being egged on by the old woman, versus the other more knowing and sexual portrayals.

  3. The Artemisia Gentileschi Judith is my favorite. Looks like she could actually have done the deed.


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